01/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Our Blagojevich, Ourselves

The initial outrage over Rod Blagojevich's blatant attempts to sell Barack Obama's Senate seat has predictably moved into its second phase: Perhaps he's guilty of nothing more than politics as usual, merely taking to an uncouth extreme the sort of horse-trading and quid quo pro that has always been at the heart of politics. After all, over in Albany, David Patterson is working through his own public and private calculus regarding who to appoint to Hillary Clinton's seat.

But such a reassessment doesn't go far enough: the Blagojevich scandal serves as a useful reminder that a great many decisions about who gets what--not just in Washington but in life--are determined in part by unstated considerations, considerations that often have little to do with merit. Indeed, the act of filling a vacant Senate seat is a drama that repeats itself on a smaller scale millions of times a day: who gets the prime shifts on the work schedule, who gets the promotion, who gets appointed to the coveted committee. These decisions are often made against some publicly stated criteria, but so often those criteria only partially explain the result. The rest is a mystery brew of connections, timing, looks, money, and luck. This is true even in rarefied precincts: Being a good poet, for instance, might improve your chances of getting your work published in the New Yorker, but as poetry critic David Orr pointed out in the New York Times, it won't help as much as being a young staff editor there will.

We know this, of course; yet our cynicism is constantly at war with our meritocratic idealism. That idealism, rooted in America's frontier history, is necessary for us to work the long hours needed to shine according to the criteria as we understand them. At the same time, we hedge our bets by networking like Machiavelli, trying to figure out who we know who knows the people making the decisions, and even better, what we can do to sway them. The alleged offer by an emissary of Jesse Jackson Jr. to raise a million dollars for Blagojevich is not much different than the sort of beseeching that takes place among a certain class of Manhattan parents who are trying to get their children into elite nursery schools. Or for that matter, from the moves many of us make in climbing our own social and professional ladders. Take this test: Did you get your job by blindly sending in your résumé and competing in an open market against all qualified candidates, or because you heard about it from a friend of a friend?

Of course, the situation isn't black and white--you might have heard about that job because the friend of a friend admired your work and saw you had the skills needed for the task at hand. Networks aren't all about cronyism; they can also be tools for creating markets that match people and openings. But they are more imperfect than we realize. The social and professional network is the modern-day incarnation of the tribes of our distant ancestors. Kin trust and protect each other; outsiders are regarded with suspicion. Many of Bernard Madoff's investors trusted him because he was a member of the same philanthropic circles and country clubs that they were. They assumed that the exclusiveness of their networks constituted due diligence. They didn't realize the assumptions that were being made until the house of cards collapsed.

In hyper-competitive environments like New York, we spend countless hours deconstructing other people's success in the same way we deconstruct what combination of family money, investing, savings, and timing allowed them to buy that fabulous brownstone in Brooklyn that we could never afford. But like other people's finances, other people's success is something about which we rarely know the full story. This secret history, combined with our schizophrenic attitude--denouncing favoritism while seeking to benefit from it at every turn, and then airbrushing it out of our bios--keeps us from fully understanding, and thus improving, the complex mechanics of how opportunity is distributed and talent is harnessed in our society. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that those of us who live among a surfeit of talent, and the unremitting competition that goes with it, have little incentive to overlook any advantage we can muster. As a result, the process goes unexamined until a high-profile rupture--Blagojevich's wiretapped rants, Mike Brown's spectacular failure as the head of FEMA, Jack Grubman's upgrading the rating on AT&T to help get his children into the 92nd Street Y--forces us to confront the mess. In a few weeks, though, our indignation subsides, and we go back to working our Rolodex.

What we need is a more honest conversation about the mix of factors that determine who gets what. We need to come to terms with the fact that how one moves through one's career is as much a social, tribal act as it is a just tally of one's achievements--that networks can be both an efficient and dangerously inefficient means of aligning society's human capital with its needs. Once we do, we may find out that the biggest problem isn't unqualified people in positions they shouldn't be in, but qualified people who can't get to places where they can do some good because they're not tapped into the right network. That's the real scandal.

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