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Noah Smith

Racism Is the Biggest Reason the U.S. Safety Net Is So Weak

Harvard economist Alberto Alesina, who died last week, found that ethnic divisions made the country less effective at providing public goods. 

ROME - MARCH 11: Harvard University professor Alberto Alesina speaks during the Rome Advertising Summit at the Auditorium della Musica on March 11, 2009 in Rome, Italy.The two day summit, 'Tutto Cambia - Cambiamo Tutto?' (Everything changes - Shall we change everything?), aims to analyse the present relationship between companies, brands and consumers and to create strategies for future scenarios. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
ROME - MARCH 11: Harvard University professor Alberto Alesina speaks during the Rome Advertising Summit at the Auditorium della Musica on March 11, 2009 in Rome, Italy.The two day summit, 'Tutto Cambia - Cambiamo Tutto?' (Everything changes - Shall we change everything?), aims to analyse the present relationship between companies, brands and consumers and to create strategies for future scenarios. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)Photographer: Franco Origlia/Getty Images Europe

Last week, the economics profession lost one of its leading lights -- Harvard professor Alberto Alesina. The Italian economist, who died of a heart attack at age 63, helped revolutionize the field of political economy.

Economists are often criticized for ignoring the political aspects of their theories. At least since the end of World War II, economists have generally seen their role as offering expert advice to wise technocratic leaders -- “whispering in the ears of princes.” But in the real world, leaders with both the wisdom to listen to academic experts and the power to implement any much less all of their recommendations are quite rare; more often, the political world is a tangle of interest groups, culture wars, partisan bickering and electoral expediency.