I’ve been accused many, many times – perhaps reasonably – of having no empathy.1 Of being robotic. Of having no emotion, no understanding of the plights of others.

I can see where the concern comes from.2 Admittedly, despite my history of extensive charitable work and my happy-to-help-a-friend-or-stranger-anytime demeanor, I’m not big on crying, candlelight vigils, or self pity, except to the extent each might leave an emotional void ripe for recruitment to the coming cult of Vigilantism.

But does my failure to weep at the sight of another’s suffering really suggest that I’m incapable of empathy? Why don’t I feel a twinge of remorse when I say “no” to the checkout lady asking me to donate a dollar to this week’s tragedy? Why don’t I cry at the sight of slow-motion puppies set to Sarah McLachlan’s Angel? Am I a monster? Is this Vigilante mask just an extremely handsome cover for my serial killings?

Nah. I just prefer to practice what I like to call practical empathy.

Empathy is, generally, the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. It’s also super useful, for both cooperative purposes and purely selfish purposes. Working together is easier when you understand each other, and getting what you want from another person is aided tremendously by understanding that person’s feelings.

Notice there’s no base requirement within the definition of empathy to produce tears. There’s no requirement to accept another’s feelings as rational, desirable, or based on any accurate or relevant information whatsoever. One can understand a feeling and even sympathize without mirroring it – and in fact, doing so usually leads to a more beneficial interaction for both parties.

Practical empathy shares the “understanding” part the basic definition of empathy. But it goes a few steps further. Practical empathy operates on three levels: Recognition, Analysis, and Action.

Demonstrating practical empathy through: Zombies (of debt)

To illustrate how Recognition, Analysis, and Action work, let’s look at this hilarious, awesome, and as usual slightly misleading John Oliver segment about debt buying, debt collection, and zombie debt:

Recognition

When I saw this clip, I didn’t have the emotional, knee-jerk reaction that John probably hoped for. I didn’t feel an urge to help each of these poor debtors by playing Robin Hood.3 (I sort of wanted to punch the “call the boss” guy in the face,4 but that was more about his desire to show off for his friend with the dumb-bully laugh than anything else.) Rather, the segment reminded me of my time as a judicial law clerk.

Working for the court, I wrote dozens of opinions granting judgment against debtors who had collectible debt. I didn’t write a single judgment against a party who had zombie debt – nor would any other court. But John’s goal wasn’t to help you recognize that illegal harassment of debtors who are immune from collection is different than feeling that a system that enables easy debt-buying is unjust: he just wanted to focus on how easy it is to buy debt. In other words, he wanted to present to you two options: (1) debt is freely available in an open market, or (2) it isn’t, and/or it is highly regulated. And he wanted you to conflate the illegal activity with free activity so you would feel as though an open debt market is the problem. It’s a taste of the close enough logical fallacy that would make the Bush Doctrine Villain proud.

Some of the judgments in my cases were against clear deadbeats who had no intention of paying any debts they took on. Some were against well-meaning people who found themselves in a jam. Despite any feeling of sadness for the latter group – and I did have those, particularly where the cause of default was outside of the debtor’s control – I did not have any concern for the system that enforced their obligations against them. And recognizing that distinction is half the battle to using practical empathy.

Analysis

John was talking about debt buying, which is what happens when a lender decides that it isn’t worth the effort to collect on a debt. So, it sells the debt cheaply to someone else who may then try to collect it. The buyer of the debt can have quite a windfall if it is able collect the entire debt without trouble – but it’s not always the case that they are able to do so.5 They might recover part or none of the debt. The original lender gets a great deal because it gets at least a little bit of its money back, rather than giving up on it or spending a lot of money for enforcement of its contract with the debtor; the buyer of the debt gets a bit of a gamble with a big potential return for little effort.

This system isn’t a problem: Capitalism depends on debts being paid. Otherwise, value is wasted rather than continually grown through the effective allocation of capital. Without this market for debt, it’s a bigger risk for a lender to loan money, so the lender will raise the bar for who can get a loan – and raise interest rates on all of us.

 

This has nothing to do with interest rates and risk. But it is roughly illustrative of how closely correlated the two are. And it lets me refer you to one of my favorite places on the web, Spurious Correlations!

 

Now, sometimes, there are bad apples in this market – folks who break laws and use unseemly and dishonest tactics to collect on the debts they have purchased. (See, e.g., Punchable-Face Man above.) But, far more often, this transaction involving the sale of debt is a benefit to everyone but the debtor, to whom it is neutral. The debtor owes either way, so why should he care who he pays?

Now as I alluded to earlier, I wrote dozens of opinions against debtors. On the other hand, I recall only once writing an opinion rejecting a lender’s effort to collect. And it was simply because the lender had asked for summary judgment6 and the debtor had alleged some magic words in defense that created a factual dispute that would have to be resolved at a trial. Judgment was entered against that debtor later, when the debtor was proven to be full of shit…as expected.

Did I feel bad every time? Not at all. These borrowers agreed to terms; they failed to satisfy those terms. The debt collector – whether the original lender or someone who bought the debt – had a right to the money they lent on the terms upon which they lent it or bought it. You need to know and analyze these kinds of facts before acting on any sad story, if you truly want to exercise your empathy to the fullest. (And if you want to avoid being conned.)

Action

John got this one right. He felt there was a wrong in the world: Unscrupulous debt collectors could buy any debt – even debt beyond legal collection – and harass the debtor until he or she pays. And so he bought some debt, forgave it, and publicized the shit out of the problem.

Self-serving? Sure. But effective at directing attention to a real problem? In the immortal words of Sarah Palin, you betcha. And this is exactly the kind of vision that he couldn’t have had through the tear-soaked eyes of the “most empathetic” among us, and the kind of action that can’t take place if you’re too busy planning your next Facebook profile pic overlay for every problem.

When I see an injustice, I write about it. Sometimes it’s a memo or a brief on behalf of a client’s case on appeal. Sometimes it’s a blog post on I, Vigilante. Either way, I write.

Is the blog self-serving? As a cathartic outlet for frustration, a possible source of income, and a possible source of admiring masses of unquestioning lemming followers – sure. Is it effective? Probably not. But my employment activities correct more than enough injustices to satisfy my inner Vigilante.

Why Practical Empathy Matters (and how it makes you rich)

Practical empathy is incredibly relevant to personal finance. A lot of financial suffering occurs where people misuse their own money. Whether it’s unleashing the Hulk against themselves or simply borrowing too much because they don’t know that life is a round of golf, people tend to dig their own graves even when given the opportunity to succeed.

Millionaires aren’t rare because of some magical mystery to money-making a-la The Secret. They aren’t rare due to a conspiracy of the wealthy families of the world. They aren’t rare because of the nobility of being poor, or the refusal of the poor to submit to the tactics necessary to become rich. They are rare because we often get in our own way.

Applying practical empathy to your everyday life helps you focus your energy and realize what’s really in your control. It helps you make money, rather than thinking of excuses as to why making money is impossible.

 

Maybe it’s self-serving, but I think practical empathy takes courage. Lots of it. It has led me to many situations where I’ve been insulted or ostracized by those closest to me. I’ve endured many a lecture and then silent treatment because of it.

But it’s always temporary.

I’ve learned that empathy is easy and common. Everyone feels for a victim – it’s human nature. But practical empathy is a lot like Captain America’s classic, hero-instructive quote:

Captain America: No, you move.

 

  1. If you’re reading this and you know my secret identity, please be aware that this is not a response to any particular event. If you know of my identity, you’re probably one of the people I trust and care about most. Or you’re someone who it would have been impossible to hide this from because you spend a lot of time in close contact with me. Either way…lucky you!
  2. Which, ironically, is an exercise in empathy!
  3. People love to misuse the Robin Hood myth as a justification for taking from the rich and giving to the poor. But they forget the key detail about the story: Robin Hood was taking from those who had not earned value – rich who took by force – and returning to those who had earned the value. Not just taking from haves for the benefit of the have-nots.
  4. 7:37, for those looking for a shortcut.
  5. And sometimes they take drastic, unsavory, or even illegal measures to collect. To the extent this bothers John, I agree!
  6. Basically, an order to be entered after pleadings and before a trial, where there are no facts in dispute that would determine the outcome of the case.

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