For Jonathan Eaton, economics was a way to combine his interests in several areas, including math, history, and politics. His research has been equally varied, although it’s primarily been international in scope.
Eaton’s early work focused on sovereign default. It was a time when U.S. commercial banks were frequently lending to Latin American countries. “There was a concern by policymakers that these loans weren’t going to be repaid and their default might impose a threat to the U.S. financial system,” Eaton said.
Eaton and others wondered what the incentives were for getting these countries to pay back their loans. In doing research, they found those incentives largely nonexistent. Eventually many of those countries did default, and the subject has become a lively area of research, with similar situations taking place later in Argentina and Greece.
Eaton has since moved on from studying sovereign default to taking a look at technology transfer between countries.
“I got very interested in issues of growth. Trying to understand how that process works is a major question. We know growth is driven by new technology, but how does that technology trickle down? It trickles very quickly in some places and more slowly in others,” Eaton said.
Using different measures, including patents, to track technology flow, Eaton is trying to determine why some countries benefit more than others from the flow of technology and where certain types of technology might be headed.
Although Eaton’s research doesn’t favor one country or area of the world, he does spend much of his time looking at data from France. He just returned from a summer in Paris, where he used customs and tax data at the Centre de Recherche en Economie et Statistique.
Eaton’s other area of current research is understanding global commerce networks of buyers and sellers. It’s not yet a well-researched area, but Eaton said that gaining more knowledge on how firms become connected and what countries they are buying from and selling to can help economists better understand the effects of a macroeconomic shock, such as a shift in the exchange rate or other factors that might impede trade momentarily.
Eaton comes to Brown from Penn State, where he was a liberal arts research professor of economics. He’s also a research associate for the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Eaton graduated from Harvard with a degree in economics, before heading to Yale, where he earned a master’s and Ph.D. in economics. He’s the co-author of numerous scholarly articles and the recipient of many awards and honors, including the Frisch Medal in economics for a 2002 paper published in the journal Econometrica on technology, geography and trade.
Beyond teaching and his work as a visiting scholar at several international universities, Eaton has also served in many professional roles. He was an editor for the Journal of International Economics for nearly 10 years, and also served on the National Science Foundation’s advisory panel, an experience Eaton described as “wonderful.”
“I got to learn about research across a wide range of fields in economics. One thing I find in doing research is that it’s very useful to keep in touch with what other people are doing. You learn as much from people in other fields as from one’s own field,” Eaton said.
As new director of the William R. Rhodes Center for International Economics and Finance, Eaton hopes to lead the charge in growing that area of study at Brown. He’s already set up a visiting fellows program, which will bring economists from MIT and Yale to Brown this semester to interact with both faculty and students. Eaton said he’s also spoken with the Department of Economics about hiring more faculty for whom international economics is a specialty.
“Being part of building that field here is something that I’m very much looking forward to.”