Nobel Prize for Home Economics

October 20, 1992

What do Ronald Coase, Harry M. Markowitz, William F. Sharpe, Merton Miller, Trygve Haavelmo, Maurice Allais, Robert M. Solow, James M. Buchanan Jr., Franco Modigliani, Richard Stone, Gerard Debreu and George J. Stigler have in common with Gary S. Becker?

They won the Nobel Prize for Economics in the decade before he just did. They also share with him a certain lack of notoriety, although Mr. Becker is known to readers of Business Week magazine, for which he writes a column.

This contrasts with the first decade in which the prize was given, starting in 1969, when such winners as Paul A. Samuelson, Wassily Leontief, Gunnar Myrdal, Friedrich August Von Hayek, Milton Friedman and Herbert A. Simon really were widely known. The Royal Swedish Academy of Science clearly ran out of famous economists, avoided as best it could the infamous ones, and had to turn, as it does in hard science, to specialists principally known to peers in the trade.

It's a shame that Professor (at the University of Chicago, the UCLA of Nobel Prizes) Becker is not a household name. He won the Nobel Prize for work on households. He holds that ordinary people make rational economic decisions in such matters as family planning, employing domestic help, marriage and divorce, immigration and crime. He has shown how these decisions can be quantified and analyzed. He has written books on the economics of racial discrimination and immigration and the capital worth of each person.

None of this would much surprise the mothers, divorcees, immigrants, educated women in China, criminals and others he has written about, all of whom understand rationally the economics of their decisions, many of whom quantify them with precision. Yet it did seem to be seminal for economists. That raises the question whether this is really a Nobel Prize for Common Sense, and if so, if Common Sense is in such short supply (among economists) that they ought to give a prize for it.

A quick scan of Professor Becker's magazine columns this year show him proposing fixed terms for company chief executives and university professors; calling affirmative action a government regulation neither as beneficial nor harmful as others that command less attention; proposing that governments of small republics in the former Soviet Union compete for people's freely-given loyalty; arguing that Aid to Families with Dependent Children should provide incentives for tending to children's welfare. So the man has ideas.

Maybe this is not a Nobel Prize for Home Economics or for Common Sense, after all, so much as a Nobel Prize for Ideas. What a good idea.

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