Alberto Alesina: In Memoriam

Alberto Alesina passed away a couple of days ago, while on a hike with his wife. This is his Wikipedia page, while here is his Harvard faculty page.

He is famous for a variety of reasons, but macroeconomics students of a particular vintage might remember him for advocating austerity in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis (remember when that was the biggest problem our world had seen?). Here is one paper he co-authored during that time.

There are many reasons to be a fan of Alesina’s work, as Larry Summers points out in this fine essay written in his honour. I think it a bit of a stretch to say that he invented the academic field of political economy, or even revived it, but he certainly did more to bring in front and centre than most other economists. In fact, for the last two years, he was my pick for getting the Nobel Prize, and it would certainly have been a well deserved honour.

I haven’t read all books written by him, but did read (and enjoyed) The Size of Nations, particularly because it helped me think through related aspects of the problem (Geoffrey West and Bob Mundell and their works come to mind – but that is another topic altogether). Here is a short review of that book by David Friedman, if you are interested in learning more.

A Fine Theorem (a blog you should subscribe to anyway) has a post written in his honor (along with O.E. Williamson’s, who also passed away recently) that is worth reading.

I’ll be walking through some of his work with the BSc students at the Institute, in order to familiarize them with it, and will be repeating the exercise in honour of O.E. Williamson on Thursday. This post is to help me get my thoughts in order before the talk – but I figured some of you might also enjoy learning more about Alesina’s work.

My favorite paper written by him is “Distributive Politics and Economic Growth” written with Dani Rodrik. That’ll be the focal point of my talk today – but I will address what little I know of his body of work as well.

Links for 19th April, 2019

  1. “I don’t seem to have any less energy. When I’m in the Johnson library I’m still there from 9 to 5. And I’d like to feel — but I don’t really feel — that I’ve learned something about writing. If I told you what I thought people would laugh because my books are so long, but I often think of Renoir and how his painting got simpler and simpler and better and better. I don’t say my writing has gotten better but sometimes you think, Oh, I can do this.”
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    A fascinating interview in the NYT of Robert Caro.
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  2. “From Wednesday, the payment company is to begin contacting essay-writing firms, giving them notice that they should “move their business elsewhere”.But this will not be an “overnight ban” – as there will be debates over which services are helping students to cheat and which are offering legitimate tutoring assistance.”
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    A very, very large can of worms has been opened by Paypal.
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  3. “If you neutrally described the typical Sopranos episode, almost anyone hypothetical juror would hand down centuries of jail time. As you watch, however, righteous verdicts are far from your mind. Why? ”
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    I’ve just begun watching the Sopranos, so this didn’t make too much sense right now, but this part caught my eye in the whole article.
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  4. “The challenge is how do we adapt to that increased efficiency, which is very much like what happened to agriculture. Agriculture has become so efficient that now it’s kind of irrelevant to the economy, less than two percent of our working population. And that what’s happening to traditional capitalist—particularly manufacturing—activity. Today in America only a four-and-a-half percent of workers are doing production work in manufacturing. There are more 50-year-old men on disability than doing production work in manufacturing—precisely because it’s become so productive. Fewer people are producing goods. More people are producing services.”
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    Larry Summers looks back at 2008. Somewhat standard stuff, but this excerpt above was quite interesting.
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  5. “Land and money are two of the most neglected concepts in economic theory. Land is immobile, irreproducible and appreciates in value over time due to collective investment – none of these features apply to capital goods. Yet modern economics and national accounts treat them as one and the same.”
    The quote above was quoted in the article – a meta quote, if you will – but the article is a good reminder of the importance of the idea of rent.