McKinsey has just issued, the New York Times says, a “rare apology.” The offense was a bit of cartoon villainy, appalling even by McKinsey’s standards. Late last month, the newspaper reported that partners at the consulting firm had discussed how the Purdue pharmaceutical company could “turbocharge” opioid sales (in the middle of an opioid epidemic). One idea was to pay pharmacies a rebate when customers overdosed. The revelation of this conversation was just too much, even for the global ruling class. McKinsey says it has now severed relations with the opioid business and is cooperating with investigations of the issue.
Just a week before the Times broke Rebate-gate, Joe Biden announced that he’d chosen McKinsey’s deputy general counsel and head of public affairs, Louisa Terrell, as his head of legislative affairs. Now, Axios reports that Biden is considering Pete Buttigieg to be his ambassador to China. Buttigieg, too, spent his profoundly unidealistic youth at McKinsey, as I wrote about in Jacobin a year ago.
McKinsey is one of the worst consultancies on Earth. Business journalist Duff McDonald, author of The Firm, a book about McKinsey, told Time magazine that McKinsey “might be the single greatest legitimizer of mass layoffs in history.” Companies have always laid off workers when times are tight, but McKinsey “disrupted” that convention by pushing companies to do so in prosperous times, too, he said, “simply to juice profits.” (And, no doubt, to keep the surviving workers fearful and compliant.)
When Buttigieg worked for the company, he apparently showed impressive commitment to this mission. Although he’s been as vague as possible about it, his work there may have led to layoffs at the US Post Office and at Blue Cross Blue Shield. The Defense Department was also among his clients.
We’d love to be shocked, but McKinsey and the Democrats go way back.
McKinsey’s well-compensated employees donate almost entirely to Democrats. More important, its employees have been well represented in every recent Democratic administration. Diplomat and former McKinsey consultant Susan Rice served in both the Clinton and Obama administrations. Lael Brainard, currently on the Federal Reserve Board, served in both the Clinton and Obama administrations and got her start at McKinsey.
The Obama administration had many McKinsey alums on staff, including Peter Orszag, Barack Obama’s head of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Beth Cobert, Obama’s second-term deputy director for management at OMB, had been a senior partner at McKinsey as well as chair of the firm’s pension fund (itself an impressive web of corruption). And while ProPublica did a scathing investigation last year of McKinsey’s horrifying work for Donald Trump’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), revealing that the firm recommended that ICE save money by skimping on food and medical care for detainees — it was the Obama administration’s idea to engage McKinsey in ICE’s “transformation” in the first place. ProPublica probably got more clicks on that story by putting the “T” word in the headline, but Obama was McKinsey’s original client, not Trump.
There’s no comparison between the incoming and outgoing administrations: Biden is considering the head of the National Wildlife Federation for the Environmental Protection Agency role, while Trump’s EPA chief is the vice president of the Washington Coal Club. But in the absence of continued pressure from a serious and well-organized left, the Biden administration will only get worse, which is why it would be a mistake for us to throw up our hands and give up on Biden — and not giving up means strenuously rejecting appointees like Buttigieg from companies like McKinsey.
Experience at McKinsey is taken by many in government to signal that a person is smart, because of the firm’s well-known hiring preference for Ivy League whiz kids like Mayor Pete. But as the power of the grassroots left grows, that perception could change. Rather than being a fancy next step for the gifted and ambitious, that McKinsey stint may become an ugly stain on a résumé, like working for a tobacco company or a gun manufacturer.