The rich, summed up: Nepotism, cronyism, narcissism

The New York Times' Andrew Ross Sorkin defends corrupt hiring practices

Published August 21, 2013 2:30PM (EDT)

Andrew Ross Sorkin        (AP/Chris Pizzello)
Andrew Ross Sorkin (AP/Chris Pizzello)

Here's what we know about the rich: They have a lot more money than everyone else, and they have more money than everyone else by a larger margin than they used to. Why is that? They like to tell themselves it's because they are morally and intellectually superior, but there is not a whole lot of evidence to back that up. People usually end up rich because they were born or raised with certain environmental advantages. One of the biggest advantages you can be born with, these days, is rich parents. And one of the biggest advantages rich parents pass on to their offspring -- let's say the second-biggest, after "money" -- is the sense of entitlement necessary for an entirely unaccomplished rich person to coast through life without constantly feeling crippling guilt.

It shouldn't be a surprise, in other words, that rich people -- specifically rich young college-age Americans -- exhibit narcissistic tendencies, as a new study says. Let's go to the mass media summary of this new social sciences research:

In five different experiments involving several hundred undergraduates and 100 adults recruited from online communities, the researchers found higher levels of both narcissism and entitlement among those of higher income and social class.

The study, which was published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, showed that, when asked to visually depict themselves as circles, with size indicating relative importance, richer people picked larger circles for themselves and smaller ones for others. Another experiment found that they also looked in the mirror more frequently.

The wealthier participants were also more likely to agree with statements such as “I honestly feel I’m just more deserving than other people” and place themselves higher on a self-assessed “class ladder” that indicated increasing levels of income, education and job prestige.

To explore [the relationship between wealth and narcissism] further, the researchers also asked the college students in one experiment to report the educational attainment and annual income of their parents. Those with more highly educated and wealthier parents remained higher in their self-reported entitlement and narcissistic characteristics. “That would suggest that it’s not just [that] people who feel entitled are more likely to become wealthy,” says [psychologist Paul] Piff. Wealth, in other words, may breed narcissistic tendencies — and wealthy people justify their excess by convincing themselves that they are more deserving of it.

For some reason, both Time magazine and an academic psychologist were surprised by this result, with Time's Maia Szalavitz referring to "the conventional wisdom that the more people have, the more they appreciate their obligations to give back to others," and the psychologist referring to "this idea" that I don't think is as prevalent as he suggests:

“There’s this idea that the more you have, the less entitled and more grateful you feel— and the less you have, the more you feel you deserve. That’s not what we find,” says author Paul Piff, a psychologist at the University of California in Berkeley.

Where's this idea? Which country and era have you guys been living in? The rich: They think they deserve it and you don't. Rich people basically say this out loud, in public, constantly, these days.

Meanwhile! Business Insider, in one of its "ONE CHART" posts, posts ONE CHART showing how wealth perpetuates itself. The chart comes from economist Miles Corak, and it shows "the likelihood that a son at some point in their life works for the same firm that their father once worked for across various income levels." You will likely not be shocked to learn that the chart is basically a straight line until you get to the top-most earning percentile, at which point it jumps to a very high number. The chart covers Canada and Denmark, and Canada has much more nepotism than Denmark. I think it would be reasonable to infer that the U.S. is more like Canada than Denmark.

The rich get jobs through family connections. What else are these kids supposed to do? After you've gone to whatever elite university your father attended, thanks to admissions offices that are still very much comfortable taking that into consideration, getting a job at whatever firm he worked at is only natural.

And here comes Andrew Ross Sorkin, the superstar New York Times finance reporter behind "Too Big to Fail," with a "DealBook" column about how it is no big deal that this happens. Sorkin's column isn't strictly about direct nepotism in the hiring process, but about the hiring of the children of all varieties of rich people by giant financial firms. The "news hook" is the SEC investigation of JPMorgan Chase for hiring the children of powerful Chinese officials, including the son of a former bank regulator and the daughter of a railway official already suspected of accepting bribes. The SEC calls these hires bribery. Sorkin calls them just how things work on Wall Street.

But hiring the sons and daughters of powerful executives and politicians is hardly just the province of banks doing business in China: it has been a time-tested practice here in the United States.

“This has been happening for thousands of years,” said Michael J. Driscoll, a former senior trader at Bear Stearns who now teaches at Adelphi University. “I have two sons myself, and one is an intern at a major firm. This goes on all the time.”

Driscoll is right, it has been happening for thousands of years. The only difference is that up until pretty recently it was referred to as "aristocracy" instead of "free market capitalism."

Here are some great lines from this column:

  • “It’s like chicken soup. It can’t hurt.”
  • They are all quite bright and well educated.
  • But more likely they thought he was a qualified recruit who, given his upbringing, had a golden Rolodex.
  • But Ms. Clinton, a Stanford graduate who is considered intelligent by virtually everyone who has spent time with her, had as genuine a claim on those jobs as anyone else graduating the year she did.

And finally, the point at which Sorkin fully and totally endorses the self-justifications of the super-rich:

And then there is Robert Rubin’s son Jamie, who worked at the Federal Communications Commission and at Allen & Company, the boutique bank, while his father was part of the Clinton administration. I’ve known Jamie for years and he, too, probably would have landed prominent posts even without his name. In some cases, some of these children will tell you that they try to work harder than others at their jobs, just to prove that they earned the position.

He's really smart! He works harder than someone without his advantages! It's all merit!

Sorkin doesn't seem to understand -- or he doesn't care, I guess -- that the issue isn't whether or not these hires meet the legal definition of "bribery," but that they are plain-as-day examples of how rigged the entire game of finance capitalism is. Sorkin, who has thoroughly internalized the Titan of Wall Street mind-set, only judges the actions of massive financial firms based on whether or not those actions are profitable or likely to end up profitable. So, yes, by that standard, hiring the children of both Communist Party officials and successful capitalist elites makes sense. That's why firms do it! Does doing so also strengthen or perpetuate a deeply unjust social order or repressive political regime? Who knows! Let Charles M. Blow figure that one out, Sorkin has another conference to attend.

By Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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