The Father of Freakonomics

The Memorial Service of Nobel Prize-winning economist and University of Chicago Professor Gary S. Becker.

It was a cold, blustery day in Chicago on Halloween. I braced myself against the wind and winced at the waves in Lake Michigan, as them roiled and hurled themselves onto Lake Shore Drive, shutting down two lanes. The radio said there were a few brave (stupid) surfers out there somewhere. Even the snow seemed to be angry. It fell light as powdered sugar, then iced over and pelted my face as I battled the wind, pitching myself forward toward the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel at the University of Chicago for the memorial service of our national treasure Professor Gary S. Becker.

Dr. Becker won almost every award there was to win in his profession -- including a Nobel Prize in economics and the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush. Becker's book Human Capital (1964) is already as iconic as Adam Smith's writings on laissez faire. Right up to his passing on May 3, 2014, at 83, Dr. Becker was still teaching, publishing and pushing the boundaries, relentlessly pursuing truth and the effective use of financial incentives for public policy and even family life, without a political agenda. If you've never read his Rotten Kid Theorum, it's worth an online search and five minutes of your time.

What a lot of people don't realize is how Becker's work on discrimination influenced the Civil Rights Movement, or that Freakonomics was born at The Becker Center at The University of Chicago, or that Becker believed so much that the true power of economics was to improve people's lives that he penned the foreword to my first book, Put Your Money Where Your Heart Is. He was in high demand to consult with leaders around the world on how to improve their economies, yet he made time to listen to economic theories born outside of the academic world, or to help his stepson's intern get into MIT.

Gary Becker's legacy began when he married economics with sociology. Among the many academic collisions that he pioneered was to calculate the value of education, health and marriage to a nation's economy, while also diving into illegal activities and the underworld -- to see how financial incentives drove humans into various activities, and how public policy might direct us toward a higher collective good.

Becker's work is a solid foundation upon which future scholars can build -- though it is hard to imagine anyone quite like him. The new Becker Friedman Institute at the University of Chicago is, according to their website, "an intellectual destination for the world's best minds, bringing together economists and scholars across disciplines for conversations and collaborations that spark and sharpen new ideas." CEOs, judges, policymakers and economists will convene to inspire one another and to refine their research.

As I gazed out upon the crowd gathered at the reception after memorial, I couldn't help but wonder, however, how all this innovation could occur without women and people of color. What kind of creative conversations and collaborations can be sparked when the scholars are all grey-haired men with bushy eyebrows? I was so out of place that I wondered if people thought I should be passing the wine, or perhaps had been hired to leap out of a cake. It was sad to see, particularly since Professor Becker intentionally surrounded himself with all kinds of people outside his discipline in his relentless search for theories that actually improved people's lives. Gary Becker was fond of quoting his mentor Milton Friedman, who said, "Economics is not just a game played only for the pleasure of clever people to show how smart they were."

Photo by: Natalie Pace.

Gary Becker focused his work on groups and topics that were previously overlooked, undervalued or disenfranchised. Now that we've been invited into the conversation, it's important for us to speak our own truth, with our own voices.

You can find countless videotaped lectures by this brilliant man, Professor Gary Becker, online. One of my favorite quotes from Becker came from an interview I did with him in 2008, when he said, "Some people don't necessarily go to good schools. But they are in an environment where entrepreneurship and innovation is valued, where it is relatively easy to start a firm and get some backing from relatives or others. A lot of countries don't have that."

Gary Becker's work lives on. For those of us who knew this great man, there's a hole in our hearts. However, for the future of the economics department at the University of Chicago to be as bold, imaginative and important as Becker's legacy (and the legends of University of Chicago economics who preceded him), tomorrow's economic icons must include more color and femininity.

Rest in paradise Dr. Becker.

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