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10.19 Conclusion

Since the late 1980s there has been a major revival of political economy

utilizing the tools of modern economic analysis. A common theme running

throughout this ‘new political economy’ is the need to integrate the political

process into mainstream economics. In the mid- to late 1970s the seminal

contribution of Nordhaus (1975) reawakened interest in the idea of political

business cycles, an idea which can be traced back to the work of Schumpeter

and Kalecki. However, for a period following the rational expectations revolution,

interest in politico-economic models lost momentum. The theoretical

shortcomings and inconclusive empirical results of the non-rational opportunistic

and partisan models led to a temporary demise of this line of research.

On the empirical front Alt and Chrystal (1983) declared that ‘no one could

read the political business cycle literature without being struck by the lack of

supporting evidence’. While interest in the politico-economic approach ebbed,

new classical theorists were busy following through the policy implications

of rational expectations market-clearing models. The emphasis in these models

on policy ineffectiveness and rationality was initially interpreted as being

inconsistent with politically motivated policy manipulations. Nevertheless,

new rational politico-economic models have been successfully developed

which incorporate features such as asymmetric/imperfect information, noncontingent

nominal wage contracts and uncertainty over election results. The

policy-making process does not consist of a benevolent dictator taking advice

from economists in order to maximize social welfare; rather it consists of a

complex game played out by various competing groups whose interests do

not coincide.

While the importance given to political influences in causing aggregate

instability in industrial democracies remains highly controversial, few commentators

would challenge the view that politicians, faced with a regular election

cycle, will tend to develop short time horizons. The desire to be re-elected or

regain office may lead politicians to pursue or promise an economic policy

package which creates aggregate economic instability. If this line of argument

is accepted, then it follows that what is needed is an institutional framework

which creates an environment conducive to the more frequent implementation

of sustainable economic policies geared to longer-term objectives. The dilemma

faced in industrial democracies is how to constrain the over-zealous

short-term discretionary actions of politicians through institutional reform without

threatening the basic principles of democratic government. Trying to find a

solution to this dilemma will ensure that the relationship between economic

and electoral cycles will remain a rich and fertile area of research for


Not only have economists enhanced our understanding of aggregate instability

by adding a political dimension to their models; they have also explored

the deeper determinants of growth miracles and disasters. In doing so they

have highlighted the important constraint on economic growth imposed by

‘bad’ institutions and policies. Recent research has explored the interaction of

politics and economics, yielding new insights into the political economy of

economic growth and development, and the impact of international economic

integration on the size of nations. These are certainly areas where much more

research is required (see Chapter 11).

Just as economic forces cannot be ignored by political scientists, the message

coming from the research discussed in this chapter is that economists

interested in positive models of economic policy ‘cannot and should not

ignore the political arena’ (Alesina, 1988).

Alberto Alesina was born in 1957 in Broni, Italy and obtained his Laurea

from the Università Bocconi, Milan in 1981 and his PhD from Harvard

University in 1986. His main posts have included: Assistant Professor of

Economics at Carnegie-Mellon University (1986–8); Assistant Professor of

Economics and Government (1988–90) and Associate Professor of Political

Economy (1990–93) at Harvard University. Since 1993 he has been Professor

of Economics and Government at Harvard University.

Professor Alesina is best known for his contributions, in terms of both

theoretical analysis and empirical investigation, to the various forms of interaction

between politics and macroeconomics; and his influential work on

politico-economic cycles, the origin and implications of fiscal deficits, and

the relationship between political stability and economic growth. Among his

best-known books are: Partisan Politics, Divided Government and the Economy

(Cambridge University Press, 1995), co-authored with H. Rosenthal; Political

Cycles and the Macroeconomy (MIT Press, 1997), co-authored with N.

Roubini; and The Size of Nations (MIT Press, 2002), co-authored with E.

Spolare. His most widely read articles include: ‘Macroeconomic Policy in a

Two-Party System as a Repeated Game’, Quarterly Journal of Economics

(1987); ‘Political Cycles in OECD Economies’, Review of Economic Studies

(1992), co-authored with N. Roubini; ‘Central Bank Independence and Macroeconomic

Performance: Some Comparative Evidence’, Journal of Money,