Review of Who Gets What: Fair Compensation after Tragedy and Financial Upheaval by Kenneth R. Feinberg

Kenneth Feinberg at the Miller Center ForumMoney is the medium of exchange, and it is the means by which victims in the civil justice system are made “whole.”  Even those who everyday speak of the “value” of injuries and cases (including lawyers, mediators, arbitrators and adjustors) must pause sometimes and find this strange.  Pain and loss seem incommensurable such that any monetary “value” put on them can only be arbitrary.  And yet how else might victims be made whole, if not with money?

Kenneth Feinberg has probably had more opportunities to ponder these questions than any of us.  He has had a remarkable career as an arbitrator in the aftermath of terrible and large-scale crises.  In 1984 he was appointed special master of the settlement that ended the class action suit of 250,000 Vietnam veterans against the manufacturers of the defoliant Agent Orange.  Years later he acted as head of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund and was the target of considerable anger and frustration, when, as was certainly inevitable, there was disagreement over whom should be compensated and what compensation would be fair.  Either of these positions would have given Feinberg a abundance of experience and material for reflection.  Yet these two positions do not exhaust his experience.  He also managed the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund (for victims of the mass shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007); he was appointed by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to determine executive pay for companies that benefited from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP); and he administered BP’s Gulf Coast Claims Fund in the aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill.

In Who Gets What Feinberg tells us how he came to be seen as the go-to person for resolving complex public legal disputes.  Then he reflects on his major appointments: The legal framework in which he worked and how that framework constrained him, how he arrived at decisions, and what he learned from each assignment.  (I have not read his earlier book, What is Life Worth? devoted to his tenure as special master of the September 11th Fund).  Although Feinberg has no formal training in alternative dispute resolution, his methods will be familiar to those who do.  He values his neutrality and the public perception of that neutrality.  A former aid to Senator Edward Kennedy, Feinberg was appointed to the September 11th Fund by the Bush administration, and then to the TARP assignment and the Gulf Coast Fund by the Obama administration.  He stresses the importance of listening and of making disputants feel heard.  In each assignment, Feinberg made considerable efforts to ensure that anyone who would be effected by his decisions had an opportunity to meet with him and plead their case. And when disputants are reluctant to settle their claims, Feinberg knows the issues well enough to be effective reality tester.  (He asks the lawyer of a retiring CEO if he wants his client “dragged before Congress to justify his salary as he departs?” when the lawyer has balked at accepting Feinberg’s recommendations.)  Feinberg also recognizes, as do all good mediators, that money also has symbolic value and that financial compensation is about more than a number of dollars.  This lesson is impressed upon him a number of times in his career, whether he is dealing with relatively poor Vietnam war veterans, or with wealthy Wall Street Executives (who, not surprisingly, give him his biggest headaches.)

Although Feinberg tells us something of his early life and career, I found that gained little sense of his personality though the book.  He writes well and clearly, if with little pizzazz.  Feinberg has had a unique and fascinating career as a mediator and arbitrator, and I think that anyone interested in public conflict or in alternative dispute resolution, or even in recent American history, will find the book of interest.