Hunter Biden, the president’s problematic son, has finally been indicted for his years of tax evasion. Only in an egregiously unequal society like ours do the children of the rich and powerful get away with corruption for as long as Hunter Biden has.

Hunter Biden speaks to members of the media outside the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on December 13, 2023. (Tierney L. Cross / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Joe Biden isn’t the first president to have had to deal with embarrassing headlines about one of his children. George W. Bush’s daughter Jenna, for example, was arrested during his first year in office. She was nineteen, and she’d tried to buy a margarita with a fake ID.

Hunter Biden is considerably older, though, and his legal troubles are more serious. Last week the president’s son was indicted for a “four-year scheme” to avoid paying $1.4 million in taxes. This comes less than two months after he was indicted for unrelated gun charges. In that case, he’s accused of lying on a government form when he purchased a .38 handgun in 2018. On the form, Hunter said he didn’t use illegal drugs — but he’s widely known to have been struggling with crack cocaine addiction at the time. If the information he provided was false, it would make his acquisition of the gun illegal.

The back-to-back indictments make it distinctly possible that Hunter will be on trial while his father is running for reelection next year — and Democrats would prefer that everyone focus on the legal troubles of likely Republican nominee Donald Trump. The president has reportedly expressed guilt to “close associates” about his belief that “if he hadn’t run in 2020, Hunter wouldn’t be facing criminal prosecutions or be the target of daily stories by conservative media — all while trying to stay sober and rebuild his life.”

It’s worth remembering that the indictments come from Biden’s own Justice Department, not some cabal of right-wing lawyers. Even so, he’s surely right that conservatives wouldn’t bother to make hay of Hunter Biden’s numerous questionable, shady, or apparently illegal actions if Joe Biden hadn’t run for president. In a world where his father hadn’t seized the world’s biggest spotlight by ascending to the presidency, Hunter probably would have reaped the benefits of a justice system that routinely gives a boys-will-be-boys pass to the children of the wealthy and well-connected while coming down like a ton of bricks on ordinary people.

If the president is right about that, it doesn’t make the Biden family look any better. What it does is put these shenanigans in the broader context of a society beset by profound inequality. That’s the only kind of society that could have produced corruption like Hunter’s in the first place.

A Life of Failing Upward

When the latest indictment came down, the New York Times produced a handy timeline of Hunter’s life and legal troubles. The first dates that jumped out at me were 1996, when Hunter graduated from law school, and 2001, when he became a partner at a “law and lobbying firm,” Oldaker, Biden & Belair. His clients there included “online gambling venture, biotechnology companies and colleges seeking earmarks.”

To review: the man was a full partner at a “law and lobbying firm” — his name was on the door — five years after he graduated from law school. Following the hyperlinks from the Times timeline, you’ll find that the “Oldaker” in that name was described in a 2008 article as “a longtime Washington insider who has been a campaign adviser to Senator Biden and other Democratic leaders” and that before they got together to start the firm, Hunter had a job at Bill Clinton’s Commerce Department. Before that he was a “senior vice president” at the “financial-services giant” MBNA.

So, to review, there were five years in between law school and starting his own firm and somehow during that time Hunter was a “senior vice president.” If the combination of the Biden surname and the acronym MBNA rings a bell, that might be because Joe Biden used to be so aggressive in championing that firm and the rest of the industry that he was nicknamed “the senator from MBNA.”

Hunter quit lobbying when his dad ran for vice president and the association was generating embarrassing headlines, but five years after that, according to the Times article, he “and two other Americans join[ed] Chinese partners in establishing a Shanghai-based investment company” that “helped to finance an Australian coal-mining company controlled by a Chinese state-owned firm and assisted a subsidiary of a Chinese defense conglomerate in buying a Michigan auto parts maker.”

The year after that, Hunter was hired by Ukrainian energy company Burisma. That was awkward timing considering that the oligarch who owned the company was under investigation for corruption and Hunter’s dad was overseeing the Obama administration’s Ukraine policy, but no doubt these facts are unrelated. Hunter was doubtless tapped for Burisma’s Board of Directors due to the value he could add through his deep expertise in energy exploration and extraction in Eastern Europe.

Oh, and in between the Chinese and Ukrainian gigs, Hunter was kicked out of the Naval Reserve for testing positive for cocaine. No one seemed to care. Years later, he was feeling sufficiently untouchable to leave a laptop full of evidence of influence-peddling, drug use, and embarrassing personal behavior in a Delaware computer repair shop where he seems to have simply forgotten about it.

When some of the salacious material on the hard drive came to light the next year, much of the media claimed, based on no evidence whatsoever, that there might have never been an abandoned laptop and that the whole thing might be “Russian disinformation.” Social media companies owned by billionaire tech oligarchs briefly tried to stop people from sharing the story. Looking back at the whole sordid interlude, it’s worth pausing a moment to think about how hard so many wealthy and powerful people worked at damage control on behalf of a man who, had he been born into the lower classes and struggled with a remotely similar bundle of issues, would have very likely ended up in prison or living on the streets.

Hunter in Perspective

I’d certainly rather live in a society that was more compassionate toward Hunter’s less fortunate equivalents than one that was more consistently cruel. I certainly don’t think he should be demonized for his struggles with substance abuse. If anything, the most sympathetic Joe Biden has ever seemed to me was when text messages between father and son emerged in 2020 showing Joe expressing unconditional love and support while Hunter was in rehab. I just wish the president had shown similar levels of compassion toward all the drug users who weren’t members of his immediate family during his decades of pushing for draconian tough-on-crime legislation.

That egregious double standard is partially a function of his father’s lifetime of political power — although there are plenty of rich kids behaving badly whose parents aren’t senators, vice presidents, or presidents.

Similar points apply to the influence Hunter made his whole career out of peddling. The president’s defenders insist that Hunter was only peddling the appearance of influence, that father didn’t listen to son in such matters, and that Joe certainly didn’t do favors for Hunter’s clients. These claims are very much in dispute, but for the moment let’s assume that it’s all true.

The larger point is that no part of the story I just ran through could have happened in a world that wasn’t beset with almost farcical levels of economic inequality. The attempt to throttle sharing of the laptop story was downstream of the monopolization of most of our digital commons by a few billionaires. The Burisma job was downstream of a corrupt Ukrainian oligarch having millions of dollars to toss at the utterly unremarkable son of an American politician to see if that didn’t help him make some of his problems go away.

I don’t think petty corruption would completely disappear in a more egalitarian economic system. But it would be, well, petty. I’m sure elected decision-makers would sometimes be influenced by the kind of personal favors you don’t have to be hoarding a massively disproportionate share of society’s resources to offer. News stories about shocking scandals wouldn’t completely wither away.

For a career like Hunter’s to be possible, you need a world where would-be purchasers of influence can afford to damn near shoot gold coins in all directions, hoping that some of them hit someone who might have the right person’s ear. If he’d been born into a more egalitarian society, Hunter Biden might or might not have had a less messy and chaotic life. Lots of people wreck their lives in lots of different ways. All I know for sure is that, had he been born into a more equal world, Hunter would have had to get a job.

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