Luke Russert (NBC News)

Our glorious golden era of nepotism

The way to get ahead in business and media: Be a child of a member of Congress (or someone else famous)


Alex Pareene
March 4, 2014 10:44PM (UTC)

The Daily Beast last week ran a damning, necessary piece on nepotism and the symbiotic relationship between Congress and corporate America. The story is in part a lengthy list -- though by no means an exhaustive account -- of privileged political children waltzing into high-paying jobs with little to no relevant experience, beyond the experience of being raised in proximity to power.

Joe Manchin's daughter Heather, who never actually earned an MBA, is the CEO of a drug company in part because her father met its co-founder at a basketball game some years ago. Ron Wyden's son Adam somehow started a hedge fund right out of business school. Robert Rubin's son James (a close friend of New York Times finance industry mouthpiece Andrew Ross Sorkin -- himself the son of a prominent attorney) has worked in law, government and finance; his job skills are apparently adaptable to any industry controlled by the ruling classes. Rep. G.K. Butterfield's daughter is the president of a communications firm, Tom Daschle's son Nathan works for Clear Channel, Max Baucus' son Zeno is a U.S. attorney, and it seems like dozens of Congress members' kids are plain old lobbyists.

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We scoff when new Kennedys and new Bushes show up uninvited in various elections, but at least the children of politicians who run for office have to convince lots of people to give them a job. For those who choose business, one phone call is usually enough to get the gig.

Even this useful chronicle of utter shamelessness feels the need to speak to defenders of the practice. The most notable is Adam Bellow, son of novelist Saul. You may wonder, as I always do when I come upon his name, who is actually convinced by Adam Bellow's "nepotism is fine and good" argument. I don't even think Martin Amis and Christopher Buckley are buying it. Here, Bellow argues that the children of prominent people feel a sort of honest guilt about receiving so much simply for being born to the right people, and that this spurs them to work even harder.

What he terms “the New Nepotism,” isn’t driven by the top-down ambitions of parents for their children but instead by children choosing for themselves a family-trod path. Only a kid that really wants to make a go of it will run for office (or hedge a fund), and take on the burdens of a business and a name. These modern children of privilege have absorbed our general cultural sense that this inherited advantage is unfair. “It doesn’t mean that we’re going to give up those privileges,” Bellow says. “But what it does mean is that we have to prove our merit not only to other people but to ourselves by being exemplary and successful and models of merit.” In other words, rich, connected kids these days have more guilt than, say, during the Boston Brahmin age, when a man of the Harvard caste wouldn’t give a hoot what a tenement dweller thought of him.

I'm not sure where he sees evidence of this guilt. If he feels it himself, it certainly wasn't enough to stop him from writing a book titled "In Praise of Nepotism," and then act as a sort of semi-official spokesman for the inexplicably successful children of notable people. (Then again, guilt also didn't stop him from publishing "The Bell Curve" and "The Real Anita Hill." What a fine example of exemplary merit this Bellow is!)

Bellow has apparently not noticed the American elite's years-long tantrum of Randian resentment, nor the self-flattering delusions of perfect meritocracy that flourish equally in Wall Street and Silicon Valley. Most of our second- (or third-) generation success stories refuse to allow themselves to believe that they haven't earned everything they've got -- even Mitt Romney indulges in the fantasy of being a self-made man. In fact, Bellow's formulation seems precisely backward: The age of the Brahmins was also the age of noblesse oblige. This is the age of Luke Russert. (And Ronan Farrow, WORLD'S MOST ACCOMPLISHED MILLENNIAL.)

This insistence on merit -- the successful person's fantasy of earning what you got by out-working people from less privileged backgrounds -- defines our unequal era of naked, unabashed favoritism. That comforting fiction is basically why it's been difficult to even convince a plurality of official Washington that something maybe ought to be done to address joblessness and persistent income inequality. When a politician's son goes into lobbying, it's not corruption, it's the way the world works. Even Bellow cops to feeling a bit squicked out by the whole scene at the end of the piece: “It’s starting to look like the Renaissance papacy.” At least the Renaissance popes commissioned grand architecture and art. These kids mostly just cash checks.

So, anyone else for a 100 percent estate tax?

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Alex Pareene

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

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