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A Christmas story

The best gift I got this Christmas – other than my collection of DVDs about the Pittsburgh Steelers six Super Bowl titles – was the chance to overhear a story that beautifully captures what I think is the biggest obstacle to sensible policy making at all levels. I was at a party, attired in snowman corduroy pants and martini in hand, when I overheard two friends talking.

First, the set up: A friend of mine, call her Debbie, works in the health care industry, and was having trouble with the performance of a colleague, call him Joe. Joe is a nurse, and he was providing substandard care and doing an overall lousy job the days they worked together. One morning, Joe came to Debbie and told her how grateful he was for his job this holiday season since most of his family had been laid off. Joe broke down crying, saying that he was so lucky that he was going to be able to pay for Christmas for the family.

Sometime later that same day, Debbie’s boss asked her whether she would like to work full time with Joe or if they should fire Joe and get a replacement. Debbie did not know what to do, so she told her boss she would get back to him soon. Debbie felt terrible for Joe, but was dissatisfied with his work and dreaded working with him in the future.

Debbie asked her friend Rene for advice. (Here is where I enter the scene.) Rene’s reaction surprised Debbie. “Fire Joe,” she said coldly. Shocked, Debbie told Rene more detail about the fragile position of Joe’s family and how much the job meant to him.

“Are you serious? How can I fire him at Christmas? Don’t you feel sorry for Joe? What about his kids and his family?” Debbie screeched.

“Sure, I feel sorry for Joe,” said Rene, “but what about all of the other people in this story, don’t you feel sorry for them?”

“What other people?” Debbie replied.

“Well, there are all of the patients that Joe treats. Aren’t they worse off if you keep Joe? And what about the other more talented nurses who are looking for work but can’t get a job in this economy? What about their families and their Christmases? I could go on. The other employees at the hospital, the investors of the hospital, and the community are all worse off with Joe working there than they would be if he were replaced. Why do you care more about Joe than all of his patients and every one else who has a stake in the hospital?”

I think Debbie came around by the end of the conversation, but I can’t be sure. The interesting thing is how Debbie’s empathy was leading her astray. Her problem wasn’t that she cared about others but that she did not care about all the others in the story. Narrow empathy, that is, empathy only for the salient or, in the words of French economist Frédéric Bastiat, the seen, is incomplete empathy. To care completely, that is, to care about both the seen (Joe) and the unseen (all other stakeholders in the situation), is a start toward making a rational and morally correct decision.

Too often decision makers, be they private individuals, corporate chiefs, government bureaucrats, or politicians, make decisions based on the seen and ignore the unseen. That Debbie has empathy for Joe can be a good thing if properly channeled and cabined by considerations of the unseen. That Rene thinks Joe should be fired doesn’t maker her a villain or zealot, but simply caring about the full consequences of a particular action.

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