Wednesday, August 11, 2021

America has a children of famous parents problem

I've been meaning to repost this for a few weeks now, ever since I saw a Twitter exchange between Ben Dreyfuss and Josh Barro whining about train travel (Barro also had a let them eat cake comment about public libraries, but I'm not sure it was part of the same thread). I was familiar with Barro, an unimpressive writer whose rapid success would be pretty much unimaginable for someone without big time family connections. ("[Robert] Barro is considered one of the founders of new classical macroeconomics, along with Robert Lucas, Jr. and Thomas J. Sargent.") Dreyfuss, though, has him beat. First his father Richard Dreyfuss set him up as an actor, then when that didn't work out, his sister got him a job as a professional tweeter.

Just to keep things in perspective, these two are, at worst annoying. The Cuomo brothers are despicable and in terms of damage done, G.W. Bush is in a category of his own. These men didn't just get a leg up; they have traveled their entire lives on greased skids. There are far too many other examples. We have a nepotism problem.

I don't want to paint with too broad a brush. While people like Michael Douglas and Jane Fonda, Randy and Thomas Newman,  Chris Wallace and Maggie Haberman certainly had an advantage starting out, their subsequent work suggests that, with a little luck, they might have had roughly the same careers without the same parents. 

Obviously, in a perfect world, we'd all have an equal shot, but as long as connections are merely helpful, we can live with the unfairness. When being born in the right place and knowing the right people becomes a sufficient condition for success, we're in trouble. 

From back in 2014, we had an exchange with Gelman on the topic. 


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?


  1. Replies
    1. Yea, I suspect that it's the reach and visibility of these people that has increased. While I don't disagree with the examples given here, it seems to me that family dynasties have always existed in politics, business, entertainment etc. The trend is not clear to me.

    2. Just for the record, the sportscaster Joe Buck falls into the category of those who have made distinguished careers for themselves.

    3. Anonymous,

      In the long term, yes, nepotism was actually worse in the past. My point was that since the post-war era, people seem to me to be growing more tolerant of it. Possibly a reversion to the norm.