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If you like Gary Becker's story, you might also like:
Milton Friedman,
Murray Gell-Mann,
John Hennessy,
Leon Lederman,
Paul H. Nitze,
John Sexton
and E.O. Wilson

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Gary Becker
Gary Becker
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Gary Becker Interview (page: 5 / 9)

Nobel Prize in Economics

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  Gary Becker

Obviously crime is still a big issue in this country. The figures seem to go up and down for violent crime. As you see it, how can we improve the situation?

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Gary Becker: Crime is a worldwide issue now, that's one thing. Probably, crime is as high in some European countries as it is in the United States. It's turned out to be a worldwide issue, so I get a lot of interest from people elsewhere. The U.S. has actually had a big improvement since 1980. There's no question about that. Crime rates have gone down substantially in most parts of the United States. But that's in response to an even larger increase from 1960 to 1980, so we're still above the crime rates of, let's say, 40 years ago here. There are two different ways you can approach it, both have to be used. I think the emphasis in my study is generally the right emphasis. You want to improve the legal jobs that people who are likely to go into crime can get. The usual felony crimes are committed by people from poorer backgrounds and low income opportunities. If you want to make the cost to them of going into crime greater by making their opportunities better, we come back to education again and these other issues. So you see, all these things are interrelated. The second side of it is the punishment side.

I think, the major reason we've reduced crimes since 1980 is that educational returns have improved, and that we're apprehending many more criminals than we did before, and punishing them. I think we have to maintain that. One of the unfortunate side effects of that is we have almost two million men and women, mainly men, in prisons now in the United States, and that's really a sad commentary on our society. On the other hand, I think -- most people live in cities, I live on the South Side of Chicago, which was a very high crime area, now is a somewhat lower crime area, but still pretty high. Most of us who live in cities really have found the decline in crime in the last 20 years are a tremendous boom to living there. You don't have to worry quite as much as you did before, every time you went even to a supermarket parking lot, or certainly out of your home at night. And I walk home from -- I have some seminars in the evening -- I walk home at 10 o'clock at night. I'm much less worried now than I was before. I can't say I'm completely unconcerned now, but I'm certainly much less worried. I think it's been a great boom for the American of all colors, all backgrounds, especially for poorer people. People who, like we do, live either in or surrounded by a poor neighborhood. I think we've got to do more, and I think education is one way, and to do more, and to give still a firmer message that people who commit serious crimes -- I'm not talking about minor crimes, I'm not even talking about drug use -- but I'm talking about serious crimes, violent crimes, robberies and the like. They will be very likely -- if they decided to take that route, to give up what I hope is a good job that they could be getting -- that they will be punished. But you know, the better way is to make sure the job structure's strong so that people who have the skills and capacities will take that route, they won't take the route of crime. And we've been doing that. We just have to do more of that, and I think more on the other end. So it's a carrot and the stick as I like to put it. I don't think you can do it with a carrot alone and you certainly can't do it with a stick alone. You've got to use both methods.

What are your thoughts on the economics of the illegal drug trade in this country?

Gary Becker: I've been interested in the drug problem. I believe we're too harsh on simple users of drugs in terms of the punishments we're giving to them. If we want drugs to be illegal, then we have to punish the distributors, but not people who have a small amount of crack or whatever they have and we send them to two or three years in prison. That seems to me absurd, and it's well out of proportion to the seriousness of what they're doing. The harder issue is, do we want to go in the direction of legalizing some drugs? I've been a proponent of some legalization of some drugs. I would prefer people didn't feel the need to take drugs, but our policies that we've tried to adopt to stamp out drugs I think have caused more damage than successes. We have soldiers in Latin America, we have the police spending a lot of their time on drugs. We have a lot of corruption in the police because of the drug trade. We're punishing a lot of people whose only offense is that they're mild users of drugs. I think these costs are too great, and I believe ultimately we're going to decide, at least some experiments along the lines of legalizing some types of drugs, and I think that's the direction we should be taking.

We'd like to talk a little about your background, childhood, education and so forth. We know you grew up in New York, but you started out in a small town, didn't you?

Gary Becker: I come from a town called Pottsville, Pennsylvania, which was a bituminous coal mining town in those days. Still does some strip mining, though it's mainly a depressed area now. We lived there, my two sisters and my brother and I were all born there, so we lived there about ten years. My father was a small businessman who basically dealt with the miners, but he was not a miner himself. It goes back a long time, but it was a very pleasant little town. People knew each other and we had about 25,000 people in the town, mostly connected with the mine, but obviously not all of them. It was a time of depression in the town and the economy as a whole. This goes back to the '30s. So circumstances were not good for most people, including us, although we did a little better than the rest of them. Subsequently I've lived mainly in large cities, so that was a big contrast for me. I still have a lot of nostalgia for small towns, so in the summer we go to a small town and I enjoy the more intimacy that you find in a small town. You know people, you know your neighbors. You're on familiar relations with -- not only the shopkeeper -- but everybody around. And which, of course, you generally don't have in a big city. So I was happy, I mean it was good. I always felt I was lucky to have had both large city and small town upbringing.

Your father came to the U.S. from Montreal when he was still in his teens, didn't he? How did he come to strike out on his own at such an early age?

Gary Becker: My father's parents were immigrants to Montreal and my grandfather, my father's father, was not very successful. My father had a lot of ambition, and in a modern day he would have channeled that ambition into education and so on, and in fact his mother wanted him to be a lawyer. But my father, given that his father didn't do very well, he wanted to make money very quickly. But the opportunities, as he saw it, in Canada in those days, weren't as good as in the United States. So when he was 14 years old he left Canada, moved to the United States around the Niagara Falls area and opened his own business. And he was 15 years old and he actually had his own business. He had nobody around. It wasn't that his father was helping him, he was living by himself and managing a business. It was remarkable. You wouldn't think of doing it today, and he did it. And he regretted it. He regretted that he dropped out of school after eighth grade, and he regretted -- because he always had an interest in reading and so on -- that he didn't follow his mother's advice. But he was just too eager to get on his own, be financially independent and be more successful than his father had been. So that was why he left, and it was extremely difficult for him. He wore a derby hat to make himself look older, he was so young. So he was remarkable in a lot of ways, and wanted us to be more educated than he was, and as I said, regretted that his impetuousness -- although he turned out to be quite successful, what he did -- but he felt he would have preferred taking another path.

You said your father's parents were immigrants to Montreal. Where did they come from?

Gary Becker: Eastern Europe. I don't know exactly where, because my father I think was six years old when he left and he never had any continuing contact with any relatives who stayed behind. It was in a disputed area between Russia and Poland that was sometimes one country and sometimes another. I think that's where they were from.

Once he established this business, did he stay there, or did he go back to Canada?

Gary Becker: No, he never went back to live in Canada. What he did was move around in the United States for a while. He was manufacturing in New York City. I think he met my mother at that time. Then he moved around. He was in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania; Mount Holly, New Jersey; all small towns where he had small businesses of different types, distributorships. I don't even know all the different types of businesses he was in. But he was wiling to go into any business that looked promising, and that's what he did. And then finally, we settled in Pottsville for a longer period of time, although not my whole life by any means. Then he got wanderlust again, wanted to try another business, and we eventually moved into New York City and bought a business and he was in that for a while. So we never went back to Canada, never really maintained contacts with Canada, although years later when my mother was ill, he took her back to a physician in Montreal, and he bumped into people he knew, which was surprising after all the years he was gone.

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