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14 June 2020

Farewell to Alberto Alesina, an Economist Full of Curiosity and Good Humor

Among the greatest economists of all time and one of the founders of political economics, he has often been spoken of as a possible Nobel prize winner. A Harvard professor and columnist for the Corriere della Sera, Alesina was an outspoken academic with a very original way of thinking, but he was also a curious man with an uncommon sense of humor. Like that evening in Harlem...

June 20, 2014: Alberto Alesina took the floor at the Global Conference in New York, which was then called Bocconi Alumni American Conference. His speech had a title that was right up his alley: "State of the Economy: Compare recent trends and outlook in the Americas and Europe". He won over the audience - and not just the audience.

In fact, the evening before the Conference, Alberto naturally joined a small group of us from the Alumni office for an evening at Minton's, a historic jazz club in Harlem. A relaxing dinner, in expectation of many hours of work the next day.

Quite intimidated by that Harvard professor with a hint of Nobel, we thought - with some terror - that we would talk about economics all evening, with inevitable slips in front of his wisdom.

And instead. Well, instead.
He arrived disheveled with his wife Susan and took his place in the middle of the table. Then, with a fiery incipit, he reassured us: “So, tonight we are not talking about economics: we will think about that tomorrow. Let's talk about music, holidays and whatever you want. "

We looked at him with a mixture of wonder and gratitude as he immediately slipped into a speech about ex-girlfriends and related jealousies. He didn't know any of us, yet he interacted like an old schoolmate, telling us about these American networking dinners where you move around to chat with everyone. At one of these events with his wife, he moved around and around, and found himself sitting next to an ex-girlfriend.

And so Alberto held court all evening, a bit like jazz: rhythm and improvisation. Curious and involved, he went from one question to another unexpectedly, greedy for details - much more than for the steak in front of him. Then he launched himself in questions on the most beautiful places to go on vacation, with him holding forth on the beauty of the mountains while half of the guests tried to convince him about the charms of the seaside.

An Alumnus among the Alumni, a friend among friends - and never did we have greater confirmation than that evening. Even when, after two hours, he realized that his steak had become inedible. And he ordered another.


Alberto the Bocconi student, remembered by prof. Mario Monti.
After graduating from DES at Bocconi in 1981, Alesina obtained a PhD at Harvard in 1986: a dazzling career that has always been a source of pride for the Alma Mater to which he has always remained attached, later becoming a Visiting Professor here.

But Alesina had already distinguished himself as a student, so much so that prof. Monti said this in an open letter to Corriere della Sera: "As his graduation thesis approached, in 1979, Alesina intensified his visits to my office, which I shared with three colleagues. Slowly, spinning ever deeper discussions - he must have asked himself "who knows if I can do my thesis with Monti?",  while I repeated to myself "I'd really like to take on this talented Alesina".  We agreed on a thesis on the theme "Inflation, indexing and stability: a theoretical analysis ". In those years I encouraged my students to engage in themes that entail solid theoretical foundations, but keeping their eyes wide open onto that extraordinary "laboratory" in which we lived. Our country, Italy, had gone through one crisis after another, with a mix of inflation, public deficits, and imbalances in external accounts not found elsewhere ... "

Adoration of students and the question of simplification.
It is impossible to summarize in a few lines the scope of Alesina's studies - and after all it is not what we want to do in saying farewell here. Of course, two key points should be mentioned: that extraordinary ability to explain the economy to you in a simplified and direct way and knowing how to position himself as a teacher-mentor, always available, protective and stimulating. An approach that led him to enjoy a healthy idolatry on the part of his students, who adored him the way you can look up your best friend who knows more than you do.

However, that evening in Harlem it was impossible to convince him about the attractions of the beach. Alberto continued to grind out kilometers amongst his beloved peaks, where he suffered a heart attack last May 23, while hiking beside his wife.

And for a man accustomed to traveling at high altitude, perhaps this is the exit he would have prefered.