[OPE-L:2720] Patrick on Becker and his critics

Thu, 25 Jul 1996 20:51:27 -0700 (PDT)

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There has been a very interesting discussion recently on PEN-L related to
Becker (Gary not Jim). I suggested to Patrick that he consider re-posting
on OPE-L and he thought it was a good idea. There have been many other
posts written by Patrick and others on this subject since but I won't
bother everyone by forwarding those other posts as well. I do strongly
believe, though, that the issues that Patrick raises below are well worth
our discussing -- now or later.

In OPE-L Solidarity,

Date: Thu, 11 Jul 1996 09:20:56 -0700 (PDT)
From: patrick l mason <PMASON@CMS.CC.WAYNE.EDU>
Subject: [PEN-L:5103] Becker and his critics

X-Acknowledge-To: <PMASON@WAYNEST1>


The recent discussion of Gary Becker and his work has been disappointing,
at a minimum. Originally, I wasn't going to comment. But, the critiques of
Becker have been way off base. First of all, heterodox economists and others
interested in constructing a more egalitarian society have a lot to learn
from Gary Becker. If one is interested in doing an in-depth analysis of
the theoretical and empirical work by sociologists, lawyers, or economics on
racial discrimination, gender discrimination, skill acquisition and the distri-
bution of income, marriage and the family and children, the relationship
between economic growth and education, the economics of crime and punishment,
and the allocation of time -- Gary Becker is the dominant voice.

Writers to this list may view his work as eccentric, shallow, misapplied, or
even just plain stupid. But -- be careful -- many so-called "radical,"
"feminist," or other "heterodox" explanations of the social phenomena examined
by Becker or simply alternatives of Becker's ideas. Worst, for many of the
social phenomena discussed by Becker, e.g., the economics of crime, have
no radical counterpart. Well, a bad theory -- even a stupid one -- beats no
theory at all. Yeah, one could argue that radical theory is still evolving,
but it ain't here yet.

Some concrete examples.

1. There was a recent debate recently on pen-l around the crime issue, i.e.,
part of the Henwood-Sawicky slugfest. At no point during that debate did
any of the participants draw on a radical theory of the economics of crime.
And, for good reason, there isn't one. Yet, crime is a major issue in every
working class community in this country and it is very much an economic
issue. To the best of my knowledge there has never been an article on the
economics of crime in the Cambridge Journal of Economics and only 2 articles
on crime in the Review of Radical Political Economics, one by Gary Nicholson
in 1983 and one by the late David Gordon around 1972.

2. Compare segmented labor market analysis of discrimination (racial or gender)
and Becker's theory of discrimination. They are the same theory. For SLM
theory discrimination does not occur in the secondary sector, but both
employment and wage discrimination occur in the primary sector. This
is Becker's model, with the competitive sector = secondary sector and the
monopoly/oligopoly/imperfectly competitive sector = primary sector.

3. Try finding some good empirical work on the economics of the family writ-
ten by a radical economist. Good luck, I've tried. After reading the
collective works of Elaine McCrate, the literature gets awful thin in a
hurry. On the other hand, the new household economics work of Gary Becker
has spawn an entire cottage industry of empirical work and dominates the
debate on transitions in family structure.

4. Try explaining the following. Women are segregated in both household and
market work activities. Why? Jane Humphreys had a good paper on this in
an RRPE special issue about 3 or 4 years ago, but that's about it. Becker
had a model of this in 1985. Becker's model has its problem, but it can
incorporate concerns about discrimination and patriarchy without being

I could go on with a hundred other examples. But, my point is a simple one.
While we on the left remain smugly contemptuous of Becker and jest about
his wife's suicide, the man has kicked our self-satisfied collective royal
ass in the war of ideas. And, he's won the war by concentrating his life's
work on things that are most important to working class people -- schooling,
work, education, crime, and family. So, to hell with personal attacks against
Becker and idle (and repulsive) jokes about his wife's suicide. What is needed
a more serious alternative analysis to the issues he has addressed.

peace, patrick l mason