US economist. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1992 for his work on a comprehensive economic theory of all aspects of human behaviour. His work in this field began with a 1956 paper exploring the division of labour among members of a family, a social institution that economics had hitherto almost totally neglected. Becker built on this article afterwards, in works such as The Economic Approach to Human Behaviour (1976), adding first the decision to have children, then the decision to give those children an education, and finally, the initial decision to marry and the ultimate decision to dissolve the marriage by divorce, culminating in a complete explanation of virtually all aspects of family behaviour.
Becker later developed this theory with an even more comprehensive Treatise on the Family (1981). His ‘new economics of the family’ parts company with the traditional conception of the family as a one-person consumption unit and instead views the family as a multi-person production unit, literally producing ‘joint utility’ with the aid of inputs consisting of the time, skills, and knowledge of different members of the family, after which the standard theory of production can be usefully applied to household behaviour.
Becker obtained his first degree in 1951 from Princeton University, and went on to receive an MA and PhD from the University of Chicago in 1953 and 1955. Except for 12 years at Columbia University (1957–69), he spent his entire academic career, since his first teaching appointment, at the University of Chicago, and his work is generally regarded as typical of the outlook of the Chicago School. The label ‘Chicago School’ implies a belief both in markets as a solution to most economic problems and a conviction that the market mechanism, despite the enormous growth of government activity, is in fact the dominant mode of economic organization in the Western world. It also implies the belief that the economist's standard assumption of the ‘economic man’, a rational agent who always seeks to maximize his advantages, is capable of explaining all aspects of human behaviour and not simply economic behaviour. This certainly characterizes Becker's contributions to economics.
Becker was a founding member and vice-president of the National Academy of Education, won the distinguished John Bates Clark medal of the American Economic Association in 1967, and also served as a president of the association in 1987. He was named vice-president of the Mont Pèlerin Society in 1989. In 2000 he received the National Medal of Science for his work in social policy, and in 2004 was awarded the Jacob Mincer Prize for lifetime achievement in the field of labour economics.
His publications include The Economics of Discrimination (1957), Human Capital (1964), Economic Theory (1971), and Accounting for Tastes (1996).
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