A Bold Instance of Political Imagination and Rule Breaking

STOCKHOLM — The #metoo movement reached Sweden last week in what is, by now, altogether familiar fashion. Dagens Nyheter, Sweden’s leading newspaper, reported Tuesday that eighteen women had complained of having been assaulted, raped, or otherwise molested over the years by a leading figure of Sweden’s literary establishment. As Agence France-Press reported, the celebrity was not named in print, out of respect for Sweden’s stringent libel laws.

But since the accused was said to be proprietor of an exclusive literary salon, married to a writer with “close links” to the Swedish Academy, and the eighteen- member body that awards the Nobel Prize in Literature, there was little doubt as to his identity.  That he was as said to have routinely tipped to favored friends what he learned from his wife about the committee’s selection in advance of the news only deepened the embarrassment.

I was rescued.  For weeks I had been hoping to find a way to write about Kenneth Shepsle’s new book, Rule Breaking and Political Imagination (Chicago, 2017), but I was stymied. Shepsle, of Harvard University, is a leading figure in the university-based study of political life, perhaps the most familiar to those acquainted with the subject, by dint of his introductory text, Analyzing Politics, Rationality, Behavior, and Institutions (Norton, 2010). Since it first appeared in 1997, Shepsle’s book has been the point of entry through which many of the smartest college students begin their studies of governance. To describe this sort of influence in a certain sphere was the reason Economic Principals was invented, back in newspaper days.

Introducing the sea change that turned “government” into “political science” in the years after World War II — from “describing” to “explaining,” from “judging” to “analyzing,” as Shepsle puts it – Analyzing Politics begins, “It isn’t rocket science but…”  There follow a series of chapters on how to build formal models of familiar topics once treated almost entirely by measurement and narrative prose: spatial models of majority rule; game-theoretic models of strategic behavior, voting methods, and electoral systems; equilibrium models of cooperation, collective action, and the economics of public goods.

With disarming modesty, Shepsle demonstrated the value to be had in using stripped-down models of persons engaged in the kind of optimizing decisions that came to be described as “rational choice” – the same sort of gains he wrote, in understanding that came from deliberately simplifying such complicated things as planets as spheres, he wrote. In Rule Breaking and Political Imagination, Shepsle recalls “the schizophrenia many of my generation felt in our youth – modelers and methodologist by day but qualitative scholars of substance and history by night.”  The predicament came to a head for him, he writes, when at a conference on formal history

[A] prominent economist dismissed the richness of legislative politics with the observation that we didn’t need much history or description when armed with the median voter theorem and other principles in the formal theory tool kit.

Not all at once, but gradually, and in the company of many others, Shepsle set out to build bridges between his enthusiasm for the spare assumptions of rational-choice theory and what was known of the rich world of law and government in practice.  By the early ’90s, he was in the front ranks of what came to be known as “the new institutionalism.” The movement was recognized by the awards of Nobel Prizes in Economic Sciences to Ronald Coase, in 1991, and Douglas North (and Robert Fogel), in 1993.

Thus in the last third of Analyzing Politics, Shepsle re-introduced the features of the political landscape that had been largely eclipsed as rational-choice methods swept the field in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s — legislatures, bureaucracies, courts and judges, cabinets, parliamentary governments, and so on. These institutions had evolved over the centuries to limit and channel the choices that those “rational actors” made, he wrote.  He included the concept he developed, with Barry Weingast, of Stanford University, and Michael Laver, of New York University, of “structure-induced equilibrium.”

Since the ’90s, institutions of all sorts have been a topic of great interest in economics – legal, scientific, educational, not to mention financial and corporate. (So have norms, meaning the formal understandings that govern the behavior of members of a society, but culture is a topic for another day.) The rules governing institutions have come to be seen as creations of rational choice themselves – either imposed by history or evolving as a matter of collective action, but in any event, existing to restrict the choices of individual actors.

But what happens when the rules don’t hem in the most forceful actors?  That is the question Shepsle asks in Rule Breaking and Political Imagination. No one interested in the news can fail to be intrigued by the central proposition in his new book. As he puts it, “Institutions do create channels through which behavior flows, but occasionally the banks defining the channels are breached.”   These transformative moments occur when leaders exercise political imagination, or break the rules, or, sometimes both.

After searching the book off and on for several weeks, though, I despaired of pulling out one of the many stories he tells as sufficiently topical to make a weekly. One of the epigraphs with which the book begins is from the Dalai Lama: “Know the rules well so you can break them effectively.”  Even with the different tax bills passed by the Senate and the House headed for a conference to resolve their crucial differences, too much detail is involved in Shepsle’s stories, which are aimed at the most promising students, to bring them to bear for interested laypersons.

The invention of the post-cloture filibuster?  Techniques for stealing elections?  Finagling the rules to qualify for membership in the European Monetary Union?  King David as a rule breaker in the Bible?  Julius Caesar flouting the law by marching his army into Rome? (The last story, Shepsle notes, did make a great topic for the first season of HBO’s Rome.)

In Stockholm, it finally occurred to me that a vivid example of political imagination and rule-breaking was right in front of my eyes.  Shepsle’s other epigraph, “What’s a constitution among friends?” struck a chord, It is attributed to Boss Plunkitt, of Tammany Hall. But something like its sentiments might have been conveyed to movie mogul Harvey Weinstein by the publisher of The New York Times on the eve of the first of his newspaper’s epic stories about the Hollywood producer’s methodical abuse of women, if the heavy advertiser had complained.

Earlier, the Times had pilloried Fox News chairman Roger Ailes and star commentator Bill O’Reilly for similar patterns of exploitation and abuse, coupled with the plentiful application of money and power to silence their victims.  Both were subsequently dismissed, but the firings had relatively little impact, presumably because Fox News was seen as the Times’s ideological foe.

In tackling Weinstein, the Times was making an example of one of its own – not only a longstanding film-making force in New York, often a hero to Times critics, but a man in broad and deep sympathy with the Times’s most deeply held convictions.  Weinstein was a liberal whose first attempt to atone for misdeeds was to promise to pump up his efforts on behalf of gun control.

To be sure, no constitution exists by which the media is bound. Instead an immensely intricate body of rules governing conduct and discourse grew up over the century or so since the first Hollywood scandals began to find a home in the tabloid press. Until the first of the cycle of stories began about patterns of sexual exploitation of the powerless by the powerful – in the taste-making industries of Hollywood, Washington, New York, and, last week, Stockholm – what Shepsle named a “structure induced equilibrium” obtained. One such situation was described in detail by five Times reporters last week in Weinstein’s Complicity Machine. Many others exist. And while newspapers and other media are not among the institutions that theorists have studied in the past, Matthew Gentzkow, of Stanford University, and others, are beginning to change that.

e Times’s coverage stands out as a bold act of both political imagination and, a little less obviously, rule breaking.  The playbook was pioneered by Martin Baron, then editor of The Boston Globe (a New York Times Company subsidiary at the time), in that newspaper’s coverage of tolerance of pedophile priests by the Roman Catholic Church. Today Baron is editor of The Washington Post.

That story, too, showed imagination and broke some tacit rules and went around the world, destroying in the process the ambitions of Boston Cardinal Bernard Law to become the first American Pope.  This one, as Times editors surely understood, is affecting the fortunes not just of Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) or Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, but those of President Trump for all the rest of time as well.

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