He is 75 and looks it, with fine white hair and translucent, heavily lined skin, but he moves like a younger man. When I arrived at his home to take him up on his offer of a lift to the restaurant, I could see his silhouette coming down the stairs at a fair clip. He drives confidently. In the summer, he moves his work to Cape Cod and often swims in the ocean. Becker has always loved sport, but that, and his family, seem to be his only distraction from work. "I don't like small talk too much, so I don't try to get involved in that." It is clear from even a few minutes conversation that what really motivates Becker is the world of ideas.
If Becker has a single guiding principle, it is that the economic way of looking at behaviour applies more broadly than originally thought, and people make rational choices about crime, marriage, parenthood, education, even drug addiction. Economists have been suspicious of his call for a much broader set of values to be taken into account, while non-economists accuse him of reducing emotional decisions to monetary ones. I suggest to him that this is a straightforward misunderstanding and most people have not realised that economics is not the study of money.
"You're absolutely right. People have completely misunderstood, probably never read anything I wrote. Obviously money is important, but what I mostly study is non-monetary - discrimination, marriage. Nowhere in anything I've ever written does it say that people get married mainly or solely for money."
All the same, Becker's ideas can seem cold, even to other economists. He gives the impression of being an extremely cerebral man. "I have some novelist friends who will notice every individual characteristic. I'm very poor at that. But I think I'm a pretty good observer - in my mind - of social and economic behaviour. I think I get a lot of my stuff from that talent."
And so we discuss the rationality of giving money to beggars despite trying to avoid them. Then he outlines a new model of suicide that he's working on with his friend and fellow blogger, Judge Richard Posner, the economist and legal scholar. The two are trying to distinguish between a failed suicide and a successful cry for help. He shows no inclination to soften his analysis with the slightest hint of political correctness.
...Becker doesn't show any sign of slowing down. Along with the paper on suicide, he has been working on the individual response to the fear of terrorism, the macroeconomic impacts of larger populations, and why evolution might produce people who always compare their wealth to that of others. He teaches more classes at Chicago than he's ever done, and although he recently stopped writing his monthly column for Business Week after nearly 20 years, he now writes an essay every week on a blog with Posner. Posner was once a possibility for the US Supreme Court ("I don't think there's anyone, including [Chief Justice] Roberts, on the Supreme Court who's anywhere near the equal of Posner") but Becker now tips him for a Nobel prize in economics.
It is 14 years since Becker himself was roused from a flu-induced slumber by the call from Sweden. The prize - long-predicted by then - provoked two concerns. One was that his work would stop making people feel uneasy. "I'm a little bothered by that. It's fine to have it accepted and I'm gratified by that. But I also think you've got to try to keep doing work that's controversial, that's not accepted."
The second worry was that, like most Nobel laureates, Becker would stop doing serious work. The possibility seems remote. "I still like what I'm doing. That's what keeps me going. Whether I'm as good at it as I used to be is open to question, but I still think I have ideas, I can make contributions, I think some of them are interesting and I enjoy doing it. I like having a busy schedule, I've been blessed with a fair bit of energy, I can manage all these things, and it's my main interest in life, my work - so it can continue."
One can't help but wonder if Beckers' research interest in suicide might have been motivated by the fact his first wife tragically committed suicide shortly after the publication of The Economics of Marriage. (Apologies in advance to those who think this is not a suitable topic for discussion).