Un giorno triste triste triste

5 maggio 2014 alberto bisin e giorgio topa

Ieri è mancato Gary Becker. Gli dobbiamo moltissimo, intellettualmente, professionalmente e personalmente. Gli vogliamo molto bene. Il ricordo che segue è molto personale, frammentato, e incoerente - con la speranza che il tutto sia superiore alle parti e ne esca un suo ritratto ragionevolmente somigliante. Lo scriviamo a lui e per lui - non vogliamo scrivere alle sue spalle - e quindi non possiamo che farlo in inglese.

Gary Becker passed away yesterday. We owe him a great deal, intellectually, professionally, and personally. We love him dearly. The following memories are very personal, fragmented, and incoherent - but hopefully the sum will turn out greater than its parts and a reasonably close portrait of his will come out. We are writing this to him, for him - certainly not behind his back - and hence it can't be other than in English.

We wrote separately and independently (sorry for any repetitions) - we felt we needed to. 

Alberto Bisin.  I want to start from the pictures. I remembered two of them, very close to the image I will always have of him, and I looked for them (thanks Google). They must be from the late 80's-early 90's, when I was in Chicago. The first one has Becker in front of the blackboard, with his illegible, always slanted scribblings. How much time Danilo and I (always together on this) spent writing on that blackboard, abusing his patience, until he raised from the chair, erased everything, and went at it: reformulating the problem and playing with first order conditions with great energy, and total genius (his lightning-speed brain was legendary). How much time trying to understand what he was doing. image It's during one of these spurs of energy, at the board, computing a derivative which kept coming out with the wrong sign (according to him) that he let go: "sometimes algebra does not catch up with intuition." That's when we understood: he wasn't using math to check his intuition, but rather he was using intuition to check math. He wasn't sold on math, yet.

And what to say about the worn-out-slightly-too-large suit he is wearing in the picture. I remember it. It was as orthogonal to the tailored suits I had seen my Italian professors wear as his intellectual power to theirs. To me it was a symbol, a moral rule: too good on the outside, poor on the inside. I still abide by the rule and use it to judge other people, I have to admit. 

In the second picture Becker must be in a social situation: the suit is better. But it's the depth of the smile that carries the picture; and the pose. So many times I have seen that smile in that pose at seminars. How much did he enjoy doing economics at seminars, the Mondays' Applications seminar in my recollection (why didn't I go more often to the Rationality seminar?).  That seminar carries a strong reputation in the profession: it is cruel, reputations are shattered there, it is often a blood-bath, but the discussion was always first rate. I have gone to about a 100 of them (I just computed) - I have seen cockfights (Becker was never involved, the cockfights were mostly about winning his approval) but mostly I learned what it means to do economics, to "think as an economist" (a phrase Becker loved very much), to take it very seriously, as if it matters (it does), as if lives depended on it (they do, in a sense). Very intense but an amazing learning ground for somebody starting a career in research.image

I was very close to him for a few years. I TA'ed his Econ 301, with Danilo, of course. It is a great honor I am proud of (no money was involved, just the honor): he picked his TA's one-by-one after a great deal of thought. That class, the first of the graduate education in Chicago back then, was the one where we students would learn what economics is and how it is done. Certainly the best and hardest class I have ever taken in my life, notwithstanding the lack of any attention to Hilbert spaces and Riesz Separation Theorems. Giorgio talks about it too, of course. He was a student in the class Danilo and I TA'ed and went on to take our place afterwards. TA'ing it meant doing it again, and it wasn't easier the second time: Danilo and I  would spend the whole damn week trying to solve the crazy-hard problem sets and then we would go discuss them with Becker every week on his board (that's when he would erase our desperate attempts and start again).  We TA'ed his Human Capital class also. And we survived financially thanks to his support (I was and still am a little embarrassed to say that this support was from the Heritage Foundation). The only string attached to this money (it was just $6,000 a year - rough times back then) was the duty to attend the Applications seminar. I already mentioned how great this was. I should add that for a wanna-be theorist like me it was also a  wonderful way to stay on the ground.  

I was very close to him, as I said,  but never found the balls to call him Gary, as would have been natural according to the social norms in American academic environments. I call Lucas, Bob; I call Hansen, Lars; Townsend, Rob; ... I even call Heckman, Jim - though I had little interaction with him while at Chicago. But Becker is prof. Becker to me; indeed to all of us, at least the Italians. Not that he encouraged or even expected this form of respect at all. I think he was slightly embarrassed in fact; though he understood it (he certainly was embarrassed when I called him prof. Becker at a seminar in Chicago last year; "you are an old man now," he told me, "that's enough"). We Italians, only among us, called him "il vecchio," the "old man."  We still do. It isn't disparaging, far from it, of course. It is very affectionate in fact; a way to take the drama off our deep feeling of inadequacy next to his unsurmountable energy and genius...

I did not expect to have anything to do with him when I got to Chicago. I thought I was a macroeconomist, like any self-respecting Italian back then; and, especially, I despised his politics. Danilo and I thought that Chicago, giving us financial aid, had bought the rope it would be hanged by. But soon enough we were very disturbed to realize that we liked Chicago, and we especially liked Becker and his economics. We thought his questions were new, fresh, fascinating - we had never seen such daring applications of the economic method - and his answers seemed (shockingly) right. I remember this realization as an uneasy feeling at first. In fact I remember discussing this with Michele Boldrin, the first time I met him (before a talk he was giving in Chicago). I had followed him to the bathroom in the basement (too much detail?) and I had expressed to him this uneasy feeling (Michele seemed the right person to talk to about this: he had a great reputation as an economist but was also known for his past in the political left in Italy). He told me: "relax, Alberto, there's nothing you can do, these guys are right." I relaxed (and owe this to Michele) and dove into Econ 301. I couldn't care less about macro at that point - macro seemed easy and uninteresting, and way too much warped around math when not around boring computational issues.

But, man, was Econ 301 hard. Danilo, Afonso and I pulled an all-nighter every week (only one just because the problems were due the day after they were given) to do the problem set. Problem sets were sacred. On my coming back from the honeymoon after winter-break, Danilo had come to O'Hare to pick up Giovanna and me. After a few very brief pleasantries, he told a (surprisingly totally cool [Giorgio: not surprising at all. Giovanna is always cool as a cucumber]) Giovanna that he was going to take me to his place for the problem set and that I would not get back for the night. (Giovanna  likes to claim the night before I had a bona fide panic attack after having missed the plane - and with it one of Becker's classes - due to a snow storm in Zurich; I prefer not to remember this). We were desperate, on average, that first year. Recalling the picture of James Tobin in Mario Monti's office (I have spoken about that here), after any problem set, Danilo and I would tell each other, "let's just get a picture with the old man and go home." 

Becker had an enormous intellectual  influence on all of us wandering through the UofC in the late 80's. I took a different research route back then than he would have suggested I take. He never dared, of course, say anything about this: not his style telling his students what to do; besides, he knew very well I would get back to the applied work he liked; I knew very well he knew very well,....., and we never talked about it (and I just coined a new definition of "very well common knowledge"). I went into math econ. He did not understand much about math besides Calculus (though his genius and intuition carried him a great deal there too). He once said that he had entered Princeton as an undergrad with the aspiration to do math - but his room-mate was John Milnor and by interacting with him he realized that was not his call. But he liked to point out that he was on the math frontier in economics when he entered the profession. No reason not to believe him, but the frontier did overtake him; and he did not enjoy this one bit. In any case, when he saw what I was doing (or trying to do), research-wise, he kept supporting me but graciously suggested I talk to Jose' and Mike. He wanted to stay on my committee - something else I am deeply honored by. In the end very well common knowledge was realized: math econ is cool and I still do that, but if I have done anything useful in my research it is probably applied work much much closer to his heart, on endogeneous preferences, which I have done later on but driven and inspired solely by him.

To me Becker's fundamental contribution is methodological (Giorgio mentions several of his specific contributions more in detail): it's the idea that economics is a method and social science is just a field where the method is fruitfully applied. Some people call this "economc imperialism," and that is just what it is - I won't make any friends saying this, but no reason to be apologetic. All the recent buzz about Freakonomics is meaningless (an old hat like me, on a day like this would even say it is deeply offensive): Freakonomics is just Becker for dummies - 40-50 years later. I have been teaching  an undergraduate class (for elite students at NYU) which is deeply rooted in this methodological view. I have to say that I was almost brought to tears when one of the best students who passed through this class left this comment on my sad Facebook post yesterday about Becker:

Without being introduced to his work by you, I would have never be interested in doing research. Even though I got so far as to pass the boundary of economics and come to cognitive studies, his influence to me remains enormous.

While it was easy and productive to let oneself be influenced by him, it is very hard to admit of Becker's intellectual shortcomings and find distance from them. I will find all excuses in the world, but he was often driven by the answers rather than the questions. I mean, he knew the answers before formulating the questions - and the answers typically had to do with markets. He was a strong believer - he followed Milton Friedman in this - in the efficiency of markets. It wasn't easy to take this position back then, he fought for it against all odds, against most of the profession, with great energy, great stamina, and great genious (I said I would find all excuses in the world). But still, this was an ideological presumption that an economist, at least one less gifted than he is, should strive to stay away from. Not long ago he called to discuss a paper I had written - he had seen a seminar in Chicago given by one of my co-authors - which he deemed too soft on behavioral economics. The paper is in fact a subtle critique of behavioral economics and I wasn't happy to hear that he was happy to hear so. Even if I ascribed this exchange mostly to his age (not a man to miss subtleties, really), it is true that such an attitude was deeply engrained in him even in his prime days.

I remember the joy the day of the Nobel Prize. My father had woken me up ("isn't Becker the guy you work for?") and I ran to the department. Myrna, his secretary at the time, was working the phones and I ended up chatting with Sandy - our pole of crazy savviness outside Jose's office. She was entertaining everybody making fun of my hair - "like you had just fallen out of bed" (I had!). I remember the excitement when Becker came out of his office to say hi - the sense of being a small irrelevant part of something huge, a boy from a working class family in Buccinasco (yes, the place Nando Dalla Chiesa's book on the mafia takes its title from) next to aristocracy, real aristocracy, the one that matters. I did not need to see him win a Nobel prize to know this, but now it was there, out in the open. I remember the rage when reading a commentary on Corriere della Sera about the prize, written by a famous journalist whose name I will forget, whose point was that Becker could not be an important economist as he had never had anything to say about fiscal policy and debt accumulation as Modigliani had. I recall speaking to Becker about this (secretly hoping he would write to the newspaper and insult him) - and I recall him calming me down: "who is this guy? Did he do anything relevant?  Why should you care? - I certainly don't."

Becker used to call me from time to time to ask me about Italy, its economics and political situation. The last time was right before the spread crisis, when Berlusconi resigned and Monti was called to government. Berlusconi had tried several times to have him at his political events, to have him at least indirectly give a stamp of approval to his party or to his government. He was rightly doubtful and called to convince himself he was doing the right thing by politely refusing to get involved. I'm sure he called several people in these instances - I do not know why I was one of them. Perhaps he trusted a little bit my judgement on Italian matters because he remembered when, back when I was in Chicago and camped in his office, I had convinced him to accept an invitation from Card. Casaroli (back then he was John Paul II's state secretary) to a private talk in Amalfi. Becker thought he had no interest in talking to a cardinal, not realizing how much this man was involved in the Vatican's Ost-politik, something he had a keen intererest in instead.  

I was there for Becker's 65th birthday, and I was there on his 80th. This time I even brought my son (Giorgio was also there). We saw him young, wearing a swim-suit in Coney Island (thanks to Jim Heckman). He invited us to his house the day after and found the time for a little pep talk to my son about college. I will never forget him, tired after a very intense day of celebrations, on the living room sofa, asking Vitto, "Do you like math? Are you good at it?" I hope Vitto will never forget this as well. 

Giorgio Topa. Professor Becker was truly one of the giants of economic science. He was not afraid to ask "why?" about any economic or social phenomenon, and applied his keen intellect and rigorous analysis to a huge set of important questions. Some descriptions of his contributions can be found herehere, and here (just to mention a few).

Gary [as Alberto says, we Italians never had the guts to call him "Gary": I'm using it here for simplicity] broadened the scope of economic analysis to topics that at the time were not considered to be within the realm of economics. Discrimination in the labor market, addiction, marriage decisions, fertility, time allocation, human capital, social capital, advertising, restaurant queues, legalizing drugs... These are but some of the topics that Gary devoted his research to. His work has deeply impacted the discipline of economics, of sociology, of law and economics, establishing connections across fields that were previously considered as separate.

Those of us that were fortunate enough to be his students will always remember his Price Theory class, his sharp questions, and his legendary problem sets. Here I want to offer some personal memories of him.



I first met Professor Becker in September 1991, when I started taking his Price Theory class. Alberto and Danilo were his TAs (a show within the show!). Coming from an undergraduate economics program in Italy, I had no idea who Gary Becker was. Italian programs, by and large, spent little time on microeconomic issues, devoting most of the emphasis to macroeconomics and econometrics.

I was at the same time intimidated, scared, puzzled, and completely blown away by his lectures. He was posing seemingly simple and open-ended questions (see his price theory book) about marriage choices, smoking behavior, the advertising choices of firms, the schooling decisions of kids, the relationship between parents and children..., bringing up apparent puzzles in the behavior of individuals, families, firms, and then applying rigorous economic analysis to answering them. Invariably, the answer was always deeper and more nuanced than what one would think at first blush.

His lectures were peppered with "why?"'s, rapid-fire questions aimed each time at a different student. Gary did not suffer fools, and was always quick to correct a flawed argument, but at the same time he was always kind, encouraging, intellectually humble. I remember once in the heat of a discussion I exclaimed "but women are much more likely to be pregnant than men!", at which he chuckled his famous chuckle and without missing a beat he went on to explain why my statement - while undoubtedly true - was only part of the answer.

Gary's problem sets were a nightmare. They were assigned on Monday and due on Thursday, and invariably we would spend most of those 72 hours working on them, with few interruptions for food or sleep. They were open-ended yet precise and asked you to apply the tools of economic analysis to a host of questions about human behavior, without regard for the pre-conceived boundaries across disciplines. I think I speak for all of his students when I say that we all learned a great deal from them.

I then went on to be a TA for Gary's class myself, with Tano, and I have wonderful (fond, yet terrifying) memories of discussing each week's problem set in Gary's office on the 5th floor of the old economics department (at 1126 east 59th street). You had to be at the top of your game, because he would invariably expose any flaws in your reasoning with his lightning-quick mind. But at the same time he was a true teacher, patient, always helping you get to the correct answer by yourself, always encouraging you to use your intellect to analyze the question to the best of your abilities.

Gary was also a member of my thesis committee, and even though he could not offer advice on the subtleties of the econometric issues, his intuition was always correct, and his insights were always invaluable in pointing me in the right direction, pushing me to always think about the fundamental forces inducing a certain behavior - incentives, constraints, "prices" - and to always think about what the best way to model behavior was, in the context of my thesis.

But my best memories of him are more personal. He always encouraged me, even when I doubted myself. He had a wonderful sense of humor. He was blunt, but kind. He was humble, yet he never compromised on intellectual honesty and was not afraid to hold unpopular positions. He always made time for me, as a student. He sent me a very nice personal note when I told him I was getting married, extolling the virtues of assortative matching. He had a wonderfully quaint way of saying "so long" at the end of every conversation.

Since Alberto quotes one of his former students, I will quote one of my former RAs at the NY Fed, who is now a graduate student at MIT. When he was visiting schools he met with Gary, and sent me this email afterwards:

I met with Gary Becker for about 30 minutes today – I completely agree with you, he’s amazing! Even at 81 years old he’s one of the quickest people I’ve ever gotten to talk with. Clearly I’m not the first person to discover this… But still, I was blown away.
And he says hello! He remembered you vividly, had lots to say about your work, and was happy to hear you’ve “paid it forward” and become a great mentor for folks like me at the Fed.

I last saw Gary in February 2011, at a conference in honor of his 80th birthday in Chicago (thank you Alberto for pushing me to go). At the conference dinner he was a bit tired, but always lucid and with his sharp sense of humor untouched. Even in the midst of all the conference proceedings he took the time to ask me about my current research and had insightful comments (and sharp questions!) about it. My father (a big fan of his) had asked me to tell him that he was looking forward to his 90th birthday celebrations. Gary chuckled...

Thank you for everything, Professor Becker.

11 commenti (espandi tutti)

Fu lui che scrisse il commento su Gary Becker sul Corriere. Non conoscevo personalmente Becker ma ricordo bene il senso di imbarazzo che provai nel leggere quell'articolo.

Inutile infierire oggi, Vertone se ne è andato qualche anno fa, ma già allora alcuni colleghi cercarono di far presente l'inopportunità di quell'intervento. Non che sia servito a molto, purtroppo.

hai il link?

dragonfly 6/5/2014 - 10:24

nell'archivio del corriere non riesco a trovare l'articolo di vertone. grazie, è solo per indulgere al "come eravamo".

L'ho cercato ma non l'ho trovato. L'articolo di Vertone è stato  pubblicato il 21 ottobre 1992, magari qualcuno più bravo di me riesce a trovarlo. Sul ''come eravamo'': ho la sensazione che la cultura giornalistica italiana non si sia mai spostata molto rispetto a quei tempi (e quelli precedenti).


alberto bisin 6/5/2014 - 13:30

Haha, io avevo tenuto il nome nascosto apposta Sandro.

qua siamo anarcoidi e ognuno fa un po' come gli pare :-)

Scherzi a parte, capisco le ragioni di riservatezza, Vertone è morto e può apparire che mettere in luce i suoi shortcomings intellettuali sia opera poco meritoria.

Io ho invece creduto opportuno fare il nome perché purtroppo mi pare che il tipo di ignoranza e approssimazione mostrata in quell'occasione da Vertone continuino a imperare nella stampa italiana; voglio dire, a tutt'oggi Rampini passa per raffiinato intellettuale, come Vertone ai tempi. È bene quindi ricordare a tutti, in ogni occasione possibile, come stanno realmente le cose.


dragonfly 6/5/2014 - 17:02

trovo che sia un bel sinonimo di "ignoranza e approssimazione".  rende proni particolarmente ai truffatori arroganti.

"Era l'allievo preferito di Milton Friedman, aveva vinto uno strameritato Nobel e inventato una nuova area di ricerca, applicando l'economia ai campi più disparati.

Mi succese alla presidenza della Mont Pelerin Society.

Fino a ieri, il più grande microeconomista vivente."

Oh!! E se lo dice lui che è un luminare della microeconomia mondiale, probabilmente senza aver mai risolto un problem set di intermediate, possiamo stare assicurati.

(bellissimo articolo Alberto e Giorgio!)

Pare che non sia sempre stato cosi, quando voleva poteva fare molto meglio, vedi qua.

Quando ha insegnato a noi aveva questa calligrafia "ad arco", economizzava sui passi e quindi la fine dell'equazione tendeva sempre verso il basso. Le sue lezioni erano spettacolari. Un enorme perdita per Chicago.

Meraviglioso, vi ha fatto fare un problem set? La spiegazione della calligrafia ad arco (anche ai miei tempi la aveva): economizzava sui passi - constrained maximization (of energy). Stupendo. Sarebbe fiero di te, Pietro. 


pietro 11/5/2014 - 08:08

Purtroppo la spiegazione della calligrafia ad arco non e' mia, ma di Ferdinando che saggiamente me l'ha tramandata.

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