The Profile Dossier: Kenneth Feinberg, the Master of Disaster
What’s a life worth?
That’s the question Kenneth Feinberg has been forced to answer as a mediator in nearly all of America's crises. His job is to decide who receives compensation — and how much they should get — for their suffering. It’s not easy being the person America turns to in the wake of our worst catastrophes.
People call Feinberg “the master of disaster” because his career is just one very long list of tragedies.
— The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks
— The Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings
— The Boston Marathon bombings
— The BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster
— The Las Vegas concert massacre
As the person in charge of overseeing compensation funds and figuring out who deserves payment, he’s no stranger to dealing with calamity. Now, the U.S. government may be turning to Feinberg for help once again.
In the wake of the coronavirus, Feinberg says he’s already had initial talks about creating a virus victim compensation fund. Although few details have emerged about the potential fund, Feinberg has some words of advice. “You better get the money out fast, because talk is cheap,” he advises. “And the effort better be bipartisan and apolitical.”
(Photo credit: Ryan Pfluger)
On determining the value of a life: How do you compensate someone for their loss, pain, and suffering? How do you decide who gets what? And most importantly, why compensate at all? In his book, Who Gets What, Feinberg discusses the factors that go into each decision, and why he is the figure that holds the power to decide how much a life is worth.
On becoming America’s crisis mediator: In this 2016 profile, Feinberg is portrayed as the titan Atlas holding up the planet. The September 11 tragedy solidified his reputation as “the master of disaster,” when the Department of Justice granted him “sweeping powers” to oversee an $11 billion pot of taxpayer money to compensate 9/11 victims. Here’s how he met the challenge.
On picking up the pieces: This Esquire profile explores the emotional ramifications that come with doing this sort of work. Feinberg explains that the only way he knows how to unburden himself from the trauma of the world is by listening to endless loops of opera. He describes opera as "the height of our civilization.” It reminds Feinberg that although humans are capable of war, murder, and destruction, they are also capable of creating magic, like the beautiful sounds of classical music.
On becoming a tragedy expert: In this ‘Without Fail’ podcast episode, Feinberg details the complexities of the job. In the days after September 11th, he made a promise to the public: “My door is open to any 9/11 survivor who wants to meet with me in private.” He’ll never forget his very first meeting, which is bound to give you goosebumps. “You think you’re ready for anything,” he says. “And you’re not.” I highly recommend listening to this one.
On the importance of listening: Feinberg says his biggest mistake was when he told a father who lost his daughter during 9/11, “I know exactly how you feel.” He looked at Feinberg, and said, “Mr. Feinberg, you're trying to do your best. Don't you ever tell me you know how I feel.” In moments of tragedy, his role is to listen to the families recount their grief and love for the ones they’ve lost. That’s the hardest part of the job, he says.
On living in the present: Feinberg’s job has completely transformed his outlook on life.“What I do is extremely debilitating,” he says. “You can’t sleep.” He’s had to confront the fact that life isn’t fair, and things don’t happen on your timeline. “Don’t map out your future too far because life has a way of changing the rules,” Feinberg says.
On the unfair nature of life: In establishing the 9/11 victim compensation fund, Congress specified that no funds could be doled out for mental damage. There were people who told Feinberg they miraculously escaped from the World Trade Center without a physical scratch, but they had mental scars that plunged them into a deep depression. “They were ineligible by law,” Feinberg says. “Fairness? Forget it.” American values, he says, get called into question every time such a fund is established because who’s to decide what type of suffering merits compensation?
On unconventional responses to unique catastrophes: In this lecture at Stanford, Feinberg shares stories and experiences from his long career as America’s tragedy expert. He explains how the compensation plans are designed, what fuels anger in the victims he meets, and why money in the United States has historically served as a placeholder for moral responsibility.
TECHNIQUES TO TRY.
Find a way to self-soothe: Feinberg balances the worst of humanity by day with the best of humanity by night. “You go outside, you walk around the block, and you watch little kids playing in a playground, laughing and happy,” he says. “You buy an ice cream cone, sit on a bench in the park, and you try and clear your head. And at night, before you go to bed, you listen to classical music … the height of civilization.” If your days are filled with difficult conversations and traumatic experiences, your nights could be an opportunity to decompress. Find an activity that absorbs you in a way that draws your attention away from worry.
Don’t plan too far ahead: Feinberg has said that 9/11 turned him into a different person. “In doing what I did, you become a bit more fatalistic about planning your future,” he says. He often thinks about the victims who left their homes that morning, saying goodbye to loved ones, and never seeing them again. Now, he tells students not to plan more than two years out. “And even there, you’re stretching it,” he says.
Let people vent: For the 9/11 compensation fund, Feinberg met with 950 victims in person, with eight to 10 meetings per day. “You become a very good listener, because there’s very little you can say that will help,” he says. It’s better just be quiet and let people talk.” Oftentimes, the people suffering from trauma don’t need advice. They need you to listen.
QUOTES TO REMEMBER.
“I was much more a believer that I can chart my own destiny, basically have control over the future. It doesn’t work that way. You think you can, but life has a way of throwing curveballs.”
"Don't ask one person to act like Solomon and try to calculate the value of lives. To be judge, jury, accountant, lawyer, rabbi, etc., is very, very difficult."
“It’s not greed, but grief.”
“The toughest part in all of this is not calculating the damages. It’s the emotions you confront when you sit one-on-one with people who have suffered a tremendous loss. That is what takes its toll.”
“I've come to realize in a very stark way how difficult it is to choose your destiny. Life is not linear.”
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