In Memoriam: Alberto Alesina 1957-2020

May 26, 2020
Alberto Alesina

The Economics Department mourns the loss of Professor Alberto Alesina, Nathaniel Ropes Professor of Political Economy, who passed away on May 23rd, 2020. He was the chair of the department from 2003-2006, a member of the National Bureau for Economic Research, the Centre for Economic Policy Research, and the Econometric Society.

Memorial Service of Alberto Alesina - 5/30/2020

Statements of remembrance from friends, colleagues, and students:

To the world, Alberto Alesina was the engaged, prolific economist improving the policy debate. To economics, he was a giant and driving force of political economy, which grew under his lead to become an important interdisciplinary field. To us, he was our brilliant, warm, funny, close co-author, and friend. We will miss him terribly.  - Stefanie Stantcheva and Elias Papaioannou

When I think of Alberto, what comes to mind first is his warmth, his humor, and his obvious affection for others.  We had offices on the same corridor—for many years right next to one another--and I loved hearing his laugh echo down the hallway. When he would poke his head in my door to chat, it was often to check in about a student we had in common, to make sure they were doing OK not only in their work, but on a personal level.  He was always over-the-top engaged in our efforts to recruit new PhD students and to make sure they didn’t ruin their lives by going to MIT instead of Harvard.  During recruiting season, he would email me multiple times a day with great enthusiasm (and prolific misspelling) about how he was in the process of charming this one or that one into coming to Harvard—we traded lots of jokes and video clips about Glengarry Glen Ross and the mantra of  “always be closing”.   Alberto was also the only one of my colleagues who, when we talked, would often emphasize a point with a friendly squeeze on the arm or shoulder. In these days of physical isolation, it is one of the images of him that I most treasure.  - Jeremy Stein

Alberto was a highly decorated economist and on the short list of people likely to win a Nobel prize. He was the founder of the NBER's political economy program and was an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Econometric Society. He was also deeply involved in public debates on the issues of the day.

Despite all his accolades Alberto had no pretensions, no airs. He was loved by students because he was approachable and could joke about the frivolous and the serious. He loved life, especially when he was racing down ski slopes. Given how prolific he was and how much time he spent on the slopes, I can only imagine that brilliant big ideas must have kept popping into his head as he skied.

The profession has lost a most creative mind and intellectual leader. I, like numerous others, have lost a dear friend, who worked hard, played hard, and cared deeply about his colleagues and students. Gita Gopinath

Every moment that we got to share on Alberto’s intellectual odyssey was exciting and illuminating. His seminars were joyous journeys into an intellectual unknown where the tools of economics were used to understand the most basic questions of politics, economics, and culture.     

That same spirit permeated the seminars that Alberto attended.   He wanted students to answer big questions, and he was elated when they did. He loved learning new and important things and the pleasure that came from new knowledge would shine on his face. 

He felt obliged to point out obvious empirical shortcomings, which he suggested would lead to arrest or imprisonment by some nefarious group call the “identification police,” but he had little interest in sinking down to their level.  - Edward Glaeser

Alberto was such a role model for how to treat one another.  He cared deeply about graduate students, junior faculty and the Harvard Economics community.  Every time I went to a faculty meeting, seminar, or lunch and saw Alberto in the room, I sensed that the event would be better just because he was there. Emily Breza

Alberto came to visit Tel Aviv University after he graduated from Harvard, and this is where we met first. He had been full of life then and so he remained. His presence in our corner of Littauer added laughs and warmth to social interactions. We shared a love for opera and fun dinners. And we shared an interest in political economy, although his interest was passionate and much greater than mine. He was a beloved friend who will be terribly missed. - Elhanan Helpman

Alberto was a revered member of our community. He left us way too early, but his warmth, wit and brilliance will stay with us forever. There are so many things I will miss about Alberto. I cherished our frequent discussions about economics and about European politics, but also our more mundane conversations about F.C. Barcelona, Juventus, and the Patriots. But more than the substance of those conversations, what will stay with me is the warmth that characterized those interactions: the constant laughing, his hand tightly gripping my arm, the occasional “Bloody ‘ell!”  I will miss him dearly. - Pol Antras

Alberto was a phenomenal scholar. The field of political economy barely existed before he started working in it. Today, it is an established and flourishing area of science. Alberto is the person most responsible for its emergence. As great a scholar as he was, Alberto never took himself too seriously. He was always willing to laugh at himself and admit when he didn’t know the answer to a question. - David Cutler

Alberto was not only an excellent economist who took good care of his students, but he was also a remarkably warm person whose presence cheered up everyone who came in contact with him.  I was very fortunate in having him at the end of the corridor in which I have my own office, and we got the chance to talk quite frequently.  Even when we disagreed (as we did on European monetary policy following the crisis of 2008), we had remarkably pleasant exchanges.  There may have been some “austerity” in his European Economics, but none in the warmth with which he could discuss any problem with others whether or not he agreed with them.  

I also learned a lot from him about how to think about culture in the context of economic analysis.  Alberto will continue to have a major presence in my thinking about what made Littauer such an attractive place. - Amartya Sen

“Bloody hell, Ben, are you still working on this universalism nonsense? Your papers don’t make any sense! By the way, you and Anke should come over for dinner again!” Such or similar was the weekly opening line with which Alberto greeted me before the political economy lunch or whenever we gathered in his office. Of course, such announcements would always be followed by a big grin, a roaring laughter and him tightly holding one’s arm. Dinner with the Alesina’s was always a great time, in no small part because Susan is so exceptionally skilled at teasing Alberto.

Experiencing Alberto interact with students and colleagues was a mind-blowing experience. There he was, the intellectual giant who had founded and shaped the field for decades, yet he never appeared to think of students or clueless junior faculty like myself as lesser people. Instead, he engaged and deeply cared in a way I had rarely encountered before. The students and I admired him without bounds, both for his intellectual brilliance and for the joyous and incredibly warm and caring atmosphere that he had created for political economy at Harvard. Regardless of whether he giggled to complain about the “identification police”, jokingly pointed out the shortcomings in my or Nathan’s papers in front of the students, or burst out into laughter when one of us reminded him that, no, the figures in his papers didn’t exactly look like an R-squared of one, either, he always made the PE lunch and the research process as a whole tons of fun. His excitement about understanding the world was always infectious, yet at the same time his empathy was also limitless. His door was always open, and emails to him never remained unanswered for more than a couple of hours at most.

Alberto’s ideas and his incredible creativity and originality will stay with us forever, but the loss of him leaving way too early is impossible to put into words. I will deeply miss him. - Ben Enke

In some ways, Alberto looked like the typical, somewhat-rumpled academic. But, for reasons you couldn’t at first put your finger on, he was a lot more elegant than most academics. Then, on careful observation, you’d see that he was wearing an Armani suit. Only Alberto knew how to make rumpledness look stylish.

Alberto’s devotion to skiing was legendary---and the students took note of it.  At one holiday party----when possibly moving the Economics Department was a topic under discussion---they did a skit about where different faculty members wanted Littauer to be re-located. For Raj Chetty (who then was considering a move to the West Coast), they showed a picture of Littauer in the middle of the Stanford campus. In Alberto’s case, they depicted Littauer on top of Mont Blanc.Eric Maskin

We have lost a friend. We have lost the myriad more interesting papers he surely would have written. His students and seminar participants have lost the most rewarding mentor they could find. He has lost the new and more prestigious prizes that he, in all likelihood, would have won. But he has gained one thing: the unique crowning of love and myth that only premature death can give.

Ciao, Alberto. Sit tibi terra levis. - Ignazio Angeloni

Perhaps Alberto's secret was  knowing how to reach out to whoever was less strong than him, to be humane in the academia,  where appearing fragile is seen as a symptom of weak ideas.  And when you were in a bind,  he gained your trust and pushed you to try again. At the door of his office in Harvard, a poster of a skier  on the slopes of Jackson Hole reads: "College degree, good job, big house ... We all make mistakes!".  Go off your fears and the beaten tracks, follow the great ideas. - Enrico Di Gregorio, Matteo Paradisi, Edoardo Teso, Michela Carlana, Pierfrancesco Mei, Armando Miano, Giorgio Saponaro, Marco Tabellini

As a scholar, Alberto was a force of nature. He had a knack for finding important questions, figuring out how to ask them, and coming up with interesting answers. Whether it was how elections affect monetary policy, or why there is so often divided government in America, or why stabilizations are delayed, or why the welfare state looks so different in Europe and America, or how the plow changed the role of women in society, or dozens of other disparate and intriguing questions, Alberto trained his endless curiosity and boundless energy – and enormous following of younger scholars – on these topics and brought forth fascinating arguments and evidence. Not everyone agreed with him – I’m quite sure there were times that he didn’t agree with himself – but nobody could ignore the work he and his followers did.
On a personal level, Alberto was a model scholar. He was generous with his time to everyone who approached him. His value as a teacher, mentor, and co-author is made clear by the extraordinary number of former students and collaborators who today dominate the field of Political Economy in Economics. At the many seminars he attended – often ran -- he could be counted upon to have some of the sharpest questions and comments, always presented with respect and good humor. Alberto’s joy at hearing an interesting question or idea was obvious and infectious. I would occasionally send a graduate student interested in Political Economy to talk with him, and I could count on getting a happy phone call or email in return, expressing his enthusiasm for the person’s promise as an academic and for the prospect of working together. Alberto was a scholar’s scholar. - 
Jeffry Frieden

...he taught me so much. A lot of it was direct advice on papers and ideas. Some of that was career-changing, as when he convinced me that, of course, that silly idea on capital cities that QA Do and I had been playing around with would interest economists, are you crazy? – and that eventually turned into my first top publication. I still pass on to students and friends the words of encouragement that he always gave me before important talks – “Remember: don’t screw up!” – though I cannot add his inimitable laugh and Italian accent... - Filipe Campante

Alberto, I met you in 2004 during a seminar and I just wondered how one could think so freely, simply and elegantly. Your work will shine forever, your seminars were rocking and your vitality will last forever. I remember just last fall entering your seminars at Harvard and being invaded with energy. I remember our lunches and how you shaped my ideas and encouraged me to pursue the un-chartered. I remember last winter when you welcomed me in your office, generously granting it to me as a visitor: how much I miss sitting at your desk, your books and the picture of the Mont Blanc behind me. And I will be forever inspired by you. - Ester Faia

 

I just today learned of the very untimely passing of Alberto Alesina.  This is a terrible loss for Harvard & the profession.

He was the pre-eminent figure in political economy in his generation.  The revival of empirical research in the field owes a lot to him. I immediately think of his work on the impact of cultural factors on the size of government and also on the different fiscal effects of taxes and spending.  Both have the quality of going against the grain but only because the data took him there.  

He also had a great influence on students and later when they became colleagues.  I can tell this mainly from the professional literature, since I knew him only slightly. These influences extend to his alma mater, Bocconi, which has become a world center in Alesina style political economy.  This is a great legacy. Sam Peltzman

From the media:

Alberto Alesina. A free-spirited economist, by Stefanie Stantcheva and Elias Papaioannou

VoxEU, May 27th, 2020

“There Are Few Things More Exciting Than Learning Something New and Important About Humanity”: Alesina’s Scientific Odyssey, by Edward Glaeser

ProMarket, May 26th 2020

It is hard to imagine the field of political economy without Alberto Alesina, by Lawrence Summers

The Washington Post, May 24th, 2020

 

Tribute to Alberto Alesina, by Gita Gopinath
IMF Finance and Development, June 1st, 2020

 

Full testimonials:

Jeffry Frieden

Filipe Campante

Ignazio Angeloni

Enrico Spolaore

Enrico Di Gregorio, Matteo Paradisi, Edoardo Teso, Michela Carlana, Pierfrancesco Mei, Armando Miano, Giorgio Saponaro, Marco Tabellini

 

 

 

See also: News Archive