Alan Krueger, RIP
Alan Krueger died on Saturday. I’m grieving, even though I never met him, and he’d know me … not at all.
Professor Krueger taught at Princeton University for 30 years, minus stints at the U.S. Department of Labor and as the Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors for two years during the Obama Administration. But his legacy really involves curiosity and a willingness to dump economic orthodoxy.
I’m not an economist, but many of my best friends are … if an undergraduate degree in economics makes someone an economist. Degrees aside, I’ve spent a chunk of my adult life studying—if deep reading qualifies—the work product of those who no longer accept the notion of a rational economic man. You know, millions of people who always act in ways that best serve their economic interests. Who? Dan Ariely. Daniel Kahneman. And Malcom Gladwell.
Get. The. Eff. Out. Of. Here. We’re not machines. We love. Hate. Compromise. Act stupidly. (One of us was labeled “incorrigible” last night and accepts the label gladly.) But, rational? Not.*
Professor Krueger got it. His work focused heavily on empirical economics. Studying what happens, in fact, and not forcing facts to follow a theoretical construct. Theory tells us a higher minimum wage will cause employers to hire not so many people. But, when Professor Krueger and David Card studied minimum wage hiring in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, orthodoxy got tossed asunder. (Theory told some people ever increasing income tax reductions lead to more economic growth. News—not DT’s Fake News—says otherwise.)
I first encountered Professor Krueger’s work when I wrote A Life at Fifty-Ish, oh so many years ago. He explained in plain English the economics of the rock and roll industry. It’s an interesting, joyful read! And there’s a lesson, too: While I saw Paul McCartney in 2010, with a last minute ticket for a good seat for about $125, there’s no way I’m buying two tickets in 2019, to see and hear a billionaire rocker. Sir Paul rocks, but the economics don’t work anymore.
Everything I have read tells me Professor Krueger was one of the good guys. Kind, decent, and always there to elevate others. Still, his demons got to him, for his family reported that he killed himself.
I’m out on a limb here, but it’s hard for me to imagine anyone I’d want to know not questioning why we are here? Why what we do matters? I can’t begin to imagine what led an accomplished, revered, and beloved economist to say, “I’m done.” But I can’t imagine any thinking person not asking life’s big questions from time to time.
Professor Krueger’s passing reminds us, as well, that none of us have ever walked in another’s moccasins. We think we know a little something about those with whom we share our lives and, truth be told, “little” defines the quantum of what we really know. The other person’s journey looks pretty good, often, but it’s more likely than not a journey just as fraught with rocks in the road as our own. Different rocks … but rocks, just the same.
*I see a nexus between markets driven by alleged collective rationality and mortgage backed securities. In both cases, pooling together a load of “not so much” does not create something better.