It's about a man seated at a formal dinner party who begins rubbing mayonnaise in his hair. A guest seated next to him says, "Do you realize you're putting mayonnaise in your hair?" The man looks at his hands, and with a horrified expression says: "Oh my God, I thought it was spinach!"
As jokes go, I suppose there's no accounting for tastes. But I was reminded of that one the other day when I was reading Gary Becker's autobiographical sketch. In it he tells of two interests he developed while in high school: He was very much taken with mathematics, and he also wanted to do something useful for society. He writes — and I'm quoting here — "These two interests came together during my freshman year at Princeton, when I accidentally took a course in economics."
When I read that, I thought, How do you "accidentally" take a course in economics? That seems kind of like mistaking mayonnaise for spinach. I pictured the young Becker sitting in class, listening to a lecture on inelastic demand. And suddenly he leaps to his feet and shouts, "Oh my God, I thought this was Chaucer!"
However that odd accident happened, it turned out to be a happy one for the discipline of economics to have Gary Becker enter its ranks. But that isn't to say that he has always pleased his colleagues, whether in economics or in the neighboring social sciences.
He hasn't, and that is one of the marks of this man's genius. To appreciate it, you have to first understand the territorial rules that govern the academic world. Over many years - before the Age of Becker - the social sciences had marked off their respective domains.
Just after Dr. Becker was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1992, his fellow economist Sherwin Rosen, at the University Chicago, gave a tribute in which he explained these territorial norms:
Part of graduate training is learning the rules and which turf you are allowed to hunt over. Customs are established by common consensus, and poaching signs are well posted…. The risks of crossing these boundaries are immense. Most people see the lines clearly and keep well back of them. Not Gary. He has a contrarian's disposition. He has never seen a line he didn't want to cross. Indeed, he has sought them out, and the more noise he could make in the crossing, the better.
Where economists had traditionally concentrated on such bloodless entities as national income accounting and the velocity of money, Gary Becker looked at the people whose behavior lay behind such obscure measures — individuals making calculated decisions based on what they think will affect their interests. In other words, he saw not just markets but also the individuals whose value judgments account for market activity.
And so he reasoned, with perfectly good sense, that if economists aim to explain how policies affect markets, they must study the people in them, the choices they make and the values that underlie those choices.
This naturally led Dr. Becker to cross boundaries that academics had long regarded as sacred. If an economic problem concerned education, or crime, or the family, he simply invented or discovered ways to extend his economic analysis into those areas. The crustier practitioners in those fields were vexed and shocked. They regarded Dr. Becker not only as a young renegade who didn't know mayonnaise from spinach, but who didn't even know not to put them in his hair.
Well, that was then. Today, after 40 years and more, the naysayers and fuddy-duddies have all been silenced. Gary Becker's brilliant mind and innovative work have demonstrated, time and time again, that the arbitrary boundaries around academic disciplines are often barriers to understanding.
By crossing those boundaries — and making plenty of noise in the crossing — he transformed an academic discipline. When he introduced his methods of economic analysis decades ago, his colleagues often ignored him and even laughed at him, that odd young upstart and his fringe fads. Today, those "fads" are mainline methodologies. They are opening whole new fields for understanding how humans can live together in freedom and lead decent, happy lives.
Intellectual achievement of that magnitude is a rare thing, and those who bring it off raise profiles that remain visible across centuries. That's not a bad record for a kid who came out of coal-mining town in Pennsylvania and accidentally took an economics course his first year of college.
But there's another side to tonight's speaker, and I want to mention it in closing. Many who rightly claim great professional achievement are - on a personal level - not the sort of folks we would point to as examples for our children. But Gary Becker is no less a man of character than he is an economist of the highest distinction. Again, let me to quote his longtime colleague Sherwin Rosen, commenting on his character and integrity:
One of the few things my longevity in academia has revealed is that these exemplary personal and human attributes are in many ways scarcer than academic talent and intellectual firepower. If the personal stakes were high and there was one person I had to rely on for advice and counsel, it would be Becker.
It is our privilege this evening to rely on his counsel.