Undercover Economist

Gary Becker – the man who put a price on everything

The Nobel Prize winner believed that no matter what the subject, economics always had something insightful to add

Perhaps it was inevitable that there would be something of the knee-jerk about the reaction to the death of the Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker. Published obituaries acknowledged his originality, productivity and influence, of course. But there are many who lament Becker’s economic imperialism – the study of apparently non-economic aspects of life. It is now commonplace for those in the field to consider anything from smoking to parenting to the impact of the contraceptive pill. That is Gary Becker’s influence at work.

Becker makes a convenient bogeyman. It did not help that he could be awkward in discussing emotional issues – despite his influence inside the economics profession, he was not a slick salesman outside it. So it is easy to caricature a man who writes economic models for discrimination, for suicide and for the demand for children. How blinkered such a man must be, the critics say; how intellectually crude and emotionally stunted.

The criticism is unfair. Gary Becker’s economic imperialism was an exercise in soft power. Becker’s view of the world was not that economics was the last word on all human activity. It was that no matter what the subject under consideration, economics would always have something insightful to add. And for many years it fell to Becker to find that insight.

Consider his first book, still one of his most famous works, on the economics of discrimination (1957). There’s a lot to say about discrimination and Becker doesn’t even begin to claim that economics says it all. Instead, he heads straight to where an economist can make a difference. Assume that some people have a prejudicial distaste for others, says Becker. Assume bigoted workers would rather turn down a pay rise than work in a racially mixed environment. Bigoted employers would prefer to employ a white worker for much the same reason that lecherous employers prefer an attractive young personal assistant: because office life is about satisfying desires other than purely financial ones. Some other employers may prefer to hire a white worker because they know their other workers might be prejudiced against a non-white colleague; or because their customers don’t want to look at a non-white face or talk on the telephone to someone with the wrong accent.

Assume for a moment that we live in this wretched world – which we do, and did so even more in the 1950s. In which case, Becker asks: what happens? How do markets unfold? What happens to the wages for the victims of discrimination? Will competitive forces eliminate the wage gap between whites and non-whites, as non-bigoted employers see a chance to make money? In short, how is a social or psychological prejudice translated into economic outcomes?

These questions are neither reductive nor simplistic, and economics is well placed to provide some answers. Bigots can make life upsetting and dangerous for minority groups even if the bigots themselves are not numerous. But Becker showed that to have an impact on minority wages, bigotry would have to be widespread – otherwise unprejudiced companies would simply hire all the minority workers. Market forces tend to separate the bigots from the victims of their bigotry. Relative wages for minorities are determined not by the average level of prejudice in the population but by the most prejudiced employer who nevertheless ends up hiring someone from a minority.

Four decades after Becker’s original book, two economists Kerwin Kofi Charles and Jonathan Guryan published a research paper examining his theoretical predictions. They concluded: “We find strong support for all of the key predictions from Becker about the relationship between prejudice and racial wage gaps.”

The research paper from Charles and Guryan is one of many to have looked at Becker’s theories over the decades. He had a tendency to inspire or to provoke others to respond. In 2003 Steven Levitt and Pierre-André Chiappori conducted a survey of recent papers in empirical economics, looking for the economic theorists who had inspired the most empirical research. It was Gary Becker who topped their list – and his nearest rivals weren’t close.

Superficially, Becker appears to stand for the opposite of modern behavioural economics, which these days seems to be the acceptable face of the economics profession. After all, while the behavioural economists bring psychological insights into an analysis of markets, Becker did the opposite, imposing a rational-choice model on non-market situations such as marriage and parenting. Behavioural economists love empirical data but Becker was a theorist. Is he not, then, the opposite of all that is cool and forward-looking in economics?

That criticism only survives the most casual acquaintance with Becker’s work. His Nobel speech, for instance, opens with the comment: “I have tried to pry economists away from narrow assumptions about self-interest. Behaviour is driven by a much richer set of values and preferences.”

Or consider a research paper from the prehistory of behavioural economics (1962) with the title “Irrational Behaviour and Economic Theory”. The paper looks at what impact an “extremely wide class of irrational behaviour might have on some of the key theorems of economics”. The paper also declares that the ultimate defence of economic theory “is an empirical one”. Theories are powerful but in the end it is the facts that are definitive. These are key questions in behavioural economics literature today.

The author, of course, was Gary Becker.

Also published at ft.com.