A Christmas story

Todd Henderson —  7 January 2010

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.

6 responses to A Christmas story


    Firing Joe may not help anyone. Joe’s replacement may not be better, something about the job may be part of the cause of Joe’s sub-par performance, and Joe may go on to damage others in his next job.

    Sometimes, an employee’s performance can be turned around. It’s usually worth a try, before incurring the expense and risk of replacing the employee.


    There’s good work on the topic of reference-dependent sympathy by Deborah Small.


    I have a similar story from my time as a summer associate at a big New York firm. They wanted summers to do pro bono to get the firm’s annual pro bono hours covered. The theme de jour that year was representing residents of projects who were being removed for drug dealing. So, we had a weekly ritual of being placed in a room where the firm’s pro bono coordinators told us one sob eviction story after another to solicit volunteers for yet another anti-eviction case. And I kept thinking — if the family of this drug dealer moves out, what do you think will happen with its apartment? Will it magically disappear? Will Donald Trump move in there? Will it become the headquarters of the Republican party? No, it will promptly become a new home for another impoverished family, which waited for years to get a shot at a free housing and likely stretched itself to the limit. The family that’s moving out already consumed its share of free housing — it seems only fair to give the apartment to someone else, even if drugs were not involved! Meanwhile, because drugs *were* involved, the swap of families benefits other residents of that project — a drug dealer is out, the building is safer, others will think twice before dealing, and so on. Somehow, pro bono folks could not see any of that. The unseen did not exist for them.


    Your comment reminds me of a law school classmate of ours whose first reply to many classroom hypotheticals was a shrill and insistent, “But what about the children?!?!” Narrow or incomplete empathy comes in many guises (e.g., focusing on only the union employees, as in the comment above, or only folks below a certain age threshold or income level) and a tendency toward wider empathy has been known to give conservatives a bad reputation as cold and heartless. But I agree with you that taking the welfare of *all* stakeholders into account shows more, not less, empathy.


    So long as you define seen as ‘the person who hands you the check’ and the unseen as ‘the people who create the money,’ I think you’re spot on.


    I think you’re on to something here. I strongly support employee empowerment, but I think union supporters sometimes forget that it’s not all about the union. The NYT had a recent article on GM’s Lordstown plant which was beset by union strife:

    “In the 1970s, the factory’s 7,000 workers were so bitter toward management that thousands of Chevrolet Vegas rolled off the assembly line with slit upholstery and other damage. The hostility eventually led to a 22-day strike in 1972 that cost G.M. $150 million, and the term “Lordstown syndrome” became shorthand to describe rebellious American factory workers.

    Even when no intentional sabotage occurred, many Lordstown-built vehicles were of poor quality. G.M. had planned to abandon Lordstown, the site of many wildcat strikes, by 2002.”

    I don’t mean to cast the union as the sole villain here; I’m sure management earned its enmity. But who suffered from poor quality cars with slit upholstery?

    Here’s a link to the article, which has a more hopeful message: