THERE is a very real chance that the presidential election in 2016 will pit Jeb Bush against Hillary Clinton. According to oddsmakers, this is the likeliest outcome.
Many Americans are uncomfortable with the idea that two families could dominate the presidency that way. Whether or not you like one of the candidates, it just doesn’t feel right, in part because a second Bush-Clinton election makes a mockery of our self-identification as a democratic meritocracy.
How bad is America’s nepotism problem? Can data science help us gauge its depth? It can — and what the data shows is that something has gone haywire.
I studied the probability of male baby boomers’ reaching the same level of success as their fathers. I had to limit myself to fathers and sons because this was a highly sexist period in which women held few powerful political positions.
Let’s start with the presidency. Thirteen sons of presidents were born during America’s baby boom. One of the 13 became president himself, of course, and Jeb would make a second. Of the roughly 37 million boomer males who weren’t born to a president, two won the White House. Maybe it’s an anomaly that George W. Bush became president in 2001, but his advent means that in our era a son of a president was roughly 1.4 million times more likely to become president than his supposed peers.
The presidency is obviously a small sample. But the same calculations can be done for other political positions. Take governors.
Because it is difficult to be sure that you have counted all the sons of governors, let’s assume that governors reproduce at average rates. This would mean there were about 250 baby boomer males born to governors. Five of them became governors themselves, about one in 50. This is 6,000 times the rate of the average American. The same methodology suggests that sons of senators had an 8,500 times higher chance of becoming a senator than an average American male boomer.