Monday, January 20, 2014

Are we becoming more tolerant of nepotism (and other perks of privilege)?

The New Republic has a very good profile by Julia Iofee of  Michael Needham of the Heritage Foundation. The whole thing is worth reading, but there's one paragraph I'd like to single out both because of its content and its placement deep in the article.
After [Michael] Needham graduated from Williams in 2004, Bill Simon Jr., a former California Republican gubernatorial candidate and fellow Williams alum, helped Needham secure the introductions that got him a job at the foundation. Ambitious and hard-working, he was promoted, in six months, to be Feulner’s chief of staff. According to a former veteran Heritage staffer, Needham is intelligent but “very aggressive”: “He is the bull in the china closet, and he feels very comfortable doing that.” (“I consider him a friend,” says the college classmate, “but he’s a huge asshole.”) In 2007, Needham, whose father has given generous donations to both Rudy Giuliani and the Heritage Foundation, went to work for Giuliani’s presidential campaign. When the campaign folded, Needham followed his father’s footsteps to Stanford Business School and then came back, at Feulner’s bequest, to run Heritage Action.
You'll notice Iofee goes out of her way to suggest that Needham got his first rapid promotion by being "ambitious and hard-working," and there is, no doubt, some truth in that, but pretty much everybody who goes to work for a big-time D.C. think tank is ambitious and hard-working. These are not traits that would have set Needham apart while being the socially well-connected son of a major donor very well might have.

My question is: would this angle have been handled differently a few years ago? Obviously nepotism and advancement through connection have always been with us, but until recently I get the impression that this career path was seen as somewhat suspect; people who obviously got their positions thanks to string-pulling were put on a kind of public probation until they had proven themselves.

Now, the public (or at least the press) seems to me much less likely to discount the accomplishments of the well-connected children of the rich and powerful. Along similar lines, though you can certainly still find jokes about the boss's son/nephew/brother-in-law, but they don't seem nearly as pervasive as they were through most of the 20th Century. Anyone else see a trend here?

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