February 15, 2011

MFIRE conference honors Becker

At a private conference with a guest list that included A-list economists, Nobel Laureates, and dignitaries, the Milton Friedman Institute for Research in Economics (MFIRE) honored Professor Gary Becker at the University of Chicago Law School Friday.

The conference played out against the backdrop of the MFIRE, whose mission statement seeks to “expand and enhance the research environment that characterizes economics at the University of Chicago,” MFIRE Director Lars Peter Hanson reiterated.

Using Becker as the prime personification of MFIRE’s mission, Hanson emphasized the Nobel Prize winner as a champion of the Institute. “He backed the idea from the start and has been a solid supporter and frequent participant in our initiatives, so it’s most appropriate and truly a pleasure for the institute to honor him tonight.”

Various panels throughout the day discussed the role of the market in the modern economy and future breakthroughs in the field of economics. Panelists included leading economists like Steven Levitt, Edward Snyder, and Kevin Murphy, all from the U of C, along with economists from Harvard University and Stanford University.

Václav Klaus, the President of the Czech Republic, also spoke during the luncheon about the impact that the work of Becker and other U of C economists has had on both the policy of the Czech Republic and Klaus as an economist. This event, like most of the conference, was closed to the press.

The conference concluded with a biographical recount of Becker’s academic career and work by Nobel Prize laureate and Professor of Economics James Heckman. Heckman traced Becker’s impressive career and his groundbreaking research in the field of economics. Becker famously studied economics of discrimination and family decision-making, winning him a Nobel Memorial Prize in 1992 in the field of Economic Sciences.

“I must say that I’m somewhat intimidated by the occasion and the audience here but I’ll try to give it a go,” confessed Heckman. “I’ve been asked to talk about Gary Becker and I think it’s a daunting task in light of all the work that has been written about him.”

Despite the seriousness of the event, Heckman saw this as an opportunity to “cast Gary Becker in a somewhat different light.” Heckman managed to slip in a few jokes, telling the audience, “He does have a very interesting personal life and in fact, unknown to most of you, he has a secret life as a body-builder and a champion athlete,” a statement accompanied by a PowerPoint slide of a young Gary Becker in tight swimming shorts on the beach.

Heckman believed Becker’s accomplishments could be best summarized in the words of Milton Friedman: “Gary Becker is the greatest economist who has lived and worked in the last half century.”

Comparing Becker to Issac Newton, Heckman said he believes that the work and legacy of Gary Becker may never be fully understood in regards to his work in “unveiling the mystery of the labor market, migration, turnover, wages, schooling, deferred compensation, crime, a whole host of things.”

Heckman went on to highlight Becker’s early innovative work in human capital, time allocation, and fertility among other areas, noting, “If Gary had stopped working at that age and done nothing else, his career would be worth celebrating today. This is a lasting body of important work. He did not stop and one of the most interesting features of him was how he has continued on.”

Although Becker’s work has incited criticism in academic circles, especially since his work is widely influenced by Milton Friedman, Heckman holds Becker in high regard, saying, “Even if people hate Gary’s politics—and many people do—I think his sister does but I’m not sure. Nonetheless, you can’t help but admire that he’s done a tremendous amount of work.”

The daylong conference was organized by Professor of Economics at the Booth School Kevin Murphy, and Stanford Professor of Human Resources Management and Economics at Stanford Graduate School of Business Edward Lazear. Lazear is also a former professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.