Sunday, February 20, 2011

Nepotism, social capital and elites

Here's Gail Collins (via Crooked Timber):
In Wisconsin, the new Republican governor, Scott Walker, wants to strip state employees of their collective-bargaining rights because: “We’re broke. We’ve been broke in this state for years.” Wisconsin’s Democratic state senators went into hiding to deprive the Republican majority of the quorum they need to pass Walker’s agenda. The Senate majority leader, Scott Fitzgerald — who happens to be the brother of the Assembly speaker, Jeff Fitzgerald — believes the governor is absolutely right about the need for draconian measures to cut spending in this crisis. So he’s been sending state troopers out to look for the missing Democrats. The troopers are under the direction of the new chief of the state patrol, Stephen Fitzgerald. He is the 68-year-old father of Jeff and Scott and was appointed to the $105,678 post this month by Governor Walker. Perhaps the speaker’s/majority leader’s father was a super choice, and the fact that he was suddenly at liberty after having recently lost an election for county sheriff was simply a coincidence that allowed the governor to recruit the best possible person for the job. You’d still think that if things are so dire in Wisconsin, the Fitzgerald clan would want to set a better austerity example.
This is interesting but I think it's a mistake to think about it as something essentially Republican.  This is rather a characteristic of American politics and elite American society in general where social capital plays a big role in the formation of the ruling elite class (business people, politicians, journalists).   My guess is that it starts very early from college itself -- in fact the composition of elite colleges (Harvard, Princeton, Yale) is a key ingredient.  Elite colleges are a great place to make "networks" and it is these networks that we see reflected in the larger political process.  While I wouldn't call it nepotism, it is indeed a sophisticated form of nepotism.  Business-people, politicians -- they all come from the same colleges and attend the same cocktail parties, they own shares in the same companies or share the same stock-brokers.  It's rare to find something as extreme as the case of the Fitzgerald family but my guess is that this kind of "elite culture" is pretty common in the corridors of power. 

[It is also common, for instance, in elite schools in academia, where a kind of consensus on what an elite school is and the resulting social network formation -- the professors were graduate students at elite schools, are friends with other professors in elite schools, conferences are held just between elite schools -- means that elite schools have a very typical constitution in terms of its student and faculty-body and tend to self-perpetuate.]

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