Gary Becker, A Reminiscence

The economy should be "left al... When ideologies change...

I am sitting in front of a notebook from Econ 302, one of the graduate economics courses I took from Gary Becker in the late 1970s at the U. of Chicago. Thumbing through it reminds me of many stories.

As an incoming grad student I was encouraged, by the same upper classmen who had talked me into applying, that I simply had to take all of Becker's Price Theory classes. Even if Becker wasn't the one writing the next summer's Core exam, there were no substitutes. So, terrified and over my head, an ex-math major who had never taken an undergraduate economics course, I signed up for Becker's class.

Shock therapy began right in the opening classes.

Gary Becker droned. His speech was monotonic. Worse, he flipped through the pages of a newspaper while he lectured, looking out the ground-floor window as if bored. The first two classes were incomprehensible, obscure monologues with no indication of which vocabulary or concepts might matter most. A few classmates shyly shared after classes that they had not a clue what he was talking about. I didn't want to admit it myself, but I was in the same boat.

And worst of all, he called on students from name cards we'd been required to fill out, and he asked questions on the spot. Class after class, any student who didn't know the answer was humiliated by his simply putting that card in the back of the stack and calling out the name of the next student. A rare correct answer got a nod and the lecture would resume as if nothing had happened.

The first week or two I managed to not get called on; but I was beyond panic. Even in this classroom with 60 or more students, it wouldn't be long before my name was up. First, I've always hated being called on class. But worse, I had no idea what he was talking about. It was a sure thing that I wouldn't know any answers.

Someone suggested to me in my panic that maybe I could borrow some class notes from an upper classman that I could study in advance in addition to the readings. Aldy Keene was suggested as a detailed note-taker. I found him in the dining hall and begged. He was okay with my using his notes, but I couldn't copy them or share them with anyone else without his permission, and of course I had to agree to return them in perfect condition. I agreed.

And that's when my transformation started.

Because every sentence that Becker intoned in the next class was, word for word, in Aldy's notes. Becker might as well have been reading Aldy's notes aloud. Even the questions he sprang on the students were jotted down identically in the notes.

Lecture after lecture, it was so exact that sometimes it became clear by comparison that Becker had skipped a sentence--or even a whole paragraph--and then just thrown it in a few sentences later without missing a beat. With his disembodied speaking style, a listener had no way to know what Becker was talking was about. Of course it had made no sense out of order. All of a sudden, with my new ability to sort it out in advance, I had a chance at understanding.

Just in time, too. When Becker did call on me a mere week later, I was prepared enough. Not perfect, but it wasn't a complete fail. I got the perfunctory nod and Becker went back to lecturing rather than calling on someone else. Relieved but shaken and adrenalin-beridden, I couldn't focus for the whole remainder of the lecture. Good thing for Aldy's notes!

I vowed that as a teacher I would never call on students who didn't want to be called on in class. I didn't have to vow to not read the newspaper while lecturing--that being a multitasking skill to which I could never aspire.

And I learned something that astonished me--that Becker didn't have to change his lectures because they were nearly perfect as they were. Why change a good thing? Once I realized, enabled by advance note-reading, that what he was doing was not teaching economics so much by laying it out step-by-step as pedagogical theory, but instead by merely mentioning the pedagogical theory and then illustrating it by applying it to completely unexpected, novel circumstances rather than to the obvious, I had the epiphany. You didn't really understand something till you could do just that--apply what you knew to problems to which no one previously realized they applied. Apply it not to the obvious, but to the non-obvious. This class was introductory because the applications were new to us as students, though not new to Becker. The theory itself was, once developed, a bore. The application--now there's the endlessly exciting rub.

At some other point during a subsequent term, I recall discovering in Becker's book, Economic Theory, which also contained material from his lectures, that he'd taken four pages to prove something that was really just a two-liner. I went to his office--my first time to actually go talk to him in person outside of class--and tried to show him that it really only took a few lines and that he was working way harder than he had to in his book and in class on the blackboard by making an unnecessary substitution that was repeating itself. But he was dismissive and didn't care. He treated me as if I were saying the math was incorrect, and I had to say several times that the math was correct, but just roundabout. It was a completely failed in-office discussion.

I was quite indignant afterwards, even making some rare pencil notes in my print copy of his book--opened in front of me now. It didn't make me respect Becker's ideas any the less. But as a formative incident, it did make me cast my eyes askance whenever I subsequently saw economists use math in papers or books. For some folks well-phrased math can beautifully convey and illuminate economic thought; but for others, math is more like a veiled gauntlet. Becker failed my test by not caring passionately about what he himself had written in the language of mathematics. I failed Becker's test for who to work with as a thesis student by not jumping his gauntlet and ignoring the math altogether. I'm sure I'm the one who learned more from the experience.

I did learn from Becker more than from anyone else what it really means to think like an economist about everything. There was a joy and an organizing principle that, once I got the idea, became an inseparable part of me. Other economists could say that you could apply economics to everything. But it was only by seeing and hearing Becker do this repeatedly, in class after class, workshop after workshop, approaching in economic terms the ideas others would only think were discussable in psychology or philosophy or daily life, that I did internalize how to do a spare imitation of this on my own. I still relish those wonderful moments when someone else does this, taking me by surprise by illuminating creatively how to use economics to re-think something that makes no apparent sense. My eyes light up every time and I always remember who it was that made that clever connection. It's the essence of the Chicago experience.

I never did learn to speak Gary Becker's language, though. In study group, Larry Iannaccone would explain the mysteries of what Becker had meant in his lectures--and once Larry said it, it was obvious. In return, I would try to explain what Bob Lucas had meant, which was always clear as a bell to me but muddy and arcane to those who weren't macro-inclined. It was one thing to get the ideas and implications, but quite another to feel the excitement engendered by a kindred spirit. That I didn't feel that aligned spirit of research with Becker, though, only made me that much more in awe of those who became his students--students who were able to bridge that communication gap I couldn't fathom and who were courageous enough to carry forward his inspiring ability to bring economic thinking to surprising problems.

Perhaps these are just anecdotes. Others will and should write about the pervasive influence and wondrous innovation of Becker's ideas. But I was lucky enough to be influenced not only by learning about his ideas--which I could have learned equally well by reading his books and papers--but by the process of seeing him convey his way of thinking. I got my human capital from the source. There will be no replacing him.

--Lauren Landsburg, Econlib Editor

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CATEGORIES: Economic Education

COMMENTS (10 to date)
David R. Henderson writes:

Great second-last line.

Don Boudreaux writes:

Wonderful, Lauren.

Greg Heslop writes:

Thank you for sharing this. If you do not mind telling, what was the four-page proof in Economic Theory which could just as well be written in a few lines? I own a copy of the book and am curious for two reasons: because it is about Professor Becker and because I like the intuitive and the concise.

Gene writes:

Really interesting story ... but despite the fact that you figured out a way to survive in the class, it doesn't sound like Becker was a very good teacher.

Lauren writes:


I think Gary Becker was a great teacher, though he had a nontraditional lecture style and certainly would never have made it on Coursera!

It's important to judge teaching ability in context. In this case, the context was grad school, not college or high school.

A student who makes it into a Ph.D. program is probably the sort of person who can and is motivated to learn completely on his own. What you are there for is not to have someone feed you the material--which you can equally well learn by reading it or from someone specialized in clarity of explication. You are there to learn to think in a wholly different way. You are hoping genius and greatness rub off on you. You want to figure out what made these professors' ideas memorable and famous and how to re-focus your own skills on doing something like that. You want to find a good dissertation question as a practical matter; and in the process you also want to prove to yourself and others that you are and can be an extraordinary thinker and researcher, as good as (or, dreamingly, better than) these folks who have made it.

How to be a great and creative thinker, or how to discern an interesting question from a dull one, are special skills. No one teaches classes in how to do this. I'm not sure it's possible to do so. The only way to learn it is to surround yourself with greatness and creativity. To steep yourself in the ways the greats think and what they think about. How they err, how they focus so intensely, what they think about from day to day, etc. You don't so much study it, but rather absorb it by osmosis.

Gary Becker was a great teacher precisely because he passed on exactly those skills. He showed his style and thought processes to countless students, even those of us who didn't end up working with him. It's an irreplaceable experience. Learning is never painless. Learning to change the entire way you think, which was so productive for you in school in the past, is definitely painful. When the benefits so far outweigh those costs, the teacher most assuredly has achieved greatness as a teacher.

(Greg: I'll get to your question soon. First I have to motivate myself to re-read those four pages!--Lauren)

Greg Heslop writes:

Thanks, Lauren.

Lauren writes:

Hi, Greg.

Sorry for the delay. I wanted to re-verify.

The contortions are in the Appendix to Chapter 7, pp. 117-119, Economic Theory, 1971; and especially on pp. 118-119. There's so much notation that it won't convey well here. But all you really need to get marginal cost in terms of marginal product is to substitute the total differential of the production function into the definition of marginal cost. As I mentioned, it's not that Becker does anything wrong. It's just more eye-glazingly circuitous a route than necessary. You only need three lines, maybe four max--the production function, its differential (so that you are expressing it in terms of marginal product), and the definition of marginal cost.

Greg Heslop writes:

Very kind of you to look this up for me, Lauren. Thanks much! I will make a note of this on a sheet I keep with the book (this is what I do rather than write in the margins). Thanks, again!

Bob Nelson writes:

The index cards must have been a Chicago thing. I was a graduate student in the humanities 1962-1966. Walter Blair was the Mark Twain expert. We filled out the cards and he went methodically through them. If your answer passed, you became exempt. If not, you had to go another round. I was unprepared for my first question and gave a weak answer. Blair commented that I really did not believe what I was saying. I passed on the next round. After two weeks, the class was half the number who started. Blair now had the students he wanted. It was a great course. Daniel Boorstin reduced the size of his popular classes by publicly humiliating students who stumbled responding to his questions. Once the class was the size he wanted, he was very accessible.
I gave up on academia and went on to a business career culminating in a reasonably high position at GE. NONE of the GE executives I worked for and with were as tough and demanding as the best Chicago professors. Graduate school at Chicago was an invaluable experience.

Lauren writes:

Hi, Bob.

Well, you've sure added to the body of history here, with your remark about the index cards perhaps being a Chicago thing!

I edited out of the original draft of my post an aside about a story that circulated amongst the Econ grad students at the time: that Gary Becker's calling on students from these shuffled index cards stemmed from Jacob Viner's having done that back when Viner had taught at the U. of Chicago (1916-1946, except 1918).

In fact, the story I remembered hearing was that if you answered three questions wrong when Viner called on you in his Price Theory class, you were out of the Ph.D. program.

I didn't want to mention that story in my reminiscence without checking if I remembered it accurately. I wasn't even sure after all these years if the tale was about Viner. I shot out a whole bunch of emails; and I also decided in the interim that it was only tangential to the Becker story I wanted to tell. So I deleted it from my writeup.

But Doug Irwin has since graciously supplied confirmation that I didn't completely misremember the tale. There are other references to the Viner 3-strikes-and-you're-out story, including a written reference.

I don't think any of us in the late '70s actually thought Viner--back in the '20s or '40s or whenever--could have thrown anyone out of the economics Ph.D. program on the spot. Nevertheless, the tale had some credibility and certainly struck a chord. Something had surely preceded the Core exam in weeding grad students out of the program. The tale curiously also perhaps assuaged our deepest fears: at least we couldn't be canned entirely from the whole program for three wrong on-the-spot answers any more. That only barely helped with the potential humiliation of not being able to answer Becker would we be called on. The experience was sufficiently memorable that I'm pretty confident that I remember by name the first student to actually answer Becker correctly in our class--it was Peter Hartley. We all gathered around him in awe after class toward the back door, learning that he was from Australia, congratulating him, and wondering in awe how he could have done that. We sure knew who he was after that! (And he continued to distinguish himself in many classes and as a great study group contributor and thinker thereafter.)

Thanks so much for your story, Bob. Looking up Walter Blair, I think it seems likely he and Jacob Viner had some overlapping history at Chicago. Maybe even they were personal friends. I wonder!

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