Alberto Alesina, Italian-born professor of economics at Harvard University for 32 years, was among the most prolific, original and influential academics in his field. As reactions from economists around the world to news of his death — at 63, from an apparent heart attack — testify, he was also one of the best-liked.
Alesina had studied as an undergraduate at Bocconi University in Milan, before coming to Harvard to study for his doctorate, which he finished in 1986. Apart from short stints elsewhere, he never left Harvard again.
As a junior professor, he quickly made his mark on the profession. In the words of one Harvard colleague, Alesina “had the distinction of not only being dissatisfied with the state of economics as he entered the discipline, but of going on to do something about it by establishing a whole new field of economic inquiry”.
That field was a new form of political economy, the study of political incentives and their effect on economic outcomes, as well as how economic conditions and policies affect political behaviour. “Alberto helped to restore the bridge of economics and politics that has been traditional and indeed fundamental since the birth of the field,” said Jeffrey Sachs, his doctoral thesis adviser.
His contributions in political economics were as original as they were wide-ranging. His early work investigated such topics as the institutional determinants of inflation and growth, and the effects of class antagonism on growth, taxation, investment and income inequality. Many of his analyses have become commonplace in the discipline, and provided foundations for other scholars’ work.
He remained interested in political conflict throughout his career, producing enlightening research ranging from ethno-linguistic fragmentation and its economic consequences, to the role of societies’ perception of fairness and social mobility in their support of welfare states. Most recently, he studied polarisation in the factual beliefs of different groups of voters. Along the way, he brandished the sort of clever techniques that make researchers swoon, for example hitting upon the straightness or squiggliness of national borders as a measure of artificial state formation in an empirical analysis of how different sorts of states perform economically.
Beyond his own ideas, he built networks and nurtured a large number of students and junior academics, many of whom became stellar economists in their own right. Many tributes from collaborators have highlighted Alesina’s committed engagement with ongoing research, up to the day of his death.
A winning personality contributed to his ability to inspire others. One collaborator (there were many) described him as “lots of fun to be with, full of life, and with as playful a mind as you can imagine . . . He totally lacked the aggressive self-confidence of your average Harvard economist. He was very honest about what he knew, and never too shy to say so when he did not have an answer. He had this totally disarming self-deprecating humour that shielded him from the typical academic sniping.”
This generosity of character made him a natural mentor and inspiration for younger economists, including from his native Italy. He visited Bocconi regularly and motivated many to follow in his footsteps. In Boston, he was a stalwart of the community of Italian economists as well as a social pole of attraction for colleagues and friends generally.
Alesina remained deeply involved and influential in European academia and policy thinking. His approach helped to emphasise the political aspects of economic and monetary integration of very different economies.
His work on fiscal consolidation would turn out to be particularly influential, and also highly controversial.
Based on research stretching over several decades, Alesina maintained that austerity — deficit-cutting through spending cuts — was more effective and less costly in terms of economic activity than tax rises. In some situations, he found that spending cuts could even boost short-term growth. This “expansionary austerity” has met with considerable resistance, even ridicule, from much of the profession. Nevertheless, it informed and helped to justify austerity policies across the EU after the global financial crisis. Alesina stuck to his views, reasserting the superiority of spending cuts in a new book last year.
No intellectual disagreements have dimmed the recognition expressed by those who knew him. One sums it up: “Few economists have had such an impact both on research and in the world of practical affairs. The loss is enormous.”
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