Alberto Alesina was one of the most renowned and respected political economists in the world, and when he passed away, in 2020, he left a void that is not easy to fill. To honor his memory, Bocconi hosted a Tribute event that, among other things, featured a panel with Mario Draghi, Lawrence Summers, and Silvana Teneyro. Here is our coverage of the event.
By Cansu Sut
On May 24th and 25th, Bocconi held a scientific conference and remembrance event in memory of Alberto Alesina, one of the most important political economists of our era, who died in 2020 from a heart attack. Alesina was one of the first graduates of the DES (Discipline economiche e sociali-Economic and Social Sciences) program at Bocconi. After DES, he went on to do a Ph.D. at Harvard, where he spent much of his professional life. Being also a member of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), Alesina had directed the Bureau’s Political Economic Program since its creation in 2006. According to Dani Rodrik, Alesina constructed the interdisciplinary field of political economy almost by himself, creating a vital tool for public policy analysis.
Specifically, the tribute event was held on May 25th, after the two-day scientific conference ended. The event started with the speech of Bocconi Rector Gianmario Verona and continued with the opening remarks of Bocconi President Mario Monti. Before the panel “Economic Policy in an Age of Uncertainty”, Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi made a commemorative speech for Alberto Alesina. The panel was conducted under the moderation of Lionel Barber, former Editor-in-Chief of the Financial Times, and with the participation of Mario Draghi, Lawrence H. Summers, former US Treasury Secretary and Harvard’s President Emeritus, and Silvana Teneyro, an external member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee and a Professor of Economics at LSE. The panelists discussed the future of monetary policy and how the academic world differs from the political realm.
After the panel, Rector Verona inaugurated the seminar room dedicated to Alesina at Bocconi. The inauguration was followed by Susan Alesina’s speech about her deceased husband, which reminisced over his love for Bocconi and his affection for the Bocconi community. Then, Francesco Giavazzi gave a speech mentioning the names of countless students belonging to the Bocconi community Alesina took under his wing during his academic career.
Alberto Alesina: More than an Academic
By Lorenzo Garbarino
With the general deference that is expected towards academics, it is striking to hear that Alberto Alesina would often introduce himself by saying “call me Alberto”. The sole fact that the director of the economics department at Harvard was open to conversations with students (or anyone interested) is indeed one of the many explanations for the unfeigned sentiments towards the professor that could be strongly felt in the Aula Magna, which was fully booked by faculty and students alike.
But beyond his kindness, Alberto Alesina was an extraordinary academic. He began his studies at Bocconi and then moved on to Harvard, where he soon became a leading economist. Professor Alesina also spent time at the University of Tel Aviv, at MIT and at the IMF. His research focused on a wide variety of fields, but the most notable contributions are in the areas of fiscal and monetary policy.
Biographical and professional information can certainly give an overview of a person’s career, but it is only through human contact that one can get a sense of an individual’s character. For this reason, Tra i Leoni interviewed Leonardo d’Amico, one of Professor Alesina’s Phd students at Harvard. When asked about his most vivid memory of Professor Alesina, Mr. D’Amico said that it was certainly his openness to ideas, “regardless of who they came from”. Indeed, whether an economic intuition arrived from the director of the IMF or from an undergraduate freshman was of little importance: what mattered for Professor Alesina were ideas in and of themselves. His office was always open and a fervent lieu of discussion; however, another characteristic of the Professor was his willingness to admit how he felt, since he would not be embarrassed to note that he was “in a bad mood” on a given day. These instances, along with many others, are those that remain engrained in the memory of those who knew Alberto Alesina.
Takeaways from the Panel
By Bojan Zeric
Uncertainty is certainly a dangerous condition to conduct economic policy in because policymakers must act without being able to properly predict the impact of whatever measure they choose to implement. However, as the panel’s guests often point out throughout their discussion, uncertainty can be a source of development, as it can provide an expedient to strengthen inter-state solidarity and cooperation. For instance, something like the Next Generation EU, which single-handedly brought EU integration to levels that had never been reached before, was only possible thanks to the uncertainty that was created by COVID-19, and particularly thanks to the Member States’ realization that they could not deal with the crisis by themselves.
With this mentality in mind, Prime Minister Mario Draghi, with reference to the EU, spoke of what he calls “pragmatic federalism”. Whereas federalism is likely the end game towards which the Union is directed either way, pragmatic federalism is, according to Draghi, the most reasonable and efficient way to get there. Pragmatic federalism involves centralizing the Union’s activities according to the challenges that are presented in front of the Union. For instance, this would be a good moment to create a common European defense and to centralize the management of energy.
Of course, uncertainty does not always lead to integration or development. As Silvana Teneyro points out, our inability to forecast shocks, can imply deglobalization rather than an increase in integration, with detrimental consequences for the economy, notably a decrease in productivity.
What are the right instruments, then? The truth is that a right answer does not exist.
Lawrence Summers, President Emeritus of Harvard University, was asked by Tra i Leoni whether interventions beyond pure monetary policy are needed in times of crisis and he said that “policies from central banks are necessary but not sufficient conditions for prosperity.” He also noted that the efficacy of certain types of interventions, such as investment in infrastructure, are highly dependent on the country where they are used. In other words, while certain parts of the general picture are clear when it comes to designing policies, there is no fixed formula over what will guarantee prosperity.
By Chiara Todesco
If economists are those who should resolve our doubts about the future of our countries, why is there always a “if” in their answers?
The recent events that shook our economies are not the first and not the last, that’s for sure. Every crisis though has some peculiar elements and economics, like any other science, is about research. From the COVID-19 pandemic, we have learned that even science is not able to give all the answers and we heard a lot of debates in a field that, for those not familiar with it, was considered the realm of certainty and answers. This crisis made us remember that there is no absolute truth. As Lawrence Summers highlighted with the example of the FED, there are different economic theories and sometimes it’s difficult to take into account all the factors, some choices will for sure address some problem at the expense of another but that’s how humans learn lessons to progress.