In the Nation's Service: Krueger Recounts His Time as Obama's Chief Economist

Dec 3, 2013
B. Rose Huber
Woodrow Wilson School

On the eve of accepting the position of chairman of President Barack Obama's Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), professor Alan Krueger found himself in Boston with the wrong pair of shoes.

"I was on my way into the mall, when I noticed a young boy that had run ahead of his mother – right in front of a driveway. Suddenly, an SUV came barreling toward the child, and I realized that the driver couldn't see the boy."

Krueger lunged toward the child, scooped him out of harm's way and – in Krueger's words – the SUV came to a "screeching halt."

"In that split moment, I thought to myself: whether I take this job or not, I did a very important public service today. And we all perform these acts of public service in our everyday lives. There are many ways to contribute."

The next day Krueger, the Bendheim Professor of Economics and Public Affairs, flew to Washington, D.C., met with the President and accepted the position. The story was never far from Krueger's mind during his tenure. And at a Nov. 22 lecture at the Wilson School titled, "In the Nation's Service: Lessons from Serving as the President's Chief Economist," Krueger detailed this story and other accounts from his time in Washington as examples of the many forms of public service.

Krueger's credo for the nearly two years he spent on the council came from something President Obama said during Krueger's Aug. 29, 2011, nomination ceremony in the Rose Garden: "I rely on the Council of Economic Advisers to provide unvarnished analysis and recommendations, not based on politics, not based on narrow interests, but based on the best evidence – based on what's going to do the most good for the most people in this country."

And so, after being confirmed in November 2011, Krueger committed himself to public service working on such issues as job growth and unemployment, housing reform, access to education and energy production, among others. He helped design tax policy and advised the president on financial reform. He analyzed tax credits to help encourage companies to hire, evaluated unemployment insurance and helped design a lending fund for small businesses.

Krueger kept public interest at the forefront, providing the president with the "best evidence" available from research. And he soon learned that life as an academic is quite different than that of a government employee – beginning with how one approaches academic research.

"I became a consumer of research rather than a producer," he said. "I learned that academic research is performed on a much different level and time frame than the type of research needed for policy. Academic research is much more general. It was rare to find a research paper exactly about the policy topic being discussed."

Take rear-view video cameras in automobiles for instance, Krueger said. While trying to evaluate regulations requiring such technology, he had trouble finding academic papers on the subject.

"There are many other public policy issues like this," he said, "where there is a lack of available research. Still, it was valuable to think of new ways to analyze particular issues."

In terms of environs, Krueger said teamwork is really important when working in the government. As an academic at Princeton, he tended to work more independently or with economist colleagues and economics graduate students, as many professors are wont to do. However, in the government, Kruger worked with teams that had varying viewpoints and skills. And some of the most important work was performed outside of the meeting – sometimes in the hallway directly outside of the meeting room.

"In the government, lingering is rewarded. When a meeting ends, academics like to go back to their offices and get to work. In the government, people linger, which can be quite productive," Krueger said.

Another key difference between academic and governmental life involved discretion. Krueger explained that, as an academic, you often want to spread your research "to the world." However, in the government, spreading the news about a policy preemptively can be fatal.

"I got to see a lot of sensitive economic data before it was released," Krueger said. "It would have been illegal to release that early. More generally, if you're working on policies, you don't want to prematurely announce them."

Despite the differences between academic and governmental life, Krueger said there is some overlap. In both settings, persistence is highly rewarded. Sticking to one's ideas and persistence pay off.

"Perseverance is key. Both academics and governmental employees are committed to public service, just in different ways," he said. "And like President Woodrow Wilson said, 'Of course, when all is said, it is not learning but the spirit of service that will give college a place in the public annals of the nation.'"