Alan Krueger did everything an economist should aspire to achieve: strong research grounded in a solid understanding of theory and statistical method; framed to uncover facts important to the way people lead their lives, to the challenges they face; and communicated to resonate among policy makers, compelling them to do better for their citizens.
Writing in 1924, upon the death of his teacher and mentor Alfred Marshall, the great British economist John Maynard Keynes said that the “study of economics does not seem to require any specialised gifts of an unusually high order. Is it not, intellectually regarded, a very easy subject compared with … philosophy and pure science? Yet good, or even competent economists are the rarest of birds. An easy subject at which very few excel !”
And just as Keynes said of Marshall, that this paradox is explained by the fact that the “master-economist” needs to embody “a rare combination of gifts,” so to it can be said of Alan Krueger, the Princeton University labour economist who died on March 16th, 2019 at the age of 58.
Alan was a master economist because he possessed a combination of three gifts rarely embodied in one person. He had a thorough knowledge of economic theory and of statistical methods, concerned as much with the design of survey questionnaires, and the calculation of standard errors as with theory of human capital, wage determination, and subjective well-being.
He had the gift to use his knowledge to address questions important to the way people lead their lives: from what the best student-teacher ratio is in primary schools, to who gains from going to elite universities; from what makes a terrorist, to what it takes to be happy; from the consequences of minimum wages, to how inequality erodes economic opportunity.
He also had the gift of being able to transform and communicate his research to those who were impacted, and those who mattered. His forthcoming book Rockonomics, subtitled “A Backstage Tour of What the Music Industry Can Teach Us about Economics and Life,” will surely attest to that as did his role as advisor to presidents and aspiring presidents.
But the example that touches me most closely is, of course, the Great Gatsby Curve, the name Alan gave to the relationship between higher inequality and lower social mobility across countries in his January 2012 speech while he chaired President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors.
He sought out and offered ideas, feedback, and support, giving as easily as receiving. He did this with humility and generosity. So many economists, students, policy makers, and journalists can attest to that.
We were on the program together at a 2017 conference held in Jerusalem on the theme of social mobility, and afterwards I told him I had a free day before returning home. He suggested I spend it visiting Masada, apologizing that he could not join me because of a commitment to give another talk. So I partially followed his advice, rather than renting a car to get there I found my way to the bus station, traveling on my own, as close to being a local as possible.
King Herod’s fortress by the Dead Sea makes me wonder, more poignantly now, about the private lives unseen, about the pounding, the pounding, the incessant pounding, and the need to escape before the walls come tumbling down.
Read the New York Times Obituary, “Alan B. Krueger, Economic Aide to Clinton and Obama, Is Dead at 58.” Or, hell, just listen to Kid Koala’s The Darkest Day, because that is what it must feel like for his family and friends. And music, well Alan did that too.