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Losing the Plot in the Welfare Debate

04/04/2013 16:51 BST | Updated 04/06/2013 10:12 BST

I was waiting once for an appointment in the lobby of New York's W Hotel at Lexington and 51st, when along comes someone who provokes a little gawking from the hotel staff and immediate surrounds. I admit, I gawked, too.

It was actor Matt Damon, accompanied by a security man - I think. It's hard to tell, as the W hotels tend to have an ample sample of these men-in-black types with ear pieces, apparently part of the chain's cool, mysterious image. In any case, Damon walks out of the lobby and is about to step into a very large, conspicuously shiny black SUV when he gets stopped by a homeless man.

The gentleman is an older African-American; scruffy, shabby, dirty. Maybe smelly. It's summer and hot as well as very humid in New York. What unfolds next is hard to say exactly. I'm watching from inside the lobby. What I see, though, is mesmerising.

The Hollywood star and the homeless man start talking to each other. About what? No idea. Except that Damon, who previously seemed to be in a hurry, has now paused. The two men are chatting amicably. Within five minutes or so, however, it suddenly looks like things have heated up. There's animation, sign of some conflict. Waving hands, still more gesticulation. It looks like a serious argument. Geez. I'm seeing the New York Post headline, "Matt Damon Beats up Homeless Man".

By this point, as you see, I'm a little fixated. I look outside and observe that things are calming down. There are smiles now, laughter. Nearly a quarter of an hour has passed when the two men finally shake hands and say goodbye. Damon boards his luxury landcraft and flies off to who knows where. The homeless man ambles away, panhandling as he heads down the street.

I haven't the slightest idea what the two men were discussing. Or arguing over. Maybe Damon was busting his chops for begging. Or the down-and-out fellow was talking trash to Damon about his rather flashy, elephant-hunting vehicle. My favourite theory, and not at all implausible, is that I was witness to a vehement dispute about New York baseball. Who knows.

There's a popular definition of brand that goes like this: "brand is what they say about you when you're not in the room". Something similar applies to basic decency. No cameras. No publicity. As best I could tell, for Matt Damon in this episode there was no conceivable benefit, profit or advantage. And here's this mega-star hanging out with a street person.

So why this story?

Because Iain Duncan Smith says he could live on £53 a week. And some 400,000 petitioners are challenging him to do so. Because the Chancellor is counterattacking church leaders who oppose the government's reform plans. And church leaders and their allies will undoubtedly return fire with commentary about callousness on the part of the government. Because the Daily Mail has been screeching that a broken welfare system is to blame for the heinous murder of six children.

I tell the Matt Damon story because I think we're losing the plot.

I don't think anyone seriously denies that welfare reform of some sort is necessary, whether to reduce waste and fraud, to re-establish proper incentive for the unemployed to look for work, or to help restore order to public finances. Around these basic points there's consensus. The question is, however, reforms at what cost, and to whom?

I'm not an expert on the welfare system. But, over the course of the last year, I've had the very special privilege of meeting with the Dalai Lama several times to discuss poverty, growth and the future of free enterprise. He's not an economist. And you don't have to be Buddhist (I'm not) to appreciate his perspective.

The Dalai Lama thinks that empathy, the ability to stand in the other guy's shoes, and compassion, the openness and willingness to feel the other fellow's pain, are essential starting points for any such discussion. He argues that these things actually transform us. The Dalai Lama's approach stands in stark contrast to the posturing, preening and pontificating that dominates so much of the debate today. His thinking has little in common with the strident tones and sanctimonious declarations to which we're subjected daily. From all sides.

We need a deep breath.

Back to New York. I'm not sure whether the actor gave the homeless man a cent. I can't claim that I saw, let alone understood, everything that transpired on that sidewalk. But I'm pretty certain that Matt Damon is generous. And a mensch. We could use more of these.