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Wednesday, July 15, 2015

"We Begin with the Assumption that Contracts Matter...."

GULATI 0375292One of my reads this summer, because it's relevant to my piece on "lexical opportunism," has been a fascinating little book by Mitu Gulati (Duke, left) and Robert Scott (Columbia, right), The 3 1/2 Minute Transaction: Boilerplate and the Limits of Contract Design (Chicago, 2012). The subject matter is a puzzler: why did sophisticated law firms keep including a particular contract provision (the "pari passu" clause) in sovereign debt agreements when (a) almost nobody could present a credible explanation of its purpose, and (b) a highly publicized case affirmed an interpretation of the clause that threatened to undermine all attempts to restructure sovereign debt? Scott new 9-09

Let me start with words of praise. This is a good read and good work. Anybody seriously looking at issues in contract theory ought to be reading it. But it's refreshing to read the results of an academic, empirical piece where the authors are so frank about their bemusement and their inability to come up with a satisfying explanatory theory. Professors Gulati and Scott come at the problem with a neoclassical economic perspective, and find that "these hard-nosed Wall Street lawyers told us stores about rituals, talismans, alchemy, the search for the Holy Grail, and Zeus." (5)  It's pretty clear 173 pages later they'd agree that the conclusion - sticky boilerplate and herd behavior - is a whimper rather than a bang.

I confess that Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged were staples of my intellectual youth. I've since come to terms with some of the hokum and inherent contradictions in the philosophy (she hated Kant, and I kind of know why - her response to the limits of reason was to opt for an orthodoxy of logic, including the foundational posits that logic requires), but many of her bon mots come back to me at opportune times.  The apropos quote here is from Francisco d'Anconia to Dagny Taggart: "Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think that you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong."

So.... One of the fundamental puzzles for Gulati and Scott is why sovereigns incur any costs toward lowering the cost of capital by way of contract design, and yet economists seem to think that contract design is irrelevant. The bridge from that to their assessment begins as follows: "In any case, as contracts scholars, we begin with the assumption that contracts matter." (23)

That bothers me.  Let's try these variants.  "As philosophers, we begin with the assumption that metaphysics matter." "As human anatomy scholars, we begin with the assumption that appendixes matter." "As physicists, we begin with the assumption that phlogiston matters." What's going on is a demonstration of the subtle ways in which descriptive theory has a normative component, even if the normative element is as basic as something like "this activity should be amenable to explanation by way of theory." If you start with neo-classical welfare-maximizing as the default in human decision-making - i.e., ceteris paribus, that's how the world ought to operate - no wonder it's a puzzle when it doesn't turn out to work that way. (I'm not sure if old Ayn ever got to the part of the Critique of Pure Reason that works through this - it's buried in an Appendix to the Transcendental Dialectic, beginning at pages A643/B671.)

If we check our premises, maybe contracts don't matter.

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw on July 15, 2015 at 07:44 AM in Article Spotlight, Books, Lipshaw, Science | Permalink


I'm sure a political scientist would add to your list of dubiosities, "As lawyers, we begin with the assumption that doctrine matters."

Posted by: WG | Jul 15, 2015 3:09:54 PM

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