Brenda Cronin: Gary Becker, a Nobel Prize-Winning Economist, Dies at 83 -

Gary Becker had a long and full life. It is sad that he is gone, but I am glad to have a chance to read more about his life. Here are some of my favorite passages in the article linked above:

“His impacts were felt well beyond economics,” said Justin Wolfers, a professor at the University of Michigan and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “My personal judgment is that he was the most important social scientist in the second half of the 20th century.” …

Mr. Becker was “much of the intellectual heart and soul of the Chicago tradition,” Mr. Wolfers said. “He was the next generation of the Chicago tradition after Friedman.”

Mr. Becker described the complexity of how humans make decisions: “Along with others, I have tried to pry economists away from narrow assumptions about self interest. Behavior is driven by a much richer set of values and preferences.” … 

His early blending of economics and sociology was novel at the time. For years, he wrote in his short biography for the Nobel Prize, “my type of work was either ignored or strongly disliked by most of the leading economists. I was considered way out and perhaps not really an economist.”

I tweeted that 

Gary Becker shifted the default assumption of economics from rational pursuit of self-interest to rationality, period.

Disputing over exactly how rational people are is a key battleground for economics going forward, as Noah Smith and I discuss in our column “The Shakeup at the Minneapolis Fed and the Battle for the Soul of Macroeconomics,” and as I touched on in relation to financial markets more recently in “Robert Shiller: Against the Efficient Markets Theory.”

Although I think Gary was right about the complexity of human motivation (see “Judging the Nations: Wealth and Happiness Are Not Enough”), I consider the study of irrationality much more important than Gary. Brenda’s Wall Street Journal article calls Gary “a critic of the field known as behavioral economics, which found human behavior irrational.” For all of the flaws of behavioral economics, I think the border between psychology and economics that has gotten the label “behavioral economics” is where much of the progress in economics in the next few decades will come from. That is the more true if one is focused on progress in understanding the real world within the next few decades.