Gary Becker

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Gary Becker, 2008

Gary Stanley Becker (December 2, 1930 – May 3, 2014) was an American economist and a professor of economics and sociology at the University of Chicago. Described as “the most important social scientist in the past 50 years” by the New York Times, Becker was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1992 and received the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007.


  • [ Milton Friedman was] the dominant member of the so-called Chicago school of economics [during his tenure at Chicago]... The economics department increasingly reflected his approach and interests. These included deep commitment to the truth, appreciation of markets and free enterprise, frank and blunt discussion, and enormous zeal to convince the heathen. But most important was the commitment to economic analysis as a powerful instrument for interpreting economic and social life.
    • Gary Becker (1991). "Milton Friedman." In: Edward Shils, ed. Remembering the University of Chicago: Teachers, Scientists and Scholars. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 140-6
  • I conclude by listing several main points of this essay:
    1. Human capital is of great importance in the modern economy.
    2. Human capital has become of much greater significance during the past two decades.
    3. Human capital is crucial to the international division of labor.
    4. Much unmeasured learning goes on in companies and by adults.
    5. People need to invest in themselves during their whole lives.
    6. Distance learning will become of crucial importance to the teaching and learning process.
    7. Human capital stimulates technological innovations and the high-tech sector.
    • "The Age of Human Capital", in Edward P. Lazear, Education in the Twenty-First Century (2002)

A Treatise on the Family, 1981


Gary S. Becker. A Treatise on the Family. Harvard university press, 1981; 1991; 1993; 2009.

  • Imagine each family as a kind of little factory--a multiperson unit producing meals, health, skills, children, and self-esteem from market goods and the time, skills, and knowledge of its members. This is only one of the remarkable concepts explored by Gary Becker in his landmark work on the family. Becker applies economic theory to the most sensitive and fateful personal decisions, such as choosing a spouse or having children. He uses the basic economic assumptions of maximizing behavior, stable preferences, arid equilibria in explicit or implicit markets to analyze the allocation of time to child care as well as to careers, to marriage and divorce in polygynous as well as monogamous societies, to the increase and decrease of wealth from one generation to another.
    • Book abstract 2009
  • An efficient marriage market develops ‘‘shadow’’ prices to guide participants to marriages that will maximize their expected well-being. These prices, central to the analysis in this chapter and the subsequent one, are responsible for the more powerful implications found in these chapters than in traditional discussions of marriage. Some other approaches are evaluated in Chapter 4.
    • p. 39
  • The phrase ‘marriage market’ is used metaphorically and signifies that the mating of human populations is highly systematic and structured.
    • p. 39
  • The bumping of lower-quality men out of their marriages through competitive reductions in the incomes of higher-quality men continues until the incomes of the lowest quality men are reduced to their single levels.
    • p. 79
  • [Gale and Shapley assumed that each person has] a given ranking [among] potential mates that determines rather than is determined by the equilibrium sorting.
    • p. 85

Quotes about Gary Becker

  • Clearly, there is a great deal in Becker’s legacy to be deeply disturbed about. But there is also something about Becker’s approach I find bracing. A lot of people are greatly offended by the implicit suggestion in Becker’s work that decisions like marrying, or having children, are economic transactions like any other — no different than buying a car or a pair of shoes. And of course those are entirely different categories of decisions — in one sense.
    But marital relationships, parent-child relationships, decisions to marry and divorce, etc., are also profoundly economic acts. That can sometimes be hard to see, given the pervasiveness of sentimental claptrap about the family throughout American society. But Becker blasted through the Victorian detritus of all that bourgeois romantic ideology to analyze the ways in which marital and reproductive behaviors are fundamentally rooted in a utilitarian economic calculus. You could appreciate his general approach without necessarily buying into the details of his argument. That was a real contribution, and even a radical one, after a fashion.
    • Kathleen Geier, "R.I.P., Gary Becker", Washington Monthly (May 4, 2014)
  • I think Gary's work is focused on outcomes. Sometimes people react to it because they don't like it as a description of the process. They think about marriage; they think about what they went thought when you got married, and they say it didn't resemble Gary's model. One doesn't think, "Was I calculating what my wife could get or could produce?" No one thinks about getting married in these terms explicitly. But the idea is that somehow those considerations are sufficiently important that they must be incorporated into the process. Moreover, you can test the model, so that if the theory is off, the data will let you know about it.
  • You can see why Foucault chose him as the ideal interlocutor. No one saw and stated more clearly the biopolitical dimensions of modern economic theory than Becker.
  • This Chicago-style approach, sometimes known as ‘Price Theory’ because of the fundamental role that prices often play, is exemplified in the path-breaking work of Gary Becker, Ronald Coase, Milton Friedman, Sherwin Rosen, George Stigler, and many others. Price theory has shed light not only on the most fundamental topics of traditional economics (e.g. consumption, saving, taxation, regulation), but also pioneered the use of economic tools in studying a wide range of other human behavior (e.g. crime and corruption, discrimination, marriage).
    • "Mission statement prior to the inaugural conference at the Becker Center on Chicago Price Theory, April 2006," as described and cited in: Shoshana Grossbard, "How “Chicagoan” are Gary Becker’s Economic Models of Marriage?." Journal of the History of Economic Thought 32.3 (2010): 377.
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