He Set Up a Construction Site Where the Only Builders Are InnovatorsEXPLORING HOW POLITICAL CONSTRAINTS AFFECT ECONOMIC POLICY: IT WAS THE GREAT PROJECT IN WHICH ALBERTO ALESINA NATURALLY SUCCEEDED. HIS WORK HAS SHOWN THAT WE CAN UNDERSTAND MORE ABOUT ECONOMICS ONLY IF WE CONSIDER PHENOMENA IN THE SOCIAL SCIENCES
I believe that Alberto Alesina had a clear understanding of his research program from the beginning of his career. It was the one he would go on to dedicate his ingenious intelligence to throughout his academic life - to explore how political constraints affect economic policy choices. A grandiose project, for which it was necessary to study and bring together a wide and complex variety of circumstances: the mechanisms by which political decisions are made; the incentives of politicians or bureaucrats; ethnic, cultural or ideological oppositions; and the cognitive perceptions of individuals. A construction site where you can only build something if you are able to innovate, to see reality differently than in the past. A place where to beat complexity you have to simplify, take the risk of being banal and go to the core of the problems.
No small matter and not for everyone. Alberto did it naturally. And this has made him one of the founders of a very important discipline, political economics. The one in which the relationships and interactions between economic science and political science, demography, anthropology, sociology, history are perhaps more evident. His work has shown that these are not separate disciplines, that we can understand more about economics only if we also look at phenomena that normally fall into other social disciplines.
Thanks to Alberto, the frontier of economic research has moved forward quite a bit. Guido Tabellini and Larry Summers have beautifully summarized his contributions to economic science. All very important. Alberto will continue to be one of the most cited economists in the world for decades, an inspiration for who knows how many new projects.
A great economist? Sure. But above all a great person. Those who knew him simply adored him. Like me. I remember my first meeting with him. I approached him after his keynote shocker at the opening of the academic year at Bocconi (I think many still remember it well today). After a few seconds we were already joking about something ... but also talking about Europe and the economy. The vehicle of communication was his intelligence and curiosity.
Alberto was like this: open to ideas and people, regardless of their role. He spoke of his colleagues (perhaps Nobel laureates) with the same emphasis and respect with which he spoke of his students.
I had the privilege of writing two scientific papers with him, and I learned a lot. His ability to see the "big picture" was surprising, aspects that eluded me, perhaps because I was too focused on details. When we discussed an idea, he effortlessly glimpsed its relevance, applications and extensions. That idea took shape, and became a paper only if it was sufficiently relevant, if it gave answers to important questions. Technical precision as an end in itself did not interest him at all. In fact, I believe he thought it was very tedious.
Alberto has always maintained deep ties with Italy and with Bocconi. He had great admiration for the young people in our economics programs. He was sincerely convinced that they represented one of the best selected cohorts in the world.
And many young Italian graduates have seen in him an example to follow. Many have specialized with him or thanks to him. I am convinced that without his commitment to supporting talented young people, the community of Italian economists present in the most prestigious universities in America and the world would be much less numerous today.
Alberto loved life, because he loved nature, people, ideas. He worked hard because he wanted his creativity to serve a better world.
When we talked about intergenerational conflicts we laughed that the genes of our Italian grandparents would let us live to a hundred. What a sad joke!
Alberto, you left too soon. Too soon.
by Francesco Passarelli, Bocconi Dept. of Social and Political Sciences
Translated by Richard Greenslade