My Moment with Gary Becker
In 1992, Gary Becker won the Nobel prize in economics for one big idea: “Economics is everywhere.” He saw economics in discrimination; employers hire people they hate if the wage is right. He saw economics in crime; crooks rob banks because that’s where the money is. He saw economics in education; students endure years of boring lectures because they’re fascinated by higher pay after graduation. Perhaps most important, Becker saw economics in the family. Human beings plan their families on the basis of enlightened self-interest. Parents look at the world, form roughly accurate beliefs about the costs and benefits of kids, and make babies until they foresee that another would be more trouble than he’s worth.
I’m a devotee of Gary Becker. Once when I was visiting the faculty club at the University of Chicago, he unexpectedly sat down for lunch. I barely stopped myself from blurting out, “Oh my God, you’re Gary Becker!” Still, my idol doesn’t always get things right. One pillar of his family economics is the assumption that the fewer kids you have, the better they’ll be. Becker matter-of-factly speaks of the “quality/quantity trade-off.” A central lesson of behavioral genetics, as we’ve seen, is that the trade-off is often illusory. Parents who believe otherwise base their family plans on misinformation. Is this merely one admittedly large oversight on Becker’s part, or has the ability of enlightened self-interest to explain the family been oversold?
That lunch with Becker was an intellectual highlight of my life. A draft of Donohue and Levitt’s “more abortion, less crime” paper was circulating. As soon as Becker heard the main idea, his economic genius started running around like a jackrabbit. My recollection is that he was skeptical, because he expected abortion to change the timing of births rather than their total number. Whatever Becker said, though, just being in his presence was awesome. Death sucks, and it’s got to stop.