The editors of this year’s SAIS Europe Journal sat down (virtually) with Prof. Erik Jones who has been an integral part of the SAIS Europe campus and Bologna community for 20 years – his first semester teaching at SAIS was an adjunct course he offered in spring 2001. During that time, he has not only published widely on topics from Italian politics to European monetary and economic integration, but he also formed and educated generations of SAIS students who have a better understanding of European industrial relations or the global financial crisis as a result. In the fall of 2021, Prof Jones will join the Robert Schuman Centre of the European University Institute (EUI) in Florence as their new director. We asked him a set of work-related and personal questions to commemorate this moment of inflexion in his career. The result was a conversation about the post-pandemic world, the incomplete European integration process, and why academics need not necessarily strive for popularity to fulfil a vital role in public discourse.
Moritz Osterhuber: The theme of this year’s SAIS Journal is Breaking the Fever. Do you have a good idea in your mind of what that entails and what kind of world we’re headed for post-pandemic?
Erik Jones: Last weekend was our first out of lockdown [in Bologna] and yesterday [2 May], I chose to walk my dog down Via del Pratello [street in the Bolognese centre with many bars and restaurants]. Now, the day after May 1st the street showed all the signs of a huge party and I think that is what’s going to happen: a huge release, but then, very quickly, people are going to remember that there’s all this work that we need to do. We need to repair the horrific damage that the pandemic causes, much of which we don’t see right now because it’s hidden by government policy. And then we need to figure out a way to fix problems that we have had before to make sure that the next pandemic, disaster, or crisis doesn’t cause even more damage because who knows what the next one's going to be. And for you as students this is going to be a central theme in your professional lives.
Looking forward, there will be huge opportunities but also significant challenges and uncertainties because of the changes that await us. Some things will inevitably disappear and that is going to come as a surprise to many of us. I have argued for almost a year now that the sector most ripe for dramatic disruption is higher education. We haven't changed our fundamental business model since the 19th Century; all we've done is to expand the range of services we offer and the number of students we reach. This business model is no longer sustainable, and I think we learned from the pandemic certain skills that will allow us to disrupt that model. If anybody is interested in going into academia, I would encourage that, but I would also plan multiple alternatives.
Osterhuber: Is this change going to be felt in European academia as well?
Jones: Oh absolutely, European academia is ripe for disruption. Don’t get me wrong, governments need research and there will be a place for university education, but the whole sector will need to become more cost-effective. Do universities really need all these expensive buildings and teaching academics? I mean, we pretend we're all research academics, but we also know that's not true. We need to reorganize the higher education simply because it is really expensive right now and there is no natural political constituency arguing in favor of that expense. Nobody will vote the Prime Minister out of office for her university policy.
Pilar Bolognesi: A lot of your work focuses on Europe and monetary and financial integration. Given that the pandemic has caused similar financial market dynamics as the global financial crisis, what is needed for Europe to remedy the mistakes of the past and prevent financial instability in the future?
Jones: I think that's a great question and one thing that we should note is just how much better and more quickly policymakers responded, particularly in propping up the financial sector. And we should also note how much more robust the financial sector was before the current crisis because of the things they did after the last crisis. I think policymakers learned a lot, I think they applied those lessons, and I think we're in a much better situation because of it. I shudder to think of what this crisis would have looked like if we had not had the previous crisis to learn from. Having said that, we're only just starting the financial phase of this crisis. The last crisis started with finance and moved into the real economy. This crisis started in the real economy, it is only now moving into finance. We'll see the full implications by the end of the summer and beginning of the autumn, when the credit guarantees and regulatory forbearance start to lapse, and when the banks find themselves holding large stockpiles of non-performing assets that we need to dispose of. I think that problem is still to come; so, we'll see.
Osterhuber: In a 2016 paper, you argue that European integration ‘fails forward’: intergovernmental bargaining leads to incomplete policy outcomes and a search for the lowest common denominator that imposed a heavy toll on citizens during the Eurozone crisis. Jean Monnet had originally envisioned that Europe would be "forged in crises and be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises". Is Europe still ‘failing forward’ during the current pandemic and if yes, is ‘failing forward’ a viable strategy for long-term survival?
Jones: The ‘failing forward’ paper was a team effort with two colleagues of mine, Sophie Meunier and R. Daniel Kelemen. It was actually they who came up with the alliterative name, which I pushed back against ferociously because I thought it was terrible. Now, of course, it is by far my most cited work. The answer to whether we are still failing forward is always going to be ‘yes’, because failing forward is not a conscious strategy, it simply happens and not just in Europe but everywhere. If you look at Next Generation EU [the EU’s fiscal response to the COVID-19 pandemic] for instance: is the sum of €750bn and the mixture between grants and loans really optimal? And is it optimal that states have to ratify the ‘own resources decision’ unanimously for the program to start [this decision governs how the EU finances its budgets and allows the Commission to temporarily borrow up to €750bn inter alia]? I have argued that many of the EU-level loans are not going to be taken up and the Spaniards and, in fact, the Portuguese have already said that they are not going to borrow from the European Commission. And not even the grants of Next Generation EU may get spent. This is our experience with the EU structural funds as well. With such tight time schedules and such strong conditionality, it is simply unrealistic that countries get more than 50% of the money out the door on time.
I think we'll get to a better situation, but are we in the right situation? I don't think so. We learned that we need the Commission to be able to borrow significant amounts of money. And we also learned that there is significant judicial opposition to borrowing by the Commission which we will have to address and find solutions for. Next Generation EU is significant in symbolic and in institutional terms. We got the desired compression of bond spreads that we’ve been benefitting from ever since already in May 2020 with the joint French-German proposal even before any money was spent. But it is incomplete, it is a partial success that we will need to build on going forward.
Bolognesi: You mentioned Next Generation EU, what do you think are the implications of a country like Italy if they accept the debt but then they fail to make productive use of it?
Jones: I think that's the right question and I think Mario Draghi has caught the tenor of the mood. If you listen to Sergio Mattarella’s speech on Saturday [1 May], I think he's caught it as well: this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Italy to do things that it has struggled to do many times in the past. The Minister for infrastructure, Enrico Giovannini, has pointed out that the tight time schedule should help in contracting and in the management of subcontracts - I think he's optimistic in that regard. I think good things could happen, but if they don't happen here's what I would anticipate. First, we're going to have a centre-right government that's going to basically disown a lot of the infrastructural projects that were initiated in the south because they are going to blame any failure on alleged mismanagement down there. That would be bad and will set back the agenda to heal the north-south divide. Second, we're going to get an enormous amount of pressure from northern Europe about what Italy is doing and that's not only going to spoil the relationship between Italy and the European Union, but we're also going to struggle with another rise of Euroscepticism. Third, I think the likelihood that we'll ever see the European Council go back to the Commission for this kind of big borrowing program will be significantly impaired. Because if they can't get it to work this time, why would they try again? You already see voices saying that in Germany and in the Netherlands. I think there's a lot to play for here, and it could work out really well, but it could also work out badly.
Osterhuber: Steven D. Levitt of Freakonomics is still an academic at the University of Chicago but has dedicated most of his time to producing podcasts and writing books with broad appeal. Compared to most academics, Levitt reaches a truly enormous audience (15 million per month with the podcast alone) and gets to talk about economic concepts (and not only). In that context, what is the purpose of a modern academic and his/her role in society? What kind of influence should he/she strive for?
Jones: What you are really asking is what makes university or academia relevant to the real world. The short answer is that academia has to be relevant because we are spending a shocking amount of money on it. Put another way, the real question is how we can make academia most relevant for our stakeholders. Am I going to show academia’s relevance by making myself a media star or by helping my students and colleagues to use their research and knowledge to engage in public discourse? My answer has always been that my primary objective is to help people who get an academic formation to see just how much value they can add. This is also a front-and-centre priority in my new position at the Schuman Centre [of the European University Institute in Firenze] since I will be working with PhD researchers and postdocs: helping them to see that academia is not the be-all and end-all and that having a conversation with lots of different audiences is absolutely vital. Even for research that you might not think is important, there are people out there who will be able to extract value from it, you just have to help them better to appreciate what it is you found. I'm a big believer that rather than leaving the Academy, we have an obligation to stay in the Academy and change it, so that it's much more open, much more accessible and doesn’t lose any of the rigor that goes into careful meaningful research. We do, however, need to increase the rigor that goes into careful meaningful presentation because if we can't describe what we found then what was the point of all that research in first place?
With all due respect to Freakonomics, the key thing is not to spend an inordinate amount of time popularizing our own work as much as spending an inordinate amount of time helping everybody popularize their work, because if it's not popular then it's not as relevant as it should be, and certainly not worth the sticker price.
Bolognesi: As an academic in IPE, what are the biggest areas of unfinished business? What’s your favorite book that you’ve never written?
Jones: I have lots of favorite books I've never written. I have one about the euro as a political system and I had a contract on it, I lost sleep over it all the time, and then I never wrote it. I had another one that is probably much more important, which is the issue that we're struggling with right now, and that is democracy without solidarity.
I went to Oxford in 2010 with the intention of writing that book and I have been flirting with those ideas ever since but haven't really put it to paper. The basic problem is that if we don't build a political system and an economic system that includes people, then we shouldn't be surprised if there are large numbers of people who don't want that system to work. And if people who don't want the system to work get in power, they will make sure it doesn't work and unfortunately that's where we are. So, when you asked about the opportunities and prospects for Next Generation EU, the one thing that I think Mario Draghi has succeeded in doing is getting everybody to agree that this really has to work, and that gives me optimism. If, by contrast, people were to decide that it would be better for this to not work, which is what was happening under the Conte government, then I would be much less confident and much more apprehensive. Because the people who don't want things to work have a much easier job than the people who want things to work. The book that I would write would be about that: how do we get people to want things to work?
Osterhuber: Returning to the notions of popularity and relevance in academia, when we look for "Erik Jones" on Google, you’re not the first result (we find an artist and a NASCAR driver), does that bother you at all?
Jones: As an academic, I'm not going to pretend for a moment that I’m either modest or not arrogant. I am a pop star in my own world when I come into a classroom, but in reality, nothing I write or do is going to have a major impact unless something really changes after I die, at which point I don't really care anymore. The biggest impact I will always have is by talking with you guys and so my goal is to have as many conversations like this as I possibly can. Those conversations with students and colleagues always make me a better academic, but hopefully you guys become better as well and so as a community we become better. Let’s face it, the Enlightenment is something that came out of a community and what we need to do is to focus much more attention on building a community. When I look at these other guys, the Erik Jones auto racer and the Erik Jones artist, I am impressed with what they do, but that's just not what my goal in life is. In fact, I'm actually quite afraid of driving fast so in that sense, my goal in life is to hang out with you guys and as long as they don't take that away from me, I think I think I'll be happy.
Bolognesi: As an American working on European affairs broadly speaking, has that helped to retain an objective perspective as opposed to a European scholar who may come from a specific background and socialization, or has that position made things harder for you?
Jones: I'm not just an American, I'm a Texan and that's like the biggest cross to bear. Just kidding. Look at me, I'm a white middle-aged man. Every possible privilege has been offered to me at every step in my career. Was it challenging? Yes, I faced some of the most considerable challenge that an ultra-privileged white middle-aged man has ever faced and I've overcome them against a ferocious competition of other white middle-aged men. I love my life, I feel tremendously grateful for all the things that I've been given but I'm deeply suspicious that my privilege has displaced others in ways that I would regret, if I was confronted with them. Rather than worry about how many challenges I faced, I really think hard - and I'm sure not hard enough - about how much I owe to the community to make sure that other people don't get displaced by people like me in the future.
Osterhuber: What do you look forward to the most in your new capacity as director of the Schuman Centre at the European University Institute in Florence?
Jones: First, I should clarify that I am taking a leave of absence from SAIS. Part of the reason that I am so excited about having new conversations at the EUI is so that I can build bridges to SAIS, help introduce people to what SAIS does, and strengthen the links between these two institutions. Most people I am going to work with will be PhD researchers or post-docs and this is an exciting opportunity for me to engage with new ideas and establish connections and networks with the students that I have taught in the past, the friends I made along the way, and to widen the community. I will work alongside 250 people that all do different things so my biggest fear looking at the future is that I will be so excited that I won't focus on anything. I feel like a little kid who got to inherit Willy Wonka's chocolate factory.