Friday, June 5, 2009


This idea that empathy is a vital ingredient for public officials is not new. After my former 6th grade teacher became a doctor of psychology and political activist he wrote to me in 1962: "I am doing some research on empathy and its development and feel this to be the most significant single characteristic of man in terms of his present potential for survival and fulfillment."

Unlike our president, I do not want blind justice to decide cases of law based on empathy for plaintiff or defendant, but I’ll go with empathy elsewhere in government where it is in short supply. One reason for the empathy deficit is that rules and regulations have a built in conflict with empathy. We are all familiar with the postal worker or the IRS agent or the driver’s license clerk who says, “I’d like to help you, but I have to go by the book.”

That’s one reason Jefferson and Thoreau famously proposed that the best government is the least government. The less government, the more room for empathy.

Nevertheless, in the government, empathy has an important place. Nowhere is this truer than for the people who make the rules and regulations that once in place, will prevent the exercise of empathy. In other words, we need law makers and rule makers who either craft their work with an understanding of the people who will have to live by their rules, or whose empathy helps them understand when not to impose rules on the rest of us.

The most important component of empathy, of course, is experience—having walked in the other person’s shoes or at least very similar shoes. How ironic, then, that we find ourselves now governed largely by leaders who have spent all or almost all of their lives making and enforcing rules rather living the lives and doing the work governed by their rules.

Start at the top with the man who champions empathy even in the courtroom. President Obama, Empathizer-in-Chief, has no adult work experience outside an admittedly failed period in the non-profit sector and success as a politician. Should we be surprised that his closest advisers and aids are also without a foundation for empathy with Americans who don’t work for government?

Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner who supervises the IRS and plans for saving automakers, banks and their workers, has spent his adult life in places like the Federal Reserve and the International Monetary Fund. Having been caught with tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid taxes, however, he might have a basis for empathy with taxpayers—except he was rewarded with oversight of the IRS.

Larry Summers, who heads the President’s council of economic advisers, is the son of two economics professors who grew up to spend his entire career in economics departments and government. He may claim grounds for empathy with men who don’t understand women since he was drummed out of the Harvard presidency for suggesting the minds of men and women might be different.

Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke is a lawyer and former Governor of Washington who has been in state and federal government his entire life. He did propose firing a lot of government workers when the state was going bankrupt, so perhaps he can share the pain of employers who have to cut payrolls.

Hilda Solis, Secretary of Labor, describes herself as "a big believer that government, if done right, can do a lot to improve the quality of people's lives." To do government right requires a lot of empathy, but Solis has spent her entire life in government. Growing up in an immigrant family may give her the basis for empathy with new citizens. She has not demonstrated an empathy with American workers when she champions public funds to send illegal immigrants to college and works against measures to prevent illegal, untaxed, underpaid workers from taking American jobs.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has never been a farmer and after his law degree he spent almost his entire life in government. As governor of Iowa he did champion genetically modified crops and the interests of corporate agriculture. Even the huge majority of his campaign contributors came from government and government labor unions.

Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan has degrees in architecture and public administration. He has worked in non-profit housing organizations and government most of his career. As head of an affordable housing program for New York City he oversaw a massive plan for affordable housing but he never had to live in affordable housing or a government housing project. And we all know how affordable New York housing is.

For the agencies that most directly affect how people live and work and that determine how the economy affects people’s lives, President Obama has chosen people like himself. Like poor people who respect money, they respect empathy. What they do have is sympathy. That is to say, they feel sorry for the difficulties of average citizens, and they want to help. That’s very different from empathy that leads to understanding, and understanding that leads to wiser or less government interference.

This difference between empathy and sympathy is why so many Americans empathize with the dictum, “The most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the government and I'm here to help.” I feel empathy with those words every time I fill out a government form that has a notice that it complies with “The Paperwork Reduction Act.” (The Act has an entire web site devoted to its own regulations. )

Bill Clinton told Americans many times, “I feel your pain.” If he did, that was empathy. From government by people who lack the personal experience from which empathy comes, we can expect only pain. After which they will sympathize.

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