Thursday, 8 May 2014

Some Beckerisms

I find my thoughts go to the late Professor Gary Becker with unusually great frequency these days. I thought I would post some funny things he said while I was lucky enough to be in his presence, in case they amuse others like they amused me.
In the spring quarter of 2013, Professor Becker started - together with Professors James Heckman and Aleesandra Voena - a Family Economics workshop (which I have mentioned before on this blog), someone, I forget whom, commented to Professor Becker on his running a new workshop (or maybe this person was just asking why Professor Becker had decided to run a new workshop, I am not sure). Professor Becker's response: "I decided I had too much free time". Consider this in the context of what I call his constant pursuit of new insights in social science in my blog post of appreciation.
I have always been such a keen admirer of Professor Becker's that it almost quite literally took my breath away when he entered the lecture theatre for what would be my first class in Price Theory (I was new to Chicago and more than a bit anxious about my first encounter, albeit only as part of a big class, with my great hero). The class, like all of his classes, had a reputation for being one in which it is extremely difficult to do well, but the lecture theatre was still packed over capacity. Professor Becker's first words as he looked up at us, having installed himself in the front: "The class will get smaller".
He had a way of relating the topics of the day to the History of Economic Thought. When discussing natural resources, for instance, he told us students about William Stanley Jevons' prediction about Britain's running out of increasingly dear coal and becoming a second-rate industrial power - an event which Jevons, writing in the 1860's, timed to about 1890. Professor Becker would later explain the Hotelling model of natural resources and various interesting variations on it, but his initial remark caused us students to erupt in laughter: "Now Jevons' prediction turned out to be erroneous", said Professor Becker, "it took Britain about fifty more years to become a second-rate industrial power".
These are just some instances of many. Professor Becker was an intellectual giant but really unassuming and humble in every way, so I believe most "Beckerisms" would be of a character similar to these.

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