David Card of the University of California, Berkeley; Joshua Angrist of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Guido Imbens of Stanford University shared the 2021 Nobel Prize in Economics (formally, the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel). Card received half of the prize of 10 million Swedish kronor (about 1.14 million U.S. dollars) “for his empirical contributions to labor economics,” and Angrist and Imbens shared the other half “for their methodological contributions to the analysis of causal relationships.” (In the work for which they received the prize, all three had collaborated with the late Alan Krueger of Princeton University. Card was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as stating that: “I’m sure that if Alan was still with us that he would be sharing this prize with me.”)
The work of the three economists is related in that all have used natural experiments to address questions of economic causality. With a natural experiment, economists identify some variable of interest—say, an increase in the minimum wage—that has changed for one group of people—say, fast-food workers in one state—while remaining unchanged for another similar group of people—say, fast-food workers in a neighboring state. Researchers can draw an inference about the effects of the change by looking at the difference between the outcomes for the two groups. In this example, the difference between changes in employment at fast-food restaurants in the two states can be used to measure the effect of an increase in the minimum wage.
Using natural experiments is an alternative to the traditional approach that had dominated empirical economics from the 1940s when the increased availability of modern digital computers made it possible to apply econometric techniques to real-world data. With the traditional approach to empirical work, economists would estimate structural models to answer questions about causality. So, for instance, a labor economist might estimate a model of the demand and supply of labor to predict the effect of an increase in the minimum wage on employment.
Over the years, many economists became dissatisfied with using structural models to address questions of economic causality. They concluded that the information requirements to reliably estimate structural models were too great. For instance, structural models require assumptions about the functional form of relationships, such as the demand for labor, that are not inferable directly from economic theory. Theory also did not always identify all variables that should be included in the model. Gathering data on the relevant variables was sometimes difficult. As a result, answers to empirical questions, such as the employment effects of the minimum wage, differed substantially across studies. In such cases, policymakers began to see empirical economics as an unreliable guide to economic policy.
In a famous study of the effect of the minimum wage on employment published in 1994 in the American Economic Review, Card and Krueger pioneered the use of natural experiments. In that study, Card and Krueger analyzed the effect of the minimum wage on employment in fast-food restaurants by comparing what happened to employment in New Jersey when it raised the state minimum wage from $4.25 to $5.05 per hour with employment in eastern Pennsylvania where the minimum wage remained unchanged. They found that, contrary to the usual analysis that increases in the minimum wage lead to decreases in the employment of unskilled workers, employment of fast-food workers in New Jersey actually increased relative to employment of fast-food workers in Pennsylvania.
The following graphic from Nobel Prize website summarizes the study. (Note that not all economists have accepted the results of Card and Krueger’s study. We briefly summarize the debate over the effects of the minimum wage in Chapter 4, Section 4.3 of our textbook.)
Drawing inferences from natural experiments is not as straightforward as it might seem from our brief description. Angrist and Imbens helped develop the techniques that many economists rely on when analyzing data from natural experiments.
Taken together, the work of these three economists represent a revolution in empirical economics. They have provided economists with an approach and with analytical techniques that have been applied to a wide range of empirical questions.
For the annoucement from the Nobel website click HERE.
For the article in the Wall Street Journal on the prize click HERE (note that a subscription may be required).
For the orignal Card and Krueger paper on the minimum wage click HERE.
For David Card’s website click HERE.
For Joshua Angrist’s website click HERE.
For Guido Imbens’s website click HERE.