Gary S. Becker, RIP
Gary Becker passed away this weekend at the age of 83. Becker was among the most influential economists in sociology. He was one of the first economists to use economic theories to explain social phenomena, leading the way for contemporary scholars like Steven Levitt. Interestingly, I think Becker was less influential in organizational theory, despite doing important work on human capital. Over on the evil twin blog, Peter Klein pays a nice tribute to Becker, mentioning his relationship to organizational economics.
Sociologist are fond of citing Becker for saying that he thought about transferring to sociology in grad school but that he found the subject “too difficult.” One thing that made Becker stand out from sociologists was that could simplify very complex problems/social phenomena – like discrimination – using a equilibrium model. This is not the sort of thing sociologists would do, and I suspect that most sociologists found the language he used to describe preference maximization offensive, but in a world of formal modeling and rational choice theory, Becker’s perspective was elegant. He helped create a tenuous bridge, along with Jim Coleman, between mathematical sociology and economics.
Reading his Nobel speech this afternoon, I was struck by this insight about the impossibility of Utopian dreams. Becker reminds us just how precious and valuable our time is, especially in a society where so many of our other wants and needs are satisfied.
Different constraints are decisive for different situations, but the most fundamental constraint is limited time. Economic and medical progress have greatly increased length of life, but not the physical flow of time itself, which always restricts everyone to twenty-four hours per day. So while goods and services have expended enormously in rich countries, the total time available to consume has not. Thus, wants remain unsatisfied in rich countries as well as in poor ones. For while the growing abundance of goods may reduce the value of additional goods, time becomes more valuable as goods become more abundant. Utility maximization is of no relevance in a Utopia where everyone’s needs are fully satisfied, but the constant flow of time makes such a Utopia impossible.