Tuesday, 6 May 2014


It is with very great sadness that I write that the greatest teacher I have ever had by far, Professor Gary Becker, passed away on 3rd May. He would have turned 84 in December. One common reaction when hearing of the death of an octogenarian is to suggest that the person in question was rather old and that he or she had lived a full life, but if every day of a long life was truly filled to the brim with valuable content, my reaction is to deplore such departures with no reduction in intensity, for an even longer life would likely have added still more blessings for those around the deceased person.
Gary Stanley Becker was precisely the kind of person who lived each day till it was full and contributed to economic science in proportion thereto. I was fortunate to interact with him on a few occasions at Chicago. Many people will truthfully mention the fear he instilled in the students of whom he was about to ask a question (he would call on people in class), but no-one should take this to mean he was anything less than a thoroughly warm and gentle person. Indeed, his focus when interacting with other economists, students or faculty members, on the question and on making sure its answer is grasped is really a declaration of love for the other fellow, because this approach takes care to find and expose errors and to correct them. No seeker of truth should expect greater favours.

Professor Becker remained active until the end. So very active that it is hard for me to fathom that he is gone. Last year at Chicago, when I was still there, Professor Becker looked very good. Although he may have been walking rather slowly and the text would appear with a bit of a slant when he wrote on the blackboard, everyone was still in awe of his intellect and in very few words he could poke irreparable holes in models he encountered in the many workshops in which he was an active participant. I hasten to add that when he liked something he certainly would not refrain from saying it. Such is the nature of the constructive criticism which he was always certain to offer. He understood that the truth is more valuable than anything else and should be told irrespective of whether it helps or shatters a model.

I say that he lived each day till it was full and I truly believe that; his quest for new insights and understanding in social science was pursued with incredible vigour. The clearest evidence is that he kept as great a teaching load as most of his junior colleagues until the end. In addition, there are many stories of his diligently going to his office during weekends. For instance, one weekend in November of 2006, shortly after his friend and teacher Milton Friedman had passed away, a panel discussion was held at the University of Chicago and Professor Becker, sure enough, was easy to find in his office. It was to be expected that this sort of person would be professionally active until his passing, the tragic thing is that he could not have had a few million more years.
The brilliance of this scholar has to my knowledge never been overstated. I am not sure it can be. To take economics as the natural starting point for essentially any problem in social science must have been well beyond the unexpected when he wrote his doctoral dissertation, The Economics of Discrimination, almost sixty years ago. He repeated the feat countless times, seeing market situations and purposeful individuals where others saw intractable ethical quandaries (the economics of crime), irrational behaviour (addiction) or such numinous matters as love and lust (the economics of the family). He used economics to illuminate really important big-picture features of society in a way which the rest of us may well fail to equal forever; even though there is no shortage of good and interesting topics, really good ideas are scarce - but not nearly as scarce as they would have been without Professor Becker.
There will be a lot of praise for this towering scholar in the coming days. Of the ones I have seen so far, I have particularly enjoyed the ones by Professors Justin Wolfers and Steve Levitt. Professor James Heckman, true to his wont, has a very long piece, although it was written in 2011 for a conference in Professor Becker's honour. It is also very nice and mixes terrific insight with interesting titbits, humour and pictures.

The world can become a lot poorer in just the short time it takes for the right person to pass away. The fields in which such people make their marks, having prospered immensely during their lifetimes, may take a lot of time to recover the same greatness after these people have gone. Gary Becker was one of the right persons. Almost anyone else would require hundreds of years to accomplish half of what he did, yet he had much too little time.

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