Prominent labor economist, former economic adviser to the Clinton and Obama administrations, and University economics professor Alan B. Krueger died in his home in Princeton N.J., on Saturday, March 16. He was 58.
According to a family statement released by the University, the cause of Krueger’s death was suicide.
Specializing in labor economics, Krueger was the James Madison Professor of Political Economy at the University. He was also the founding director of the Princeton University Survey Research Center.
Krueger was an important figure in the movement to push the study of economics towards a more empirical approach based on statistics and less reliance on economic theory. Krueger applied this mindset to many topics from healthcare to terrorism to education.
“Alan [Krueger] was the rare academic who could do it all: brilliant researcher, great teacher, fantastic adviser and accomplished public servant,” remarked Wolfgang Pesendorfer, the Theodore A. Wells ’29 Professor of Economics and Chair of the Department of Economics, “his passing is a devastating loss for all of us.”
Krueger is most well-known in the field of economics for his research on the effects of minimum wage on employment. His study with Harvard economist Lawrence Katz and UC Berkeley economist David Card showed that an increase in the minimum wage did not result in a reduction in employment, contrary to conservative belief. The study has been controversial but widely influential.
“I don’t think there’s anyone in the last 40 years who’s done more to put economics on a sounder scientific basis and who was more influential in the social sciences in making empirical research credible and believable,” Katz said in an interview with The Daily Princetonian.
Krueger was born in Livingston, N.J., on September 17th, 1960, to his father Norman, an accountant, and his mother Rhoda, a first-grade school teacher.
After receiving a B.S. with honors in industrial and labor relations from Cornell University in 1983, Krueger went on to pursue graduate studies in economics at Harvard University, earning a master’s degree in 1985 followed by a Ph.D. in 1987.
In 1987, after receiving his doctorate, Krueger took up a joint faculty position as an assistant professor in the Department of Economics and the Woodrow Wilson School at the University, where he remained for the rest of his life.
In July of 1992, Krueger became the Lynn Bendheim Thoman, Class of 1976 and Robert Bendheim, Class of 1937 Professor in Economics and Public Affairs, a title he held until February of 2019, when he was named the James Madison Professor of Political Economy just over a month before his death.
Katz, a frequent collaborator with Krueger who became an assistant professor at Harvard when Krueger was still a graduate student there, reflected on his friendship with Krueger and praised him for his scholarship.
“I never stopped learning from Alan and talking to him about issues in economics, wage differentials, the role of firms in wage-setting, stuff that Alan revolutionized,” Katz recalled in an interview with The Daily Princetonian. “Firestone Library was where the industrial relations section [of the economics department] was, and it used to close at midnight; [Krueger] would get so engaged and get locked in, because there was no idea he didn’t want to continue pursuing.”
Economics graduate student Jessica Brown, whom Krueger advised, articulated her gratitude to Krueger as a supportive advisor.
“His time was always in high demand around the profession, [but] he was never too busy for me and always found the time to meet with me when I asked,” Brown said. “He took pride in ensuring his students were prepared for seminars; he would meet with me ahead of time and tell me what questions he thought [the audience] would ask, and he was always right.”
In addition to his scholarly work, Krueger committed himself to public service under two Democratic presidential administrations.
From August 1994 to August 1995, Krueger served as the Chief Economist of U.S. Department of Labor under President Bill Clinton, succeeding Lawrence Katz.
According to a profile by Princeton Alumni Weekly from 2014, after serving in the Clinton Administration, Krueger swore that he would “never go back to Washington” due to the sheer amount of pressure and responsibility. However, Krueger was convinced into returning to government service in late 2008 by then-Secretary of Treasury Timothy Geithner amid the catastrophic financial crisis.
As Krueger recalled in the profile, “[Geithner] said, ‘The economy’s in a free fall. Why don’t you come to Treasury and work on big, consequential things?’ That was his line. And I couldn’t say no.”
Under the administration of President Barack Obama, Krueger first served as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Policy from May 2009 to November 2010, then as the Chief Economist of the U.S. Department of Treasury, and lastly as the 27th Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers from November 2011 to August 2013.
In the Department of Treasury, Krueger worked to help the administration to respond to the economic recession that resulted from the financial crisis. In the Council of Economic Advisers, Krueger focused on economic inequality and opportunity, formulating the “Great Gatsby Curve,” which stated that countries with greater economic inequality are more likely to have weaker intergenerational economic mobility.
In a statement released on March 18, President Barack Obama praised Krueger as “someone who was deeper than numbers on a screen or charts on a page.”
Lawrence H. Summers, one of Krueger’s Ph.D. advisors who served as Secretary of Treasury in the Clinton Administration, highlighted Krueger’s preoccupation with data-driven scholarly work and policy analysis. According to Summers, Krueger had an “obsession with having the right data to answer the question.”
Summers had also penned an op-ed for the Washington Post as a tribute to Krueger.
“Lots of economists believe in being clever for the sake of being clever, Alan always wanted to find the best data on the most important question,” Summers said in an interview with the ‘Prince.’ “Most people brought their opinions; he brought his analysis. No one has made greater contributions to labor economics [than Krueger] in the last 30 years.”
Richard H. Thaler, the recipient of the 2017 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences who contributed to Krueger’s new book, wrote in an email to the ‘Prince’ that “the trite expression ‘gentleman and a scholar’ comes to mind” when speaking about Krueger.
“[He was] thoughtful, caring, and wonderful to be around. So versatile!” Thaler wrote in the email.
A devoted fan of music, Krueger recently taught ECO 208: The Economics of Music in the fall of 2018 at the University.
The class had evolved from a freshman seminar that he taught in the previous academic year. Krueger’s new book, due out in June, is also about the economics of the music industry.
Alan Krueger is survived by his wife Lisa Simon Krueger, a Cornell classmate; his father, Norman; his mother, Rhoda; his brother, Richard; his sister, Barbara; and his two adult children, Benjamin ’12 and Sydney ’14.
This story was updated on Monday, Mar. 25, 2019.