As a college student, I was interested in writing and in business. Being at Chicago, an economics major seemed to make sense. Only I was not good at economics, to the chagrin of my mother, who feared I would follow in her English-major footsteps and become a ne’er-do-well (she was not much happier with my actual major, history, even when I noted that it wasn’t considered humanities, but social science. It didn’t help when I told her she wasn’t a ne’er-do-well, either). I did well in things like sociology classes, so when I interviewed the brilliant and much-lauded Chicago economist Gary Becker, I was quite surprised that he thought sociology was harder than economics.
I interviewed Becker for Diamond Weekly last August, though the magazine didn’t run the interview until late January of ‘07. We sat in the bar at Boston’s Copley Fairmont, sipping bottled water and talking about his recent interests, like the economics of suicide, which he is researching along with Richard Posner.
My vision of economics is not just talking about dollars and cents. It’s much broader. It’s a method of sort of interpreting what goes on in the world, the social world, the political world, the market world. So when we talk about the economics of suicide, we mean, can we say anything about and under what conditions it would be better to not live than living? Can you give any components of that that you can understand? Like, they lose their job or they get divorced or they get a disease. That’s what we’re trying to analyze.
Our interview interested the waiter, who after a certain point became quite deferential to “Mr. Becker.” Later, the waiter told me he’d heard enough to find Becker through Google at a computer behind the bar.
At the end, I asked Becker what advice he gave his grandkids about school. Study the liberal arts, he said.