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Hunter Biden and the glass floor for children of politicians

Illustration of an archival image of a boy in fancy clothes leaning up against a giant suitcase
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

America is not a meritocracy. Wealth and power are both largely inherited traits, to the point at which there's a name for the seeming inability of the children of the rich to fail: the glass floor.

Yes, but: While inheriting wealth is relatively uncontroversial, inheriting power can be problematic.

Driving the news: Hunter Biden, Joe Biden's son, has received much good fortune over the course of his life, first as the son of a Delaware senator and then as the son of the vice president of the United States.

"My dad was vice president of the United States. There's literally nothing, as a young man or as a full grown adult, that my father in some way hasn't had influence over."
— Hunter Biden, in an interview with ABC News
  • Hunter was accepted to Yale Law School, became his father's deputy campaign manager, was offered a plum job with a bank holding company that was one of his father's largest campaign contributors, founded a lobbying company, was appointed by President George W. Bush to the board of Amtrak, and founded an investment firm with another political scion, John Kerry's stepson Christopher Heinz.
  • He joined the board of Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian natural gas producer, in 2014. According to the New York Times, his board seat "allowed Burisma to create the perception that it was backed by powerful Americans at a time when Ukraine was especially dependent on aid and strategic backing from the United States."

None of this is criminal, although when U.S. companies hire Chinese princelings, that can violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. In 2016, for instance, JPMorgan paid a fine of $264 million for giving investment-banking jobs to the children of high-ranking Chinese officials. (Deutsche Bank seems to have done something very similar.)

Politicians' children have a tendency to receive amazing jobs — up to and including senior White House positions, in the case of Ivanka Trump and her husband.

  • John McCain's daughter Meghan c0-hosts "The View" on ABC and she also appears on ABC News. Her co-host Abby Huntsman, the daughter of former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, previously worked for NBC News; both of them have also worked for Fox. Bill and Hillary Clinton's daughter, Chelsea, also worked for NBC News.

The bottom line: If you're the child of a prominent politician, your connections are going to be valuable in many different industries. That's going to help your career whether you like it or not. It's also going to leave you open to accusations of nepotism and free-riding.

  • When should scions say no to lucrative opportunities? The emerging consensus seems to be that work for domestic companies is generally accepted, while work for foreign companies is more problematic. But these norms are constantly evolving.