economia · media · politica · statistica

Some thoughts and memories of Alberto Alesina

I met Alberto Alesina in 2002 or maybe 2003, at a seminar he gave at the London School of Economics. He was presenting a paper together with his co-author Philippe Aghion, another excellent economist and one who might soon win the Nobel prize.

To attend a seminar presented by a scholar whose many papers you have read and enjoyed is an experience unlike any other – it is one and a half hours of pure, intense, intellectual stimulation. In this instance there were two giants in their field presenting a paper, with two distinctive styles, as if they were the leading actors in a theatre-like academic pièce. Unlike seminars in other academic fields (e.g., political science) in economics the audience usually begins interrupting the speaker with questions almost immediately. Imagine questions being asked at the first slide describing the purpose of the research, or even when only the title slide is shown on screen! That is what you must deal with in an Anglo-Saxon environment if you are an economist.

About midway through the seminar by Alesina and Aghion someone asked a somewhat challenging question, which also seemed sensible to me at the time. Aghion replied first, in a very diplomatic fashion, essentially accepting the comments, “Yes, in the next version of the model we will add that modification.” At which point Alesina jumped in, attacking both the participant who made the remark and also his co-author (I remember this as if it happened yesterday): “NO! That is the French politically correct way to answer! I will reply in the Italian politically incorrect way: Your suggestion is WRONG!

June 2018: Alesina presenting a paper at Bocconi (Guido Tabellini in background)

I should elaborate on the context. English people, at least in academia, are generally diplomatic. When an English-trained economist wants you to know they think your model is a piece of crap, they do not say, “Listen: your model is a piece of crap.”  Rather, they courteously begin, “I am slightly concerned that your model might…” and then proceed to destroy you with the next phrase and subsequent sentences. But Alesina was not the most diplomatic person on earth. Hence, the anglo/anglicized audience at the seminar apparently held this collective thought on the matter: “Oh well, that is Alesina. He is Italian and he teaches in the U.S., and he is not bad, he is just drawn that way.” (semi-cit.)

When you are studying for a PhD, you need courage. I always loved to ask questions during seminars, but that afternoon I thought it was better to wait until after the seminar to make a comment, because the atmosphere seemed at bit charged. I shyly approached Alesina to suggest a game-theory interpretation of some of the results in their paper. He listened, looking doubtful.  Then he smiled: “Ah, that is a great suggestion!”.

When studying for a PhD, whether in economics or any other field, your self-confidence is in a perennial existential state of excess demand: you need a lot of it, and what your ego supplies is always insufficient. So, I can tell you that 17 years later I still remember that comment by Alesina as a vigorous and refreshing dose of encouragement to a staggering student.

I was lucky enough to get to know Alberto better as life went on. I spent two years in Boston/Cambridge teaching at the MIT political science department, and during this time we had many opportunities to laugh and have fun. I learned that Alberto, despite his intimidating persona and reputation, was actually easy-going and full of joie de vivre.

Was Alberto politically correct? Not at all, as you can guess from the LSE anecdote. But I think that the political incorrectness of Alberto was truly a boon for many people he met in the U.S. and especially for the Italians who, to be honest, are not exactly the intergalactic champions of political correctness. I still remember vividly a dinner with Alberto and other people where we were rolling on the floor laughing because of a heated dispute on the not-so-economic (and not very PC) concept of “fake thin” (falsa magra in Italian). Details of the conversation? Unfortunately, I am sworn to secrecy.

I would also like to write something about Alesina as a researcher, without boring you (he would never have bored you). When you are studying for your Ph.D. in economics you are constantly told that you must try to write a “wow”paper – that is, a paper that makes readers say “wow” when reading it for the first time, and wow again (if more softly) even when reading it for the Nth time. I cannot even count the number of papers by Alberto that would simply make me say “wow!” He was a genius of serendipity, discovering unexpected and meaningful connections among different concepts and phenomena, and always on important questions. Time and time again, after having read and understood the connections he and his coauthors made, I would simply ask myself: “Wow, that is brilliant! How come nobody thought about that before?”

I am far less creative and prolific economist than Alberto was. However, we have two things in common. I can understand and embrace his preference for simple and intuitive models, and his healthy skepticism towards those he used to call “identification police.” (I am partial to the term “identification taliban.”) By this he referred to the researchers who only tolerate pure and rigorous econometric analyses that resemble real experiments, whose goal is to prove in the most definitive way possible the presence of causal links between economic or politically relevant variables. The main problem with this approach is the risk of confining yourself to “small questions.” Alberto, on the contrary, was always trying to extend his analyses to “big questions” that allow us to understand more deeply how economics, politics and society work.

As an economist I can share with everyone the pleasure of having read Alberto’s articles and books and opinion pieces. But Alberto was so much more, and I envy those who were fortunate enough to have had him as a teacher or to have worked with him as a co-author. I did enjoy one wonderful, extended experience: the honor of teaching with him. We co-taught a master-level course in political economy at Bocconi during the 2012-2013 academic year (course link here). This involved some challenges, including the task of deciphering his famously typo-ridden emails. But mostly it was pure, intellectual fun. What did we talk about, in addition to the logistics and content of the course? For one thing, gossip and frivolous topics, a refreshing break from the otherwise tedious stream of serious and quasi-serious conversations that consume all our time. We often talked about politics, and it was heartening to see how much Alberto listened to you and paying attention to your views. These days I ask myself: can I have his same patience and ability to listen?

Guido Tabellini is right: Alesina’s death leaves an unfillable void. He was a protective presence, a self-made man from the small town of Broni in the province of Pavia. Though undeserved and irrational, I take pride in thinking of Alberto coming from Pavia (this is the second thing we have in common), and teaching at Harvard University, the same Alberto who helped create an entire new field of research, political economy.

In the first lecture of the political economy course we taught together, Alesina began by telling students about the Italian economists of the late 19th century (Conigliani and Puviani) who anticipated this approach to study politics and economics, well before the Americans Buchanan and Tullock. I enjoyed this philologically correct and patriotic way of commencing an advanced course in economics.

The Ark of Saint Augustine in the church of San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro (Pavia)

I felt protected by the presence of Alesina in America, and by all the wow papers he gave us. On Monday, May 25th, before going to a memorial mass here in Pavia – where his family still lives – I was trying to clear my messy desk. By chance I found a paper on preferences for redistribution that Alberto wrote with Paola Giuliano: luckily I was alone in my office, so I could cry without being seen, as many have done in these days. The Mass was celebrated in the church of San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro, (“Saint Peter in the Golden Sky”) that Dante Alighieri, Giovanni Boccaccio and Francesco Petrarca cited in their writings. Saint Augustine is buried there, in an ark made of majestic marble. I do not know if it is enough, I do not know if it is consoling enough in such a sad time, but I find that Augustine’s say “Love and do what you want” is so apt to celebrate the joyful, arrogant and kind soul of Alberto.

[This is the English version of a piece I previously wrote in Italian. I would like to thank Francesca Cassano and Jim Snyder for having largely improved my English prose.]



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