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Chelsea Clinton for Congress? What Does That Tell Us About America?

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"For everyone to whom much is given, of him shall much be required." -- Luke 12:48.

Recently, the New York Times (NYT) praised Chelsea Clinton's current successes and commitment to public service. Ms. Clinton is the daughter of current U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and former President William Jefferson Clinton. It reported some Democrats' excitement about having Ms. Clinton in Congress, because according to Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf: "She's smart, she's charming, and she's got the last name Clinton."

Western media criticize the favorable treatment received by offspring of the politically important outside the U.S., particularly the princelings in China. In a vicious circle, princelings' access to powerful people (derived from their parents) gains them prestigious private-sector positions (with high pay for little work). These prestigious private-sector positions justify public-sector leadership positions, which justify even more lucrative private-sector opportunities, and so on. Princelings insist a sense of noblesse oblige draws them to leadership. A fawning domestic press facilitates this cycle by treating princelings as celebrities.

Government by princelings easily becomes government by kleptocracy. Companies granting princelings lucrative positions expect a return on their investment, through influence with (or at least access to) the government. Even if not overtly corrupt, this nepotistic approach erodes leaders' legitimacy (making it difficult to govern), and prevents the best qualified from leading (resulting in less competent institutions). Most corrosively, government by princelings sends a message that putting personal and family interests ahead of society's interests is acceptable.

Ms. Clinton's rapid career progress raises the same issues for America as with the princelings overseas.

The NYT reported Ms. Clinton is making the sacrifice of leading us because she feels a responsibility to serve the public good and "hopes to make a positive, productive contribution."

Ms. Clinton's newsworthy steps toward public service, noted by the NYT, include: meeting people such as Elton John and Richard Gere, taking a public role with her father's Clinton Global Initiative, presenting an award to her mother at Diane Von Furstenberg's International Women's Day event, and hosting her father's 65th birthday at a Clinton Foundation Hollywood benefit with fellow guests Lady Gaga and Bono.

Ms. Clinton's board of directors seat at media conglomerate IAC, alongside former Disney CEO Michael Eisner and former Warner Music Group CEO Edgar Bronfman, was also described. Ms. Clinton's IAC position pays $50,000 a year, plus a $250,000 grant of restricted stock. Mentioned too was Ms. Clinton's joining NBC News as a special correspondent, after her advisers arranged interviews with top network executives.

The NYT noted downsides to being the Clinton daughter, including critics attributing her success (such as the IAC position) solely to her famous parents. But the NYT didn't question why a 30ish year old (with no significant media or management experience) joins the board of a multi-billion dollar media corporation, with compensation qualifying Ms. Clinton (by my quick calculation) for America's top 1 percent, for only about 1 to 2 hours of work per week. The IAC position clearly raises the issue of whether Ms. Clinton is being paid for her skills, or access to her family.

The NYT article cited another leadership qualification: "... unlike some other famous offspring, she has never been photographed drunkenly stumbling out of a club..." (Note to the NYT: For a photo of Ms. Clinton apparently drunkenly stumbling out of a club, please see -- "Boozy Night for Chelsea".)

The U.S. has fought two wars over the past decade. Many Americans of Ms. Clinton's generation volunteered at great personal risk to support their country, in the military or in other ways -- the NYT did not report that Ms. Clinton has not.

My concern is that Ms. Clinton is not an outlier, but part of a trend. The Washington Post found a pattern of members of Congress using tax dollars to benefit their families (e.g., tax money to entities represented by lobbyist relatives). It's no wonder we've lost faith in our leaders, with Congress' approval rating in single digits.

As has been widely discussed, income inequality in the U.S. is at record levels. Such inequality would be more acceptable if resulting from individual effort. However, we are increasingly a society of class privilege and inherited opportunities. According to "A Family Affair" (OECD, 2010), America has among the lowest social mobility levels of any major developed country. The 1 percent arrange advantages for their families that aren't available to the rest of society.

We are viewed as a relatively corrupt country, where connections, family, and political campaign contributions drive business. Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index 2011 ranks the U.S. as more corrupt than Qatar, a small Middle Eastern state ruled by a hereditary monarchy with a tradition of nepotism. (U.S. ranks 24th, behind Qatar ranked 23rd and far behind New Zealand, ranked 1st.)

Ms. Clinton received opportunities other Americans -- without her family connections -- don't have. Using these connections might not be illegal, but it isn't admirable. Ms. Clinton's career isn't a cause for celebration, but an urgent wakeup call that, for America to compete effectively in the 21st Century, we need the best leaders our society can produce, whatever their last names.

We have the right to expect more from a leader than simply being smart, charming, and named Clinton.

Please let me know your thoughts:

  • Do you believe Ms. Clinton achieved her positions through merit, or did family connections play a part?
  • Do you feel America is increasingly a country where the 1% structure society to benefit themselves?
  • If you are concerned about these issues, what would you suggest to re-focus America on equality of opportunity?

About the Author: Steven Strauss was founding Managing Director of the Center for Economic Transformation at the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC). He is an Advanced Leadership Fellow at Harvard University for 2012. He has a Ph.D. in Management from Yale University and over 20 years private sector work experience. You can follow him on twitter at: @Steven_Strauss.

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