Alan Krueger, former White House economist, dead at 58 from suicide
Alan Krueger, a labor economist who advised two presidents and drew on empirical research, rather than abstract theories, to generate surprising insights into the impact of minimum wage increases, the origins of terrorists and the rising price of concert tickets, has died. He was 58.
He died by suicide over the weekend, according to a statement released Monday by his family. The family did not provide additional information.
Krueger was a professor of political economy at Princeton University, where he had taught since 1987, taking the occasional leave of absence to work for the federal government.
He served for one year under President Bill Clinton as the Labor Department’s chief economist, and he was an assistant treasury secretary from 2009 to 2010 during President Barack Obama’s administration. In the wake of the global financial crisis, he tried to boost the economy through stimulus measures such as a credit fund for small businesses and the “cash for clunkers” program, which offered rebates for new-car buyers.
There aren't many people who can command attention at the White House, the classrooms of Princeton University, and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Alan Krueger, who died over the weekend at 58, did all three. https://t.co/UU7F9Aj3Xs
— NPR (@NPR) March 18, 2019
After being named chairman of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers in 2011, he said he received a helpful tip from one of his predecessors in that job: Edward Lazear, who advised him to stay in his own “lane” and avoid bumping up against national-security or foreign-affairs officials.
“For the most part,” Krueger said, “I followed Lazear’s advice.” In doing so, he had to abandon the subject-hopping strategy he had long employed as a scholar, bounding from interest to interest while conducting studies that made him a leading empirical economist in a field known for its emphasis on abstract modeling.
The tragedy of Alan Krueger, even worse than we realized. What a terrible thing to happen to an intellectual giant who made America a better place for millions of people. https://t.co/CbkB6z7sNS
— Paul Krugman (@paulkrugman) March 18, 2019
“He was intellectually voracious,” said Cecilia Rouse, a fellow economist and dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. “He was prolific and versatile, a labor economist who also did public finance, workers’ compensation, environment, education, health and ‘rockonomics,’ ” a term Krueger used as the title for a forthcoming book about the music industry.
In the course of three decades, Krueger demonstrated a knack for conducting or drawing on economic experiments that turned the world into his laboratory. He surveyed concertgoers at Bruce Springsteen and U2 shows, pored over the academic records of 11,600 children in Tennessee and tracked the hiring practices of 400 fast-food restaurants on the East Coast, drawing conclusions that pushed public policy in new directions.
Krueger found that children performed better throughout their schooling if, by fourth grade, they had spent one year in a class of 15 students; reported in 2011 that “inflation for concert tickets since the late ’90s exceeds inflation for health care”; and linked the opioid epidemic to declining labor-force participation rates.
He also concluded that international terrorists were not impoverished common criminals “lashing out in response to their own economic circumstances or that of their countrymen.” Often, he observed, they came from relatively advantaged backgrounds, with decent family incomes and educations.
While working under Obama, Krueger developed a concept known as the Great Gatsby Curve to illustrate the dangers of growing income inequality, which he credited with causing “an unhealthy division in opportunities” from one generation to the next.
President Obama, on the passing of Alan Krueger: pic.twitter.com/G6dsa87sif
— David Gura (@davidgura) March 18, 2019
But he was probably best known for his studies on raising the minimum wage, which he began in the late 1980s with economist David Card, a Princeton colleague who now teaches at the University of California, Berkeley.
The researchers conducted a side-by-side comparison of the fast-food industry in New Jersey, which had just increased its minimum wage to $5.05 per hour from $4.25, and fast-food restaurants across the border in eastern Pennsylvania, where the minimum wage was unchanged at 80 cents lower.
Their results, published in a 1994 issue of the American Economic Review, contradicted the theory that wage increases lead to reduced employment. Instead, New Jersey restaurants added about 2.5 workers and payrolls shrank in Pennsylvania.
Krueger was by then working at the Labor Department, where his boss, Secretary Robert Reich, pushed for and eventually succeeded in obtaining an increased minimum wage. Some scholars questioned his and Card’s work, saying it was politically motivated.
“They don’t root their findings in existing theory and research,” University of Chicago economist James Heckman told The New York Times in 1999. “That is where I really deviate from these people. Each day you can wake up with a brand new world, not plugged into the previous literature.”
But after re-examining their study with what they described as “a new representative sample of fast-food employers,” Krueger and Card reached the same conclusions.
Krueger was cautious about extrapolating his findings and noted that wages in New Jersey were already low; with another increase, he said, employment might diminish. Still, he told The Times, “We tested the supply-and-demand curve, and it needs to be amended.”
His research was later cited by supporters of the Fight for $15 movement to increase the federal minimum wage, although Krueger came to believe that a minimum wage around $12 an hour was ideal. A higher minimum, he warned in a 2015 column for The Times, “would put us in uncharted waters, and risk undesirable and unintended consequences.”
Alan Bennett Krueger was born in Livingston, N.J., a Newark suburb, on Sept. 17, 1960. His father was an accountant, and his mother taught first grade.
He studied industrial and labor relations at Cornell University, where he received a bachelor’s degree with honors in 1983. Krueger said he had initially planned to become a lawyer, having seen the labor-rights movie “Norma Rae,” but became entranced by statistical analysis while doing research for a paper.
Turning toward economics, he did graduate work at Harvard University, receiving a master’s degree in 1985 and a doctorate in 1987.
He married Lisa Simon, a Cornell classmate, and had two children. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.
In a statement, Obama said Krueger “helped us return the economy to growth and sustained job creation, to bring down the deficit in a responsible way, and to set the stage for wages to rise again.
“But Alan was someone who was deeper than numbers on a screen and charts on a page,” he added. “He saw economic policy not as a matter of abstract theories, but as a way to make people’s lives better. He believed that facts, reason, and evidence could make government more responsive, and his enthusiasm and curiosity was truly infectious.”