ISSNAF Founding Member, remembered by Francesco Giavazzi e Guido Tabellini.
Alberto Alesina was one of the foundational pillars of political economics over many decades, and one of the most creative economists of his time. In this column, two friends of Alberto pay tribute to a man who was driven by a relentless curiosity and was a mentor and source of inspiration for innumerable students and colleagues.
(GT) Alberto was one of the most creative economists of his time. He had two characteristics that made his work so important and influential. First, he asked fundamental questions which nobody had asked before. Second, he had a powerful intuition, which enabled him to single out the key aspects of a problem. His explanations often seemed so simple and obvious that you often wondered why nobody had thought that way before. And yet, they were new and surprising, and opened up new thoughts and ideas.
Alberto was trained as a macroeconomist, and his PhD thesis opened the field of political economics. That was the heyday of rational expectations and applied game theory. Alberto was the first to apply the insights of these powerful new tools to explain policy choices by rational and strategic politicians.
The themes he explored in the first phase of his research reflected his Italian background. He grew up in Italy in the 1970s. This was a period of stark ideological and political conflicts, with extreme polarisation leading to frequent strikes, left-wing terrorism and capital flight. It was obvious that these conflicts had a large impact on the economy, and yet they were neglected by frontier economic research in the 1980s. Politics was at the heart of the School of Public Choice, but the focus of this line of research was on agency problems, or lobbying by special interests. And macroeconomics was devoted to general equilibrium analysis of representative agent models, where politics did not matter. The main contribution of Alberto’s early work was to show that political conflict has a central role in explaining several macroeconomic phenomena.
In his early work, he took seriously the idea that politicians are also motivated by partisan ideologies, not only by opportunistic motives. This seems obvious now, but until then politicians were seen as exclusively guided by the desire to win votes, and policy convergence at the election was taken as the norm. He then went on to study how election outcomes affect business fluctuations, and how political polarisation and harmful policy divergence are moderated by voters in elections, or by cooperation between politicians alternating in office.
He then took some of the insights of his earlier papers to dynamic economies. He showed that political conflict and polarisation are central to explaining the accumulation of government debt and the procrastination of painful policy choices. He also explored how redistributive conflict influences economic growth. In a number of pioneering contributions, he then explored the implications of political and economic conflict for the choices of secession and integration by sovereign nations.
This first phase of economic research was mostly, though not exclusively, theoretical. It was also firmly grounded in the assumption that voters and policymakers are rational. But while the assumption of rationality is appropriate for studying the behaviour of professional politicians, it is much less convincing when used to explain how people vote. Alberto was amongst the first economists to acknowledge this limitation, and to adapt insights from sociology to explain voters’ behaviour. In several pioneering contributions, he showed how slow-moving cultural traits influence economic, political and administrative behaviour in a number of domains, including courts of justice; how conflict resolution is easier amongst co-ethnics or people who trust each other; and what consequences this has for public good provision and preferences for redistribution.
This more recent line of research is primarily empirical. The microeconometric revolution changed how evidence is brought to bear to economic analysis and imposed new standards for causal inference. Alberto was again amongst the first to realise what was happening. Directly with the example of his work, and indirectly through his leadership of the NBER programme, he had a huge impact in changing how frontier research is done in political economics. What was once a field of applied theory is now primarily an empirical field of research.
This transformative impact on the field of political economics continued until his last days. The collection and analysis of original survey data is now an important step to understanding voters’ behaviour, and Alberto’s most recent and ongoing contributions in this area provide key new insights on how voters cast their votes.
Besides being a founder and pioneer of political economics, Alberto always retained a keen interest in public policy. His latest (prize-winning) book shows that the consequences of contractionary fiscal policies differ depending on how they are carried out. He was an influential contributor to policy debates, through his academic work and through a regular column in the Italian newspaper il Corriere della Sera.
Last but certainly not least, he was a fundamental mentor and source of inspiration for innumerable graduate students and colleagues, who are now first-rate economists throughout the world. This was not by chance: it reflected his warm and engaging personality, and his genuine and intense caring for the world around him. We will all miss him enormously.
(FG) Indomitable was Alberto's passion for the mountains: the Alaskan glaciers, as well as the hard, grey rock of his Mont Blanc, which he contrasted with sharp irony with the "hills" of the Dolomites.
Indomitable was his passion for research, which led him to always open new routes, and to get off the beaten track. “If we want economics to survive as a discipline," he used to say, "we need the courage to extend its frontiers to the sphere of history and sociology”.
He was stubbornly obsessed with the glass walls against which women's working lives clash. The last chapter of L'Italia fatta in casa (Mondadori 2009), written a few years ago with Andrea Ichino, compares an evening in the home of two families – one in Italy, the other in the US; a few pages that are worth many treatises on gender equality.
He stubbornly sought the origin of these phenomena. "Fertility and the Plow" (QJE 2013), an article written with Paola Giuliano and Nathan Nunn, seeks to test the hypothesis that different attitudes towards the role of women in society reflect differences in agricultural techniques used a few thousand years ago. In societies where land cultivation used the hoe, women were actively involved in market activities. On the other hand, where intensive cultivation techniques were used requiring a plough, agricultural work needed a lot of strength and was therefore reserved for men. In these societies, men tend to specialise in agriculture and women in domestic production – a difference that has survived centuries and centuries later.
With extraordinary vitality, he wondered about multi-ethnic societies and their destiny. "Immigration is going to make Europe explode" he wrote in a chapter in The Future of Europe (MIT Press 2006), at least a decade before the arrival of boats from North Africa.
Indomitable were his curiosity and intuition. A curiosity for the dynamics of our society and for its history. A curiosity about the life of the people close to him, his students, his colleagues, his friends, whether talking economics, physics or cognitive sciences. The curiosity of intelligent people, who never stop listening and learning. This was the quality that made him a teacher and a mentor for so many students who suddenly stopped on Sunday, astonished, in silence. Students many of whom over the years have become collaborators and colleagues because Alberto, though solitary and taciturn, was an insatiable collaborator in his work.
Infinite was his humanity. Alberto was a rare person in whom brilliance meets with pitiless self-irony. Only towards stupidity and banality was he impatient, often dismissive. Like all intelligent people, he was always ready to admit his mistakes. How many times I would call him after a grumpy, very succinct email in response to a statement of mine that he had considered silly. I would explain why I thought he was wrong. The roughness of the email would give way to his intelligence: if you were able to come up with a good argument, the conversation would end with “You're right”. It's been an uninterrupted dialogue for 30 years.
A version of this joint article appeared on vox-eu on May 26, 2020