This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 13th (it will be out in January 2020), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Sunday, May 4, 2014

Remembering Gary Becker

Gary Becker of the University of Chicago died this weekend at age 83. He was a Nobel Prize winning economist who redefined our way of thinking about the relationship between families and demographic behavior. Although I did not know him, my good friend and colleague here at SDSU, Shoshana Grossbard, Professor of Economics, was one of his students at the University of Chicago and wrote these comments today, which I quote in full.
I arrived at Chicago with the intention of specializing in economics of education. But after starting Gary Becker’s course in graduate price theory and hearing about his innovative ideas at the cusp economics and sociology I decided to switch gears. I had doubled-majored in economics and sociology and this was too good to be true: an opportunity to combine the disciplines! With his approval I took a special field in anthropology of the family as part of my Ph D in economics. In 1974 I started writing my doctoral dissertation under his supervision, an economic analysis of polygamy []. Becker had just published his first article on the theory of marriage and was interested in the topic. That was the beginning of 40 years of his mentoring. I am so sad that today, upon his untimely death, this relationship ended.

Everything I have written was inspired by Becker to some degree. He founded the economics of marriage, the topic of most of my research. Milton Friedman called Becker the greatest social scientist who has lived and worked in the last part of the 20th century. [] My work on economics and other social sciences also owes much to Becker. 
As famous as he is, I think that some of Becker’s best theories about the family have received insufficient recognition. I have fought for more recognition of Becker’s contribution to the economic analysis of decision-making in households, e.g. by addressing the myth that his work on the family assumes an all-encompassing altruism. Gary appreciated that and wrote that this myth “has been addressed by the economist Shoshana Grossbard-Shechtman and others. A major part of my book on the family are the chapters discussing the division of labour in families, and marriage in both monogamous and polygamous societies. Yet the predominant assumption in these chapters is that both husbands and wives are completely selfish, and not at all altruistic.” [Gary Becker’s letter on Family Models, in response to an article by Martha Nussbaum. Times Literary Supplement, May 29, 1998].

Becker’s Treatise on the Family uses the term “economic’ profusely, but as I wrote in a review for a sociology journal in 1981, it may be better to replace “economic” approach with ‘optimization model’, ‘market theory’ or other more specific concepts that he used. [] This would lead to even more widespread realization of the power of Becker’s ideas.

“Keep up good work!” are the last words Gary Becker wrote me on March 13 this year. His words still resonate. I will continue to try to demonstrate the value of Becker’s theoretical ideas about family, not necessarily using ‘economic’ the way he does, and not always sharing his ideas about ideal gender roles. But as long as I can I plan to pursue a Beckerian research agenda. Thanks, Gary, for all you did for me.

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