August 26, 2008
Rankings, Accounting, and Gaming
Posted by Jeff Lipshaw
Fresh off the front page Wall Street Journal article this morning, friends Larry Ribstein and Nancy Rapoport nail the analogy between law deans gaming the USNWR rankings and accountants massaging the numbers to meet the quarterly estimates, so permit me a moment of "I told you so" when I see this quote:
As for the charge of “gaming” the system, Phillip Closius, former Toledo dean, who successfully used the part-time strategy to improve the school’s ranking, says:
U.S. News is not a moral code, it's a set of seriously flawed rules of a magazine, and I follow the rules...without hiding anything.
My discussion of the resemblance between models like USNWR rankings, and games like football or chess is posted on SSRN and will be coming out in this volume of the Cleveland State Law Review. The piece is Models and Games: The Difference Between Explanation and Understanding for Lawyers and Ethicists. Here is the abstract. Enjoy.
There is value for lawyers in thinking about constructs of rules as games, on one hand, or models, on the other. Games are real in a way models are not. Games have thingness - an independent reality - and they can be played. Models have aboutness - they map onto something else that is real for the sake of simplification and explanation. But models and games are not as dichotomous as the preceding claim makes them out to be. Sometimes models look just like games, and sometimes games can serve as models. Because models look like games, we may come to believe they are real - that the models have thingness rather than aboutness. People are prone to think some of the models they deal in all the time are real, like games, and perhaps even more real than the reality the models are supposed to represent. When that happens unreflectively in business, ethical and legal problems can ensue.
There is also a relationship between games and models as a way of thinking, and the position of the thinker as modeler, game creator, or game player. To engage in any of those acts is to use the legally trained mind to make sense of what is going on, and to act on it. But there are different ways of making sense, either by explaining or understanding, and it is not common in legal education to undertake the exercise of thinking about thinking, or theorizing about theory. I explore the consequence of confusing games and models in two contexts, financial accounting and contract interpretation, and consider the possibility of co-optation from models into games and vice versa. I conclude that practicing lawyers (or law professors) need to think about thinking itself or face the possibility of being misled by precisely the same context facing their clients. In short, lawyers need to be pragmatic ontologists.
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