Growing up in Chicagoland I have had a front row seat at the circus that is Cook County politics. Corruption and nepotism are virtually synonymous with Chicago government and politics, and this has always struck me as simultaneously well deserved and totally unfair. Certainly the city and county have proven time and again that there is no deal too crooked or no alderman's nephew too inept. However, no one has been able to argue that this differs significantly from any other large American city or, for that matter, any small town's politics. You've never seen graft, corruption, abuse of power, and the Old Boys' Network until you've seen them in rural areas. Hell, at least Chicago is big enough that the entire city isn't owned and controlled by one family. How many small towns can say the same?
Local media outlets love pushing these "Look at how corrupt Chicago is" stories because they resonate well with readers. It makes people mad. It gives people something to blame for the government's failures, something to vent their own frustrations at. Consider this Chicago Sun-Times story about County Assessor Joe Berrios, who has 15 relatives either employed by or retired from jobs with Cook County. The headline is well-crafted for maximum outrage: "15 members of Joe Berrios' family on county, state payrolls." What is not explained, however, is how Mr. Berrios is responsible for members of his family who got jobs 30 years before he was elected Assessor, or, more importantly, how this differs from any other job, industry, company, or government in the nation.
People relate to these stories because it allows them to project their own lack of happiness or success on a scapegoat. "I guess you have to be related to someone to get a good job around here!" they say to themselves. And they are, of course, right. We know they are right because that's how the damn world works. Why would it not work that way in Cook County government?
One of the harshest lessons America teaches its young people is that they have been lied to when we told them that our system is a meritocracy. Yes, talent and achievement will help you do better in life, but we find out quickly in adolescence and young adulthood that who you know and who you're related to are pretty significant variables as well. We start working – in any field: public, private, academic, non-profit, military, etc. – and we discover that the world is absolutely full of talentless daughters, nephews, and old college buddies who are doing quite well despite having no qualifications or talent other than the good fortune to know someone powerful. Nowhere is this more obvious, especially to college students who may not yet be aware that life isn't fair, than in the world of Interning. It's truly amazing how often the big D.C. or Wall Street or Madison Avenue internships go to young people who have parents wealthy enough to support them and with family connections. Quite a coincidence, isn't it, that the fratboy whose dad works for Lockheed Martin gets the Congressional internship alongside the talentless children of various campaign contributors. That's almost as amazing as the preponderance of children-of working in any private corporation or family-owned business.
It is very easy to single out someone like Joe Berrios and vent our anger at him for being arrogant and stupid enough to hire his own children after being elected. It is equally easy to pretend that this state of affairs is unique to Chicago or to government in general. Deep down I believe that we all know better, though. We've all had to put up with the boss's son (or some other variant of the friends-and-family system) at some point in our lives. Maybe we are idealistic and expect better of our government, holding it to a higher standard. Or perhaps the government is just a convenient target because information about things like salaries are publicly available. I agree with the Sun-Times that what Mr. Berrios did is unethical, but I have to wonder what we would uncover if we did a similar analysis of the friends, family, and connections of the interns, reporters, editors, and other people working in their own newsroom. Anyone with firsthand experience in the world of professional journalism knows that the odds of finding nepotism at play are holding steady at 100%, plus or minus zero.