McKinsey and Company Is an Elitist Cult. Why Is Buttigieg Defending It?

The management consultancy firm is “the single greatest legitimizer of mass layoffs.” And its alumni are loyal for life.

Nathan Robinson July 31, 2019

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Pete Buttigieg has emerged as one of the most talked-about can­di­dates of the 2020 elec­tion cycle. With his glit­ter­ing resume — Har­vard, a Rhodes, a stint in the mil­i­tary — and his com­pelling sto­ry as the young gay may­or of an Indi­ana city, Buttigieg has appeared on the cov­ers of Time and New York. While a small-city may­or may be an unlike­ly pres­i­den­tial con­tender, Buttigieg con­tin­ues mak­ing head­way, polling fourth in Iowa and New Hamp­shire in a noto­ri­ous­ly crowd­ed field. The New York Times reports that vot­ers and donors in the par­ty” embrace him with steadi­ly grow­ing enthu­si­asm,” not­ing the keen inter­est from Wall Street.

Is Mayor Pete someone who will challenge the status quo?

While Buttigieg some­times speaks the lan­guage of the Left on the cam­paign trail and will like­ly embrace some crowd-pleas­ing pro­gres­sive pol­i­cy plans, one chap­ter of his past rais­es the ques­tion: Is May­or Pete some­one who will chal­lenge the sta­tus quo?

After grad­u­at­ing Oxford, any career path in the world was open to him, and Buttigieg chose McK­in­sey & Com­pa­ny, the cult-like man­age­ment con­sult­ing firm. Buttigieg writes in his mem­oir, Short­est Way Home, that he became a con­sul­tant because he want­ed to get an edu­ca­tion in the real world.” The real world exists in many places on this plan­et; McK­in­sey & Com­pa­ny is not one of them. Peo­ple seek to join the world’s num­ber one con­sult­ing behe­moth to secure a place in the ranks of the Amer­i­can elite.

In 1993, For­tune mag­a­zine put it this way: These fel­lows from McK­in­sey sin­cere­ly do believe they are bet­ter than every­body else. Like sev­er­al less pur­pose­ful orga­ni­za­tions — Men­sa, Bohemi­an Grove, Skull and Bones, the Ban­quet of the Gold­en Plate — McK­in­sey is elit­ist by design.” 

The firm has pro­duced at least 70 For­tune 500 CEOs. Buttigieg’s three-year stint is par for the course at an orga­ni­za­tion that takes pride in coun­sel­ing out” 4 in 5 hires before they become part­ner. They then proud­ly join what McK­in­sey calls its alum­ni net­work,” and what Duff McDon­ald, author of The Firm: The Sto­ry of McK­in­sey and Its Secret Influ­ence on Amer­i­can Busi­ness, calls the McK­in­sey Mafia.” As they fan out among the world’s C‑suites and B‑suites, they remain McK­in­sey loy­al­ists. There is no McK­in­sey bone­yard, in oth­er words; you’re still McK­in­sey after you’ve left,” McDon­ald writes. Per­haps the only alum­ni net­work with more reach and life­long rel­e­vance to its mem­bers is that of Har­vard University.”

McKinsey’s inter­nal churn fits per­fect­ly with the company’s con­sult­ing phi­los­o­phy. McK­in­sey, which in 2003 advised 100 of the world’s top 150 firms, may be the sin­gle great­est legit­imiz­er of mass lay­offs,” writes McDon­ald. Its advice: Iden­ti­fy your bot­tom 10 per­cent or 25 per­cent or 33 per­cent, and get rid of them as soon as possible.”

McK­in­sey is also an infa­mous mer­ce­nary for the world’s most uneth­i­cal cor­po­ra­tions and author­i­tar­i­an gov­ern­ments, from Chi­na to Sau­di Ara­bia. McK­in­sey alleged­ly advised Pur­due Phar­ma, the prog­en­i­tor of today’s opi­oid cri­sis, on how to tur­bocharge” Oxy­Con­tin sales and keep users hooked.

We are now liv­ing with the con­se­quences of the world McK­in­sey cre­at­ed,” writes a for­mer McK­in­sey con­sul­tant in an exposé for Cur­rent Affairs. Mar­ket fun­da­men­tal­ism is the default mode for busi­ness­es and gov­ern­ments the world over.”

So what kind of pres­i­den­cy would the McK­in­sey mind­set pro­duce? For­mer McK­in­sey con­sul­tant Anand Girid­haradas observes, in Win­ners Take All: The Elite Cha­rade of Chang­ing the World, busi­ness con­sul­tants ignore how polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic pow­er actu­al­ly works. These elites believe and pro­mote the idea that social change should be pur­sued prin­ci­pal­ly through the free mar­ket and vol­un­tary action,” Girid­haradas writes. And that the biggest ben­e­fi­cia­ries of the sta­tus quo should play a lead­ing role in the sta­tus quo’s reform.”

As McK­in­sey comes under heav­ier scruti­ny for its role in the crimes of gov­ern­ments and pow­er­ful cor­po­ra­tions, any pro­gres­sive” who worked there and wants to be tak­en seri­ous­ly should have a rather crit­i­cal per­spec­tive. Buttigieg has shown no such reflec­tion. Instead, he calls his time at McK­in­sey his most intel­lec­tu­al­ly inform­ing expe­ri­ence”; he left only because it could not fur­nish that deep lev­el of pur­pose that I craved.” Buttigieg has said he didn’t fol­low the sto­ry of McKinsey’s Oxy­Con­tin push. On McKinsey’s Sau­di and South African gov­ern­ment ties, he said: I think you have a lot of smart, well-inten­tioned peo­ple who some­times view the world in a very inno­cent way. I wrote my the­sis on Gra­ham Greene, who said that inno­cence is like a dumb lep­er that has lost his bell, wan­der­ing the world, mean­ing no harm.”

This excuse is remark­able. Buttigieg sug­gests that the savvy Har­vard grads who pop­u­late McK­in­sey are child­like inno­cents who sim­ply don’t notice they’re work­ing for Mohammed bin Salman.

It is not ter­ri­bly sur­pris­ing that Wall Street has embraced Buttigieg, a prod­uct of their world. But any­one who hopes to be pres­i­dent should have a bet­ter-tuned moral sense. They should have no doubt where they stand on that old labor ques­tion, Which side are you on?” Buttigieg’s roots in elite con­sult­ing sug­gest, at best, he doesn’t know; at worst, that he’s cho­sen poorly. 

Nathan Robin­son is the edi­tor of Cur­rent Affairs mag­a­zine and the author of Trump: Anato­my of a Mon­stros­i­ty.
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