Gary Becker

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.

Non-fiction roundup

I know, I know. It’s already 2014 and here I am making a year-end list of favorite nonfiction. But whatever I’m just fashionably late. Here are the nonfiction books and movies I read and saw this year and really loved.

  • The Act of Killing. Would you watch a documentary where the filmmakers follow a perpetrator of genocide in Indonesia reenact their acts of killing? What if it is truly one of the most remarkable documentaries, ever? The Act of Killing is at the same time a film about the psychology of violence and a portrait of modern day Indonesia. It will make you wince, laugh, tear up, and then leave you stunned as credits roll. It might even change the way you think about humans and how we are each capable of tremendous evil. Harrowing.
  • Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Even though Jiro came out a few years ago, I only watched it this year. Now it is officially one of my favorite movies ever and I’ve watched it a few times already. I’m very much interested in what Jiro, Michelin Star winning sushi chef, says about dedicating one’s life to craftsmanship. Jiro says “Once you decide on your occupation, you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success, and is the key to being regarded honorably.” Inspiring.
  • Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy? This animated interview with Noam Chomsky by Michel Gondry, the maker of my favorite film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, filled me with warmth and fuzziness. Throughout, Chomsky gives us fascinating observations about science and linguistics, while dropping anecdotes here and there about his extremely accomplished life. I’ll admit this quirky film is probably not everybody’s cup of tea, and I felt a bit drained at the end trying to soak in Chomsky’s knowledge and wisdom. But it is both enlightening and beautiful. A personal favorite.
  • Leonard Bernstein - Norton Lectures. This lecture series by Leonard Bernstein is incredible. Watch one of the greatest musicians presents history of classical music with allusions to physics, linguistics, literature, and poetry. Before I watched these videos, I had thought I knew something about music history after spending many years reading books. But no, these lectures deepened my understanding tremendously. They helped me better appreciate the music of Stravinsky and Schoenberg and broadened my grasp of the arc of Western art. A masterpiece.
  • Mark Edmundson - Teacher. This memoir is a loving account of how a fresh graduate from Harvard went to working class Medford, Mass. to teach high school in the 60s and opened the mind of the author, a senior at the time. It is a fun and thought-provoking exploration of what it means to teach and how to do it in a way that deeply affects the student. The teaching exemplified in this book sets the standard for the kind of teacher I aspire to become. (Hat tip to Hugh Koeze.)
  • Danny Kahneman - Thinking: Fast and Slow. This book will no doubt go down in history as one of the definitive studies of behavioral psychology and economics. This book penetrates into deep truths beyond any pop science book I’ve read. It’s changed my thinking and my life. I use the concepts I learned in this book on a daily basis, not only in my research but also in my personal life. I simply don’t know what my life would be without it. Yes, given its hype, it might be on your reading list already. But you might also be procrastinating on actually reading it, since it is thick and you might expect a work that encapsulates a lifetime’s work of a Nobel laureate to be dry and technical. But it is not: it’s highly readable, with short chapters and a easy-going style. Highly recommended.
  • Gary Becker & Kevin Murphy - Social Economics. Ever wonder why there are lines outside restaurants? Why don’t restaurant owners raise prices to satisfy unmet demand? Ever wonder about the economics of segregation or fads and fashions? This book examines these social phenomena using the tools of economics. A very enlightening read!
  • Paul Sally Jr. - Tools of the Trade. (Warning: nerd alert!) Sally used to teach the introductory abstract math class at UChicago and this book was the text. How I wish I came across this book earlier in my life rather than to try to slog through Rudin’s real analysis textbook, which is dry dry dry! This book is witty and clearly written. I highly recommend reading through this book as a great introduction to proof concepts and fundamentals of modern mathematics. That is, only if you need or want to.