Prof. Gary Becker passed away yesterday. Prof. Becker was a big influence in my life–both directly, as I had the chance to interact with him in the past year as I took his famed course on price theory, and indirectly, as he was a dear mentor to my father. Because of my father’s love for his teacher, Prof. Becker had been a hero and a father figure of sorts for our family since I was little.
Prof. Becker cared deeply about people. His scholarship focused on topics that affected everyday life, including families, education, discrimination, addiction, social interactions, to name just a few. He was incredibly attuned to how people thought and his papers often begin with an puzzle about human behavior. Why are there lines in front of restaurants? Why do people walk across the street to avoid beggars but still give money when asked? Simple questions that led to path-breaking insights.
To Prof. Becker economic analysis was a tool to help people. When I introduced myself to him after arriving at Chicago and told him that I intended to take his course, he was glad, and he said he thought it might be helpful. I got the sense that he meant that very sincerely: economic analysis would be helpful not simply for my career, but for my personal well-being. His concern and warmth showed in the way he interacted with peers and students. In the economics profession he was known to be a very decent human being–a fact that helped him win over many critics that were initially hostile to his research agenda. I experienced his kindness personally last fall, when he spontaneously offered to meet me to his office to see how things were going.
Prof. Becker was very active and sharp even just a few months ago, engaging in workshops and giving full length lectures. I had looked forward to attending his lectures on human capital this quarter, but since he had not been feeling well he did not teach as usual for the past few weeks. I did not imagine that he would not be among us so soon.
After hearing this news of his passing, I listened to a recording that a friend made of his lecture on marriage matching. I also read his interview with John Cassidy in the New Yorker. I could hear exactly how the transcript would have sounded. He left behind much for this world that will no doubt remain helpful for many decades to come.