lunch with gary
Update: Bryan Caplan also discusses this lunch at Econlog.
There have been a lot of wonderful tributes to Gary Becker, who passed away this weekend. In the blogosphere, you have commentary at Marginal Revolution, Econlog, and Mankiw’s blog. Organizations and Markets posted two tributes. Kieran has a very insightful discussion, which draws on Foucault’s reading of the rise of economic thinking, and Brayden’s commentary is worth reading as well.
Here, I’ll relay a story that is a little more personal. In my first or second year of grad school at Chicago, my friend Bryan Caplan was invited to give a talk at an economics department workshop. He came at the invitation of Sam Peltzman. While showing Bryan around campus and getting him to his next meeting, Peltzman said that it would be ok if Bryan’s friend could come to lunch at the faculty club. I readily accepted the invitation.
After we sat down, and I ordered the trout, Peltzman indicated that his friend would be joining us. It was Gary Becker. He just came in and ordered his meal. Now, since Becker was a presence in my building and my econ friends where taking micro with him, I wasn’t surprised. I saw him all the time. But Bryan was a huge Becker fan and was star struck. So much that he fumbled his glass and spilled some water on himself. He denies it to this day, but this is truth.
The conversation started out in a way that kills all your dreams about hanging out with star faculty. Peltzman, I think, was talking about weddings. Bleh. Then, Becker, I think, talked about some home repair. Maybe it was a broken appliance. Double bleh. I was bored silly. Is this what Nobel prize winners talk about over lunch?
I was totally lost in my trout when, finally, the conversation shifted. Things perked up a bit when Becker and Petlzman started to assess some other economist. Some junior professor whose work left them totally unimpressed. This was the first moment that I realized that academia is, at its core, about evaluation. I had never heard professors talk this way about each other. It was all lovey dovey in the class room. But, here, right in front of me, these two professors were shaping the career of some other colleague. Humbling moment.
Then things got really testy when Peltzman and Becker, and Bryan to a lesser extent, started arguing the merits of this funky new paper they’d just read. They were kind enough to summarize it for me: This economist was arguing that abortion legalization resulted in lower crime rates. Really? Why? The people who tend to get abortions are low SES are also the people who tend to have children who grow up to commit crimes. Then, they started thinking about the strengths and weaknesses of the argument. As usual, Becker focused on inter-temporal utility issues. He was worried that abortion didn’t reduce crime because getting abortions didn’t necessarily reduce the number of low SES kids. It might just shift them in time. Peltzman, I think, focused on the econometrics.
As this debate went on, I finished my trout and a few thoughts crossed my mind. First, wow. It’s pretty cool that I can hear such talented people debate such a novel hypothesis. Second, whoever wrote this paper must be a real clever person. The claim is designed to make everyone angry. Liberals would hate it for its implied eugenic policy implication. Conservatives would hate any paper that had a good thing to say about abortion. Third, I was fascinated by the way that Becker and Peltzman picked at the paper in a dispassionate, but sharp, way. It was a real model of critical thinking.
That was the last (and only) time I ever had any serious interaction with Gary Becker. A brief encounter, but one that was that was instructive and memorable. You can read orgtheory articles that are about Becker here.