Erik Jones is Director of European and Eurasian Studies and Professor of European Studies and International Political Economy at the Johns Hopkins University. In addition to that, he is also Senior Research Fellow at Nuffield College, University of Oxford. Furthermore, he is a frequent commentator on European politics and his contributions have been published in the Financial Times, New York Times, USA Today, and other publications across Europe. In this interview, we have touched on a wide range of subjects from the Navy Seals to his favourite books, spoiler alert – one of them is American Amnesia by Jacob Hacker. It has been a joy to interview Erik and we hope you enjoy reading about his adventures.
Q: What is your dinner party monologue for when someone says “and what do you do?”
A: I teach for Johns Hopkins University at a special graduate school for international affairs that has campuses in Washington, DC, and Bologna, Italy. We also have a program in Nanjing, China. The goal of the school is to help people develop careers in international affairs (in the broadest possible sense). Most of our students go into either the public or the private sector; very few end up in academe. Our most famous graduates (at the moment) are Tim Geithner and Wolf Blitzer, but we have had leaders in business and government in many different countries. The courses I teach focus on Europe and on issues related to politics and economics. I also run the European and Eurasian Studies program. When I am not in the classroom, I spend most of my time researching, writing and speaking. The issues I am covering at the moment cluster around macroeconomic policymaking, the recent economic and financial crisis, and the transatlantic relationship.
Q: Could you tell us about where you grew up; were you a rural or city dweller?
A: I was born in Mississippi but grew up in Texas. I spent most of my childhood in different parts of Dallas. We were mostly city people but I have some experience in small towns.
Q: What subject(s) did you excel at in school, and which did you find most challenging?
A: I focused most of my attention on the natural sciences. My school was financed by people close to Texas Instruments. We had a planetarium and a big math-science quadrangle. We also had some really great teachers.
Q: Can you recall any reoccurring comments from your school reports?
A: I did pretty well at all levels of school before going college and so most of the comments I got were short – like ‘he is a good student’.
The planetarium was really amazing. I was convinced I was going to be an astrophysicist.
Q: Did you ever have a eureka moment where you thought, “this is the subject I want to study”?
A: The planetarium was really amazing. I was convinced I was going to be an astrophysicist. Every time I went in and turned on the ball, it was a new moment of discovery. I loved it. That was going to happen after spending a few years as a Navy Seal. Most of us on the swim team or the water-polo team imagined joining special forces. It was Texas in the early 1980s. We watched ‘Red Dawn’. I don’t think any of us actually made it into one of those elite units, but a bunch of my buddies ended up serving in the first Gulf War.
Q: Can you remember the point at which you fell in love with your subject?
A: I had a rough first year of college. I blew out my knees in karate and found out the hard way that I wasn’t as great at math and physics as I thought I was in High School. I suspect that happens to lots of people – apart from the knees, of course. So I gave up on my dreams of special forces and astrophysics and started taking a lot of different kinds of classes to qualify for medical school and for law school. I assumed I would do one or the other after college. Along the way, I discovered I really enjoyed talking about legal philosophy, economics, and French literature. It was a classic liberal arts experience for which I am eternally grateful. I fell in love with all those things (although I have to admit that I haven’t looked at any French literature in the more than two decades since I graduated).
Regarding your undergraduate studies:
Q: Which University did you study at, and was it your first choice?
A: I went to Princeton University. It was my first choice. I applied for early admission, got in, and never looked back. It was a terrific experience. It is only with hindsight that I realise just how incredibly lucky I was to gain admission. I think if I were applying again, I would try for a much longer list of schools. I also think I would be happy pretty much anywhere. Going to university is more about the process than about place.
Q: What undergraduate degree did you study for at University, and in hindsight would you select the same subject again?
A: I ended up majoring in ‘Politics’. I had a lot of fun. They gave me the freedom to explore what I wanted to do. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on French military strategy and that had a profound impact on the rest of my career. I would probably do that again if given the option – but the topic is very different now and so it would be a little weird to write the same undergraduate thesis.
Q: Can you remember a University lecturer who really inspired you?
A: The university professor who inspired me the most was Robert George. He is a legal philosopher and I had the privilege to take classes with him in American jurisprudential thought. It was amazing. He really taught me how to think. He also taught me how to understand my own ethics and values. I don’t think we would agree on many issues today. He is a very outspoken conservative and I am not. But I have great respect for the way his mind works and for the way he influenced my own intellectual development.
Regarding your postgraduate studies:
Q: What motivated you to further pursue academia?
A: I had two amazing professors in graduate school – Patrick McCarthy and David Calleo. They brought me into their research and taught me the craft. I was supposed to go to law school. I had deferred admission to do a Master’s degree in international relations at Johns Hopkins (where I teach now). They helped me to see how I could develop a career at the boundary between academia, public policy, and the private sector. More important, they showed me how I could do that while at the same time being creative. It was very exciting and that excitement has only increased as my career has progressed.
It is easy to underestimate just how differently people think in other countries.
Q: What institution(s) did you study at in your pursuit of postgraduate education?
A: I studied at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington and Bologna. The experience studying on both continents was hugely important to my intellectual development. It is easy to underestimate just how differently people think in other countries. Once you experience that difference, it is easier not to forget just how important it is when trying to sort out important problems.
Q: What was the title of your PhD thesis, and how would you explain your findings to a novice?
A: My dissertation was called: ‘Economic Adjustment and the Political Formula: Strategy and Change in Belgium and the Netherlands.’ The question I asked was how changing political structures affected the possibilities for macroeconomic policymaking in hard times. The politics of Belgium and the Netherlands started out as tightly-structured at the end of the second world war. Political scientists who studied the two countries coined a specific term to describe how they were organised – consociational democracy. That term describes a top-down process for governing societies that are deeply divided internally. Consociational elites can exercise a lot of control over different parts of society. And that control makes it possible for them to respond to hard times by telling people how to adapt to new conditions in the interests of the society as a whole. Over time, however, the divisions within Belgian and Dutch society became less important and the kind of top-down authority exercised by elites became less attractive to the Belgian and Dutch people. Political elites lost much of their control over groups in society as a consequence. This made it harder for them to respond to economic crisis and more likely that the countries would experience major difficulties adapting to changing economic circumstances. The face of a major shock, the people might turn on one-another rather than pulling together. This would be bad for both countries. I finished that dissertation in the mid-1990s. The experience of the last two decades suggests that I was only partly right. The two countries have suffered, but they have also managed to hold together. How long they will continue to muddle through is anyone’s guess. What we can say for sure, however, is that they are not as effective at managing the crisis as they once were.
Q: If you had your time as a student again, what would you do, if anything, differently?
A: I made a lot of mistakes when making professional choices. But even the worst mistake creates opportunities that you wouldn’t get otherwise. Mistakes also teach you a lot about what is important. I would be reluctant to give up the opportunities I gained from my mistakes or the lessons I learned from trying to fix them (or live with them). So I think I would keep things as they are for myself. That doesn’t mean I don’t have plenty of (gratuitous) advice to give to my doctoral students about what choices they should make.
Q: Tell us about your current research focus?
A: I am working on two projects at the moment. One is how to understand and fix the problems of the euro as a multinational currency; the other is how to respond to the problems we see in the performance of our democratic institutions. If you look closely enough, you will see how these projects link back to my dissertation. I am still trying to figure out both economic adjustment and political transformation. I think those puzzles will stay with me for the rest of my career.
Q: What do you believe is your single most important piece of research?
A: I think my first two books were my best work. I hope I can generate the kind of focus and concentration that I had as a younger scholar.
Q: Within your area of study, what breakthroughs are on the horizon?
A: My goal for the future is to identify the institutional preconditions for stable financial market integration. In other words, I want to make sure we don’t have to go through the crisis we just experienced again. If we can figure out how to do that, then I think we will have made a major contribution. I also want to help people understand what European integration means as a project in a way that touches on their core values and identity. It would be a pity to see the European edifice collapse. But to sustain it, we have to explain why it is important for present and future generations.
Q: Let your imagination take over for a minute and tell us what you hope your successors will be researching in 2116?
A: I think they will be asking the same questions. How can we decide who should make decisions together and who should not be in the group? How can we get the most out of the resources we have at our disposal, including the creativity and hard work of people who live in our society and elsewhere? How can we resolve conflicts without resorting to force? How can we deal with people who resort to force more quickly or more easily than we do? There are no permanent answers to these questions and so I don’t see any reason why they won’t be as interesting in 2116 as they are today (or as they were in the time of Aristotle and Socrates if you see what I mean).
Q: What do you feel your professional legacy will be?
A: Like any academic, I want people to be reading and reflecting on my written work for the next several thousand years. Like most academics, though, I am pretty sure that my greatest professional legacy will be the small ripples that I set in motion through my students. I suspect that no-one will remember my name very long after I leave my professional life. So long as my students have students who have students, etc., I will continue to have influence. And I say that as someone who teaches at a ‘professional’ university where most students do not go into academia. There are lots of ways to pass down knowledge that does not run through the academy. All that is required is some contact between individuals – either mentor-to-mentee or peer-to-peer. I suspect that is where my professional legacy will be greatest. Whether or not anyone actually connects the dots back to me is not all that important. Of course, I want to be famous, but I am very satisfied to get to work with extremely talented younger people and to try and share some of what I have learned during a lifetime of researching, teaching, writing, and speaking.
Q: Are you working on any extra-curricular projects at the moment, such as: books, podcasts, websites, or speaking?
A: I have a personal blog where I put short pieces on current events, I write some really awful poetry that makes my kids laugh, and I try to get back into the pool whenever I can (while marvelling at the awesomeness of the current generation of Olympic athletes).
Advice and Tips
Q: If you could give your 18-year-old self one piece of advice, what would it be?
A: Do whatever interests you most and pay attention to what you are doing. You would be amazed at the skills you can develop by following your interests. Then all you have to do is figure out where else those skills can lead you.
Try to solve different kinds of problems and always make the problem and solution more important than the technique you use.
Q: What advice would you give someone looking to start, or progress his or her career in your field?
A: Try to solve different kinds of problems and always make the problem and solution more important than the technique you use to connect the two. You may even want to try to solve the same problem in many different ways (rather than developing one specific technique that you try to use to solve many different problems).
Q: Which book would you say has had the biggest impact on your life?
A: I would probably say Richard Miller’s Fact and Method, Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, Gunnar Myrdal’s An International Economy, and Peter Katzenstein’s Small States and World Markets. These are very different books. If I had not read them when I did, I would not be the same scholar today. I could add many more titles to this list, but these are the four most important.
Q: If you could recommend one book to a novice in your field, what would it be?
A: There are lots of good gateway books. Each one keys on a particular interest. The book I am reading at the moment is called American Amnesia by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson. If you are watching the U.S. elections, you should probably read this book. Then we can talk about the strengths and weakness of the argument. We can also talk about how much it really explains about what we are actually experiencing. That is how my field works. We don’t have canonical works so much as we have interesting questions, problems, and arguments.
Q: And finally, we are back at the dinner party. Someone offers you a drink, what do you ask for?
A: The answer all depends on how much longer I want to stay awake. If I say ‘martini’, it is going to be a short evening.
If you’d like to find out more about Professor Erik Jones you can check out his academic profile and Twitter page.