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The Journal Gazette

Thursday, June 06, 2019 1:00 am

Nepotism aiding US decline

Helaine Olen

I can't stop watching highlights of Jared Kushner's interview with Axios' Jonathan Swan on HBO. The incompetence on display is so staggering that it's hard to pick the most embarrassing moment.

Is it when Kushner claimed he was “successful as a businessperson” when, in fact, his main claim to fame is almost driving his family's real estate empire into the ground? The assertion that President Donald Trump “respects people who are willing to be honest with him”? Or when this White House point person on Mideast peace claimed that Palestinians “want the opportunity to pay their mortgage”?

The jaw-dropping interview was released the same day the New York Times published a stunning investigation into Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, revealing she sought to bring her family members to official meetings with Chinese government officials. Chao's father founded a shipping company with no small amount of business in China. When State Department officials called her out on it, she canceled the trip. Chao is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and family members have donated well more than $1 million to political action committees connected to him over the course of their marriage.

It boggles the mind that a lightweight such as Kushner is a senior adviser to the president. It also boggles that the Chao connections are all but flying under the radar. But mostly, it boggles the mind that Democrats are not constantly screaming to the heavens about all this stinky nepotism.

The founding idea in our nation is that we are all equal and that we all enjoy similar opportunities for advancement. Nepotism and cronyism give lie to that in the most blatant way possible. We have historically tried to minimize it and its close cousin, favoritism. It's viewed as contrary to both good governance and good business practices.

Nepotism is bad for workplace morale and performance. In the view of Jone Pearce, a professor at the University of California at Irvine's business school, who has studied the topic extensively, in nepotistic workplaces “employees report more cheating, distrust of their co-workers, employees are more dissatisfied and less committed, they report they are more fearful, and are obsequious to their supervisors in order to become a favorite.”

If that's not a pitch-perfect description of Trump's White House, I don't know what is.

The feeling that one needs an edge permeates our society, where wealth inequality results in less and less opportunity for all too many people. Class mobility is significantly lower than in many European countries. Attending Harvard, Stanford or MIT gives start-up CEOs a valuable leg up in raising money. Likely as a result, an obsession with getting into the “right” school among upper-middle-class parents starts at preschool in major cities, and continues to college. At the same time, studies show that the vast majority of people who get hired on at new jobs use connections in some way to get a foot in the door.

Even as we are all but forced to embrace this “who you know” way of life, anger over it roils our politics. When Trump ran on a claim that he would “drain the swamp,” he was able to get away with it because he wasn't viewed as part of the usual Washington insider culture. Trump, whom many voters incorrectly saw as self-made, offered himself as a direct contrast to Hillary Clinton, who first came to public attention as the wife of President Bill Clinton.

Of course, for Trump, that was just another con in a lifetime of them. He has surrounded himself with a collection of sycophants, hangers-on and family members, including son-in-law Kushner, a real estate heir with the talents and instincts of a ne'er-do-well suddenly reinvented as an expert on Mideast policy. Not surprisingly, over the past two and half years, Kushner has been revealed to be naive, exploitable and thoroughly unsuccessful.

Democrats need to shout about this – and not stop. This banana-republic-level corruption is ultimately poison for the greater economy. Nepotism leads to lower-quality hires, less investment and, ultimately, less effort. Its increasing presence is a sign of a country that doesn't believe opportunity is expanding.

Instead, it is a sign of a nation where options are viewed as limited, and the people want to hoard what privileges and wealth they can muster. That, in turn, cuts into growth. It's a mark of a society in decline. 

Helaine Olen is a columnist for The Washington Post.