Bridging Research and Policy: Alan Krueger, 1960-2019

Princeton economist Alan Krueger, who The New York Times described as “help[ing] lead economics toward a more scientific approach to research and policymaking” in his repeated stints in the public sector, has died at age 58.

Since receiving his doctorate from Harvard University in 1987, he held a joint appointment in the Economics Department and the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University; he was the founding director of Princeton’s Survey Research Center and was the James Bendheim Professor of Economics and Public Policy. It was Princeton which initially announced his March 17 death. A later statement from his family, also released by Princeton, reported that Krueger had committed suicide.

Social Science Space talked with Alan Krueger in 2017. Read the Q&A here.

“He was incredibly creative, dedicated and prolific,” Cecelia Rouse, dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School for Public Policy and International Affairs, told the Associated Press. “He couldn’t have been a better friend or mentor. It’s a loss for economics and public policy.”

While his academic achievements were robust – Research Papers in Economics ranked him among the top 50 economists in the world – his time serving two Democratic administrations and his writing for The New York Times made his name public.

Krueger chaired President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers from November 2011 to August 2013. He also served as assistant secretary for economic policy and chief economist of the U.S. Department of the Treasury in 2009–10, and as chief economist at the Department of Labor in 1994–95.

Mark Warner, a Democratic U.S. senator from Virginia, noted Krueger’s footprint in many aspects of economic policy. “As I was starting as a policymaker sorting through some of these questions, Alan Kruger was already there writing some of the more provocative papers about how we ought to approach these issues.”

As a wonk and as an academic, Krueger combined his expansive interests with an understanding of what the other half could contribute to making good policy. As he told Social Science Space in 2017, when he received the Moynihan Award from the American Association of Political and Social Science (AAPSS), “It’s a little bit difficult for economists to come to the realization that there are other fields that have views about policy and they’re actually valid in some cases. One of the things I liked about working in the government was working as part of the team where not only economists but lawyers and scientists, and in some cases, media people, everybody kind of worked on this stew. And I think that improved the end product.”

“Great academics become influential with the incisiveness of their ideas, and the creativity with which they deploy data and research methods to address important questions,” said Tom Kecskemethy, the executive director of AAPSS, which had awarded Krueger a fellowship 14 years before granting him the Moynihan prize. “Alan was remarkable in his academic mastery, of course, but he was also a standout interpersonally, which surely contributed to his remarkable success as a public servant: one was immediately drawn in by his affability, energy, and intellectual curiosity.  He was a gold standard public intellectual.”

Alan Bennett Krueger grew up in Livingston, New Jersey, a New York City suburb about 30 miles from Princeton. He attended Cornell University as an undergraduate, receiving a B.S. with honors in industrial and labor relations, then went on to Harvard for master’s and doctorates in economics.  

Krueger often explored his wide-ranging interests – from the minimum wage to concert ticket pricing to the economic roots of terrorism to the ‘gig’ economy – using natural experiments. During his exploration of “rockonomics,” for example, he tested his ticket pricing theories by asking fans at The Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen concerts who had dickered with scalpers.

These experiments weren’t always light. Krueger’s early 1990s empirical examination of the minimum wage and unemployment, often conducted with David Card, followed New Jersey’s enactment of a higher minimum wage while neighboring Pennsylvania kept its minimum lower. While challenged repeatedly, their work proved a baseline for subsequent policy discussions whenever a wage raise is contemplated.

He wrote or co-wrote a number of books, including 1995’s Myth and Measurement: The New Economics of the Minimum Wage (with Card); 2000’s Education Matters: A Selection of Essays on Education; 2004’s edited volume Inequality in America: What Role for Human Capital Policies (with James Heckman); and 2007’s What Makes a Terrorist. His latest published book, Explorations in Economics (with David Anderson), came out in 2014. He was on the editorial board of Science from 2001 to 2009, and had been editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives and co-editor of Journal of the European Economic Association and Economic Letters.

The Sloan Foundation named him a fellow in Economics in 1992 and he was an NBER Olin Fellow in 1989-90. Among his awards were the Kershaw Prize by the Association for Public Policy and Management (1997), the Mahalanobis Memorial Medal by the Indian Econometric Society (2001) and, with Card, the IZA Prize in Labor Economics in 2006.

He was vice president of the American Economic Association in 2017, and joined the board of BNP Paribas USA that same year. He had served on the boards of the Russell Sage Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, and the American Institutes for Research.

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