Cronies’ cronies’ cronies

by Henry Farrell on October 27, 2005

Cosma Shalizi makes a very interesting “research proposal”: – how could we measure the extent to which cronyism allows incompetents to land plum jobs in the Bush administration?

bq. What’s wanted — but what the journalists don’t provide — is a study where one builds the network of Presidential cronies, cronies’ cronies, cronies’ cronies’ cronies, etc., and then asks questions such as: How likely are close cronies to be named to government positions? How much influence does position in the network — centrality, say, or distance from the President — have on the likelihood of getting a government job? How likely are cronies to get jobs for which they are not qualified? Is position more important for incompetent cronies? Many people have asserted that networks of influence and social connection are important to how the modern GOP works … but nobody seems to have really studied this thoroughly. To do it right, you need to carefully define what you mean by “crony”. Since, ultimately, the whole species forms a single human web, you want to only consider ties which are actually meaningful indicators of political alliance and, still more, of nepotism and cronyism. Also, you want to set out your criteria carefully and rigidly before collecting data, otherwise there’ll be a lot of temptation to manipulate things as you go along, and the result will be closer to Lyndon LaRouche than to Randall Collins (or even Malcolm Gladwell). … Once you have people in the network, we need to see whether they’ve been named to government positions (not necessarily confirmed, just named), and whether they met the legally-defined norms of competence for those positions … to really do this right, we’d need to do it all over again, not just for the current administration, but for another one as a control — the Clinton administration, say, or Bush’s father; Reagan or earlier is probably too far back. This seems to be the only way to answer questions like whether this administration is more centralized than its predecessors, or more likely to nominate incompetents. … Even without doubling our workload by doing a comparative study, however, simply seeing the network of cronies would let us answer some interesting questions. Who really are the most central members of the network? Are they people with formal positions of authority? Are they people you’ve ever even heard of? Or are they comparatively little-known fixers with huge address books, but no officially constituted authority?

Sounds like an excellent research proposal, even if, as Cosma suggests, it would require teamwork and lots of money. As he says, nobody’s doing this. Political scientists tend not to do sophisticated network analysis (more for reasons of disciplinary history than anything else, I suspect – certainly not because networks are irrelevant to politics). Check out also Cosma’s ferocious and enormously entertaining new “book review”: of Stephen Wolfram’s opus from a couple of years back.



Daniel 10.27.05 at 10:15 am

if you got funding, you could call the project “Discover the Network”.


Grand Moff Texan 10.27.05 at 10:25 am

The Forest Service has been in the news recently. All new employees must be cronies, no exceptions, no qualifications. I remember one woman at HS who landed a job for being George’s college roommate’s wife. Qualifications listed as “housewife.”

When FOX news first got going, they used to have a designated “housewife” pundit on one show, to demonstrate to all of us lefties who (you know) hate stay at home moms that they’re smart and support cold fusion economics and superstition-based social policies, too. But all she did was sit there and make faces at people, so she got the hook.


harry b 10.27.05 at 10:31 am

It’s an old book review according to his comments at the end. But what a book review!!


Jake 10.27.05 at 11:15 am

I agree that the results would be interesting, although gathering the data would be completely impossible unless you were to rely solely on things like shared school attendance, etc.


Kosh 10.27.05 at 11:21 am

“Discover the Nutwerk”?


John Lederer 10.27.05 at 11:25 am

Able Danger


Seth Finkelstein 10.27.05 at 12:00 pm

As I recall, Clinton did nominate cronies – but (for the most part), they were competent cronies. The GOP “innovation” is that cronyism is not in addition to competence, but outright trumps competence.


lemuel pitkin 10.27.05 at 12:40 pm

Wow. That review is a thing of beauty.


agm 10.27.05 at 3:32 pm

Nah, easy. Just have everyone play Six Degrees of Separation at lots and lots of events, but focused on Bush or one of the cronies or sub cronies.


Jim Miller 10.28.05 at 7:09 am

Professor Farrell should be less modest in his proposal. It is possible that such networks exist outside the Bush administration, as unlikely as that may seem. It is even possible, though I hate to mention it, that they exist in academia. If so, one would expect them to be most important in fields, for example, political science, where there is disagreement about how to judge the quality of work.

Evidence of such crony networks in academia? (And again I apologize for even bringing up the subject.) Suppose a leftist academic blog site posted job openings from time to time. I am sure such a thing has never happened, but if it did, it could be evidence of cronyism.

If I am wrong and such things do happen, I will of course be deeply shocked. And I am sure Professor Farrell will be too.


Henry 10.28.05 at 8:10 am

Ah, but Jim, not only am I very happy to acknowledge that there are crony networks in academia, not only has there been actual research on them, but Kieran has blogged about them several times (“here”: for example). Your sarcasm covering a thinly veiled accusation of hypocrisy flies a fair bit wide of the mark here, I’m afraid. It also suggests that you haven’t bothered to read Cosma’s actual proposal – which makes it clear that it would be necessary to compare the Bush administration with another administration if we wanted to discover whether the Bush administration was indeed more prone to cronyism.


Taylor Gilbert 10.28.05 at 10:36 am

this from the economist:


Just good friends
Oct 13th 2005
From The Economist print edition

Cronyism is as American as apple pie. But this time George Bush has gone too far
Get article background

THERE are few things quite as hypocritical as American politicians hurling accusations of cronyism. The Democrats are lambasting George Bush about his weakness for promoting people such as Michael Brown, the horseman turned emergency-agency chief. But does anybody seriously believe that a Democratic president wouldn’t appoint cronies of his or her own? And it works the other way as well. The White House is currently defending Harriet Miers as “exceptionally well-suited” for a job on the Supreme Court. But does anybody seriously believe that the Republicans wouldn’t have been up in arms if Bill Clinton had tried to put his personal lawyer on the Supreme Court?

All countries have their cronies. That much-cited model of moral rectitude, Tony Blair, is so surrounded by them that they are called “Tony’s cronies” (he made his old roommate, Charlie Falconer, Lord Chancellor). Edith Cresson, a European commissioner, appointed her dentist to an advisory position. But you expect that sort of thing in Brussels. America’s problem is the contrast between high-minded idealism and low practice.

America regards itself as the world’s purest meritocracy—a country based on talent, not patronage and toadyism. A quick glance at history shows this is rubbish. Most presidents surround themselves with a regional mafia: look at Carter’s Georgians or Reagan’s Californians or Clinton’s Arkansans. These mafias produce some rum appointments: Jimmy Carter made his one-time campaign driver, Jody Powell, his press secretary; Bill Clinton made his chum from Miss Marie’s kindergarten in Hope, Thomas McLarty, his chief of staff. Scandals are endemic. Harry Truman’s Missouri cronies had a weakness for gifts of mink coats and freezers (an issue in the 1952 election). As for the antics of Mr Clinton’s Arkansas buddies, the less said the better.

That does not mean every close ally is a “crony”; that term implies incompetence as well as proximity. Condoleezza Rice is no Michael Brown, for example, just as Robert Reich was no Webb Hubbell. All presidents worth their salt bring in heavyweights as well as toadies. Indeed, the trick of running a successful administration—as both FDR and JFK demonstrated—is to balance the competing claims of personal loyalty and individual merit. Mr Bush, as the candidate of the Republican establishment rather than a regional insurrection, brought in plenty of bruisers. Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld are guilty of many things, but being mere creatures of the president is not one of them.

Still, if the presidential branch doesn’t run on cronyism alone it can’t run without it. A presidential campaign is a huge gamble. Presidents acquire obligations to people who spend years toiling for them in the wilderness. Not all these people will be from the first division. Presidents also form a peculiar bond of trust with people who served in the campaign trenches with them. Once they are in the White House, the only people they meet are supplicants. So they naturally turn to their old buddies for comfort and advice. Presidents need cronies just as cronies need patrons.

From this perspective the real question about Mr Bush’s appointment of Ms Miers is not whether it is cronyism, but whether he has stepped over the line that separates business-as-usual from offensive favouritism. A definitive answer to that question may not be clear for years. But the early signs are that he has overstepped, and done so in a clumsy way.

The reason for this is simple: a seat on the Supreme Court is a very different thing from even the most elevated job in the White House. The court is the summit of the third branch of government and its justices serve for life rather than just at the president’s pleasure. Mr Bush is not the first president to nominate a close friend to the court—FDR nominated Felix Frankfurter, who turned out to be a good choice, and Johnson nominated Abe Fortas, who resigned from the bench under a cloud—but both were defensible in terms of intellect and experience.

There is little evidence that Ms Miers passes this test. Conservatives such as George Will say she would not have made anybody’s list of the top 100 conservative lawyers in the country. The implication is that even if she turns out to be a conservative fellow-traveller (which they doubt) she won’t have the intellectual weight to shape the court. As for the White House’s feeble defence of her qualifications, it brings to mind the infamous justification for Richard Nixon’s nominee, Harold Carswell: “Even if he is mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they?”

An “obsequious instrument of his pleasure”?
Even more worrying than Ms Miers’s intellect is her relationship with the president. As Randy Barnett of Boston University has pointed out, that close bond should be a disqualification for this job. America’s system of checks and balances relies on the judiciary being independent from the executive branch. How will Ms Miers be able to rule objectively if she has to deal with a case that reflects badly on Mr Bush?

The one bit of good news in the mess of the Miers nomination is that the Founding Fathers designed the constitution to provide checks on the president’s power to advance his cronies. In Federalist 76 Alexander Hamilton justified the consultative role of the Senate on the grounds that it would discourage a president from appointing people who were “personally allied to him” or who were so insignificant and pliable that they would turn into “obsequious instruments of his pleasure”.

The question now is whether the Senate will play its proper constitutional role. Will the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee put the spotlight where it ought to be—on Ms Miers’s qualifications and her relationship with the president? Or will they just waste time quizzing her on how she will vote on abortion (which she won’t answer anyway)? If ever there was a time for the Senate to rise above the culture wars, it is now.

Copyright © 2005 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights reserved.


a different chris 10.28.05 at 3:22 pm

>A Rare Blend of Monster Raving Egomania and Utter Batshit Insanity

He must not be American, because I can assure you that we do not find that rare at all. I think it was possibly a requirement for citizenship in the 19th century.


perianwyr 10.31.05 at 2:20 pm

Cronyism is a natural and expected part of any human enterprise. “Weak ties” are nothing more than cronyism in action. That is why, if we are to have any sort of large scale civilization, we should be more aware of how it manifests on this same large scale and be more direct in rooting it out. The larger something gets, the more emergent consequences show up on your doorstep.

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