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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

McKinsey & Company: Capital’s Willing Executioners

An insider’s perspective on how the world’s most elite consulting firm spreads the gospel of capitalism…

To those convinced that a secretive cabal controls the world, the usual suspects are Illuminati, Lizard People, or “globalists.” They are wrong, naturally. There is no secret society shaping every major decision and determining the direction of human history. There is, however, McKinsey & Company.

The biggest, oldest, most influential, and most prestigious of the “Big Three” management consulting firms, McKinsey has played an outsized role in creating the world we occupy today. In its 90+ year history, McKinsey has been a whisperer to presidents and CEOs. McKinsey serves more than 2,000 institutions, including 90 of the top 100 corporations worldwide. It has acted as a catalyst and accelerant to every trend in the world economy: firm consolidation, the rise of advertising, runaway executive compensation, globalization, automation, and corporate restructuring and strategy.

I came into my job as a McKinsey consultant hoping to change the world from the inside, believing that the best way to make progress is through influencing those who control the levers of power. Instead of being a force for good, I found myself party to the most damaging forces affecting the world: the resurgence of authoritarianism and the continued creep of markets into all parts of life.

Your views of McKinsey’s impact on the world will be largely determined by your views on capitalism’s impact on the world, for few firms have made a greater impact on the prevailing economic system. If you believe, as I once did, that capitalism is the least bad system devised so far, that its worst excesses can be reined in through effective regulation, that it has been the largest engine for human progress in human history, then McKinsey is a Good Thing. As missionaries for capital, it has helped spread the Good Word far and wide, making the world more productive and efficient as a result.

If, however, you believe that, whatever capitalism’s role in history, its continued practice poses an existential threat to governments, the biosphere, and poor people the world over, then the firm’s role is that of a co-conspirator to a crime in which we are all victims. McKinsey is capitalism distilled. It is global, mobile, flexible, and unabashedly pro-market and pro-management. The firm has an enormous stake in things continuing more or less as they are. Working for all sides, McKinsey’s only allegiance is to capital. As capital’s most effective messenger, McKinsey has done direct harm to the world in ways that, thanks to its lack of final decision-making power, are hard to measure and, thanks to its intense secrecy, are hard to know. The firm’s willingness to work with despotic governments and corrupt business empires is the logical conclusion of seeking profit at all costs. Its advocacy of the primacy of the market has made governments more like businesses and businesses more like vampires. By claiming that they solve the world’s hardest problems, McKinsey shrinks the solution space to only those that preserve the status quo. And it is through this claim that the firm attracts thousands of “the best and the brightest” away from careers that actually serve the public.

“The firm does execution, not policy.” I remember the phrase vividly. We were on a conference call with the entire client-service team, including senior leadership. Trump had just begun his term, and the direction of our client, a federal agency, had markedly but predictably shifted. Our team of mostly young do-gooders were concerned about the role we were playing to enable this shift. We were up-in-arms! Well, as up-in-arms as overachieving Ivy League graduates get. To quell dissent, the leader reassured us: We only do execution, not policy.

This categorical claim was meant to assuage our fears. We weren’t the ones steering the ship towards the cliffs, we were merely tasked with keeping the ship afloat until it reached its destination.

But politics touches all things. When the direction of an agency is set by the president, helping execute on that direction means participating in politics. Had McKinsey been as global in the 1940s, the “no policy” line of reasoning would not have prohibited them from helping Bayer optimize its production of Zyklon B, adding a grim double meaning to the partner’s promise to only focus on execution.

How did things turn out this way? McKinsey consultants gave 27 times more money to Hillary Clinton’s campaign than to Donald Trump’s. The members of my team attended the Women’s March while serving an agency shaped by the man they marched against. The firm hires from top universities and many of its consultants have graduate degrees, both strong predictors of liberal political tendencies. McKinsey is at the top of its field, affording it the unique opportunity to turn down lucrative work that other firms cannot. The firm’s 14 values serve as a gold standard for professional services firms and are actually discussed and largely adhered to.

The best explanation is structural. McKinsey’s governing model, when compared to other firms of its size and age, is anarchy. The Managing Director (CEO equivalent) has surprisingly little ability to control who the firm serves (said a partner about the Managing Director, “you are definitely not in charge”). McKinsey remains the world’s largest partnership, and partners rule. The general rule of thumb is that if a partner can staff a team, the firm will do the work. If associates don’t want to work with a tobacco company or a defense contractor, they don’t have to. As a result, only a small portion of the consultants need to buy into a client relationship for McKinsey to do work with them. What this means in practice is that the firm doesn’t work with North Korea, but that’s about it.

McKinsey has grown to the point that it is taking on work that prior incarnations of the firm would have turned down due to the political risk involved. To keep lavishing its partners with multimillion dollar annual compensation packages, the firm needs to sustain double digits year over year growth. In a world that’s been thoroughly McKinseyfied, this requires a loosening of standards. With its fingers in more pots than ever, McKinsey continues to be at the epicenter of world-shaping events.

Beyond the impossibility of dividing the practice of governing into “policy” and “not policy,” the claim itself is bullshit. McKinsey teams often have a policy perspective. They will never frame it that way on the shiny slide decks presented to clients. The team will instead present options, with the preferred option appearing first, with the best supporting evidence behind it. Sometimes the pretense is disposed of and a little “*preferred option” will appear next to the favorite. (On top of all this, the firm uses the client’s logo and formatting on each slide deck. Rarely in a deck prepared for a client would McKinsey’s name explicitly appear. If any of the materials were to leak to the public, there would be nothing tying it back to the firm.)

Perhaps the greatest secret to McKinsey’s success is its ability to benefit from its clients’ successes without being punished for their failures, no matter what role the firm had to play in either outcome. In perhaps the most famous example, the firm survived Enron’s collapse, despite being as close to the company’s key decision-makers as Enron’s accountants, Arthur Andersen, an entity that died with its host.

Direct Harm Serving Governments

The “no policy” policy is classic McKinsey: a complete abdication of responsibility (moral or otherwise) for the courses of action it recommends. However, this line may no longer cut it in today’s political environment. This summer, the New York Times reported on McKinsey’s termination of its contract with ICE:

While stating that McKinsey’s work for the agency did not involve carrying out immigration policies, [Managing Director] Sneader wrote that the firm “will not, under any circumstances, engage in any work, anywhere in the world, that advances or assists policies that are at odds with our values.”

Note again the fiction that the firm isn’t involved in carrying out immigration policy (obviously, McKinsey analysts aren’t physically separating families). According to an award description for one of the ICE contracts, the firm was hired to assist the “ENFORCEMENT AND REMOVAL OPERATIONS (ERO) ORGANIZATIONAL TRANSFORMATION INTEGRATED CONSULTING SERVICES.” ERO is the “papers please” division of ICE, and any transformation and integrated consulting services—a catch-all that could mean literally anything—will have the goal of making the organization more effective at carrying out its stated mission, which will mean more people detained and deported and more families separated.

The second problem with this reassurance is that while McKinsey’s “14 values” may be reassuring to a prospective client, they say nothing about the firm’s larger role in the world. The closest value is a commitment to “observe high ethical standards,” but I only ever saw this applied to the treatment of clients: don’t lie to them, don’t fudge your expenses, etc. If McKinsey had values that considered the human impact of its work and attempted to honor Sneader’s pledge, it would need to pull out of engagements all over the world. Fortunately for the partnership, the value system is free of any mandate to examine the human impact.

The firm was in the news recently thanks to a report it made on the social media reaction to Saudi Arabian austerity policies. The report identified Twitter users who led criticism of the measures, and according to the New York Times, after the report was issued, the users were reportedly surveilled or arrested. Following the assassination and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, many US firms and CEOs boycotted the Saudi Arabia Future Investment Initiative (known as Davos in the Desert). McKinsey (along with many other top consulting firms), however, remained “knowledge partners.” The firm’s ties with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman are deep. In 2015, after preparing a report on how Saudi Arabia can move beyond oil, McKinsey began strategizing with the Crown Prince on the privatization of Aramco, the state-owned oil company and, according to Reuters, “the one thing in Saudi Arabia that works well.” The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia may be McKinsey’s single biggest client (between 2011 and 2016, they ran 600 engagements in the Kingdom)—it will take more than the assassination of a journalist (to say nothing of the brutal war in Yemen) to undermine that thought partnership.

Illustration by Mike Freiheit

This is not to say that no one at the firm objects. According to the Times, “Amid the Arab Spring, its consultants in the region argued that the firm should consider curtailing business in Saudi Arabia.” The firm’s relationship to the Kingdom was controversial during my time there, and it is one of the most discussed topics on “OurBeesWax,” 4Chan for people with an email address. (One choice quote: “If you want to make money in the middle east do it with KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia], end of story – people need to get over this.”)

Of course, there is a justification offered for working with noxious dictatorial regimes. Per the Times report:

“But more senior consultants, including partners, said McKinsey was not in the business of passing judgment on its clients’ cultures and values. The best way to improve the kingdom, they argued, was to modernize the economy and make government and companies work better.”

And yet:

“’Consultants who aim to help authoritarian governments from the inside often give in to a desire to preserve their lucrative assignments,’ said Calvert W. Jones, a professor at the University of Maryland who studies the role of consultants in the Middle East. ‘They soft-pedal… their fear is if they speak truth to power at this state of their interactions, they will be tossed out.’”

In the repressive regimes the firm serves, client norms tend to dominate whatever liberal values McKinsey might initially attempt to smuggle in. As Jones says in a manuscript on the role of experts in the Gulf: “As time goes on, they [consultancies] also engage in the art of not speaking truth to power—they self-censor, exaggerate successes, and downplay their own misgivings, due to the incentive structures they face…”

Beyond the obvious conflicts of interest, this moral relativist logic has no end. The Sinaloa Cartel wants to provide better healthcare to its sicarios, and North Korea wants to modernize its agriculture practices. The firm’s expertise could help. Who are we to judge our clients’ cultures and values? Even hitmen need healthcare, right? (In fact, they are probably expensive to insure.) And surely North Korea’s citizens don’t deserve to starve?

But by serving unsavory clients, McKinsey lends them its sterling reputation, legitimizing them in the eyes of the wider world. Even if McKinsey’s advice improves practices that help ordinary people, in so doing, they sustain despotic regimes. A competent authoritarian is more dangerous than an inept one.

This year in South Africa, McKinsey faced the largest scandal in its history (surpassing its deep implication in the Enron implosion and the imprisonment of its former Managing Director Raj Gupta for insider trading). The firm won a bid with the state-owned power company Eskom, with a performance-based fee worth up to $700 million. According to a Times investigative report:

“The contract turned out to be illegal, a violation of South African contracting law, with some of the payments channeled to an associate of an Indian-born family, the Guptas, at the center of a swirling corruption scandal.”

McKinsey may face criminal prosecution and has agreed to pay back the $74 million in fees it received for the six months of work it carried out.

These are just the stories that leaked to the press. McKinsey is one of the most successful government contractors, with federal contracts worth $613 million between 2012 and 2018, with $150 million from the Department of Defense and $63 million from the Department of Homeland Security. The ICE contracts alone were worth $26 million. Public disclosures do not include the many projects McKinsey does for America’s defense contractors. Many of these projects are benign, bordering on banal, but some of them help organizations that make the bombs blowing up Yemeni school buses.

It’s a good thing, then, that it’s McKinsey doing the work, because, as former London Office Manager Peter Foy told Duff McDonald, “There is no institution on the planet with more integrity than McKinsey and Company.”

Shrinking the Solution Space

When speaking to candidates and clients, McKinsey often claims to solve the hardest problems in the world. Unfucking the F-35 program, overhauling Puerto Rico’s finances, and managing mergers and acquisitions for massive multinational businesses are all difficult problems (whether McKinsey has successfully solved them is another question). But the hardest, most consequential problems cannot and will not be solved by McKinsey. Ending poverty, factory farming, and mass incarceration, fixing global governance, averting catastrophic climate change, and managing the automation of the workforce: These are all problems that can only be solved through a mix of movement building and policy-making. Even in cases where the technocratic incrementalism on offer at McKinsey could be useful, the firm’s structural inability to look at solutions that would shift power away from those who hold it (their clients and employees) negate its ability to help.

A case study from my time at the firm illustrates this: McKinsey was tasked with reducing violence in a correctional facility through a massive organizational transformation. Some of the work we did probably helped: housing the population based on statistically-determined predictors of violence, offering progressive rewards based on good behavior, and improving training for correctional officers. But the reality is that any approach to reducing violence in a prison that is limited to the prison’s walls will only go so far. The biggest reason there is so much violence in prisons and jails is because there are so many people there in first place. And trying to solve that problem without looking at cash bail, prosecutorial discretion, mandatory minimums, and the war on drugs, is like trying to solve a 1,000 piece puzzle with 500 pieces and the wrong box: You may think you understand the problem, but you’re missing way too many pieces. When I brought these topics up, I was told they are “out of scope,” both because of the client’s limited jurisdiction and because the firm “doesn’t do policy.”

McKinsey shouldn’t necessarily be blamed for failing to stanch the bleeding, but its philosophy and recruiting materials sell a kind of technocratic-utopianism: We just need well-funded, smart people to look at the problems of the world, and one by one they will fall away. A recruiting pamphlet offers undergraduates a chance to “Change the world. Improve lives. Invent something new.” This is echoed in the mindset of the nation’s elite. When Mitt Romney spoke to the Wall Street Journal editorial board during his 2008 presidential campaign, he said:

“So I would probably have super-cabinet secretaries, or at least some structure that McKinsey would guide me to put in place. I’m not kidding, I probably would bring in McKinsey… I would consult with the best and the brightest minds… I believe the free market works and government doesn’t—that when government takes over a function which can be effectively managed in the free market, we make a huge mistake.”

McKinsey claims to be the distillation of the free market at its best, a true meritocracy made up of the top people from the top institutions who are culled through the “up or out” system (if you stop advancing, you’re asked to leave). And if the free market knows best, then why not go to the best of the free market?

And as much as the firm likes to position itself as a truth-teller, objectively scouring the data to come to recommendations, with a group of people who jumped through every hoop to sit at the commanding heights of society, how likely will they be to recommend an idea that challenges their audience (who, almost exclusively, are wealthy, powerful men)? The facts and data all indicate that a single-payer healthcare system would be more effective and cost-efficient, but how likely would McKinsey have been to recommend that to a President Romney looking to solve the healthcare crisis (again, prohibitions on policy aside)?

This belief in the superiority of the free market at the expense of government didn’t start with Romney (or Reagan or Goldwater). In 1958, McKinsey consulted on the organizing of America’s response to Sputnik, NASA. According to historian Christopher McKenna in The World’s Newest Profession:

From NASA’s establishment, the organizational structure that Glennan and the consultants from McKinsey & Company devised for the space agency promoted the use of outside contractors over building internal expertise… Beyond the bare minimum of internal technical expertise, however, the McKinsey consultants argued that America’s ‘free enterprise society dictates that industry should be given as extensive a role as possible.’”

This approach, “may have dismayed the agency’s engineers, but the response cheered NASA administrators.” By 1964, 90 percent of NASA’s $5 billion budget went to private companies and 350,000 contractors supported 32,500 NASA employees. Bill Clinton’s declaration of the end of big government in 1996 and George W. Bush’s pledge to substitute contractors for half of the remaining federal workforce in 2002 were influenced and made possible by the work that McKinsey did in establishing the contractor state. In an ironic twist, two months before the disastrous rollout of, McKinsey warned senior White House staff that, “the project lacked comprehensive testing, noted many functions were dependent on contractors and warned against taking risks to meet deadlines.”

The hollowing of NASA was not an isolated event. According to The Firm, in the 1980s,McKinsey helped Carlos Salinas privatize 85 percent of Mexico’s state-owned businesses, Margaret Thatcher do the same in Britain, and West Germany do the same in East Germany. The firm has played a role in privatizing government assets in Latin and Central America, Eastern Europe, and Asia. In some of these cases, privatization was inevitable, but in many, McKinsey made it more likely. Inexperienced leaders looking to make a mark turn to McKinsey for ideas, and they are all too eager to recommend privatization. The firm can point to all of its experience managing privatization elsewhere, as well as the influx of cash and positive Western press about how this shows you’re a “serious reformer.” Beyond the fees, McKinsey is motivated to do this work by its pro-market ideology. That privatization increases inequality, primarily benefits the wealthy, is not immune to corruption, and fundamentally shifts management incentives towards pleasing shareholders and away from the public interest is of little concern to McKinsey.

Beyond the literal privatization of public assets, the steady creep of corporate approaches to governing amounts to privatization in all but name. Government cannot and should not be run like a business, as even the Harvard Business Review admits. One particularly egregious example was McKinsey’s recommendation that the BBC use an internal market to buy and sell services, which led to endless internal negotiations to do tasks as simple as reserving studio time. McKinsey’s perceived success at improving corporate governance has led to calls from publications like the Economist that it may be “McKinsey’s turn to try to sort out Uncle Sam.” In anticipation of the beginning of Obama’s presidency, the magazine unironically hoped that “Obama may favour McKinseyites in much the same way as his predecessor seemed addicted to hiring alumni of Goldman Sachs.” As we all know, the Goldman Sachs-stuffed Treasury Department led to stable markets and steady growth throughout the Bush administration. They go on to hope that Obama hires “the best technocrats” like Ford Motor CEO turned Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. That these two parties contributed to and presided over the financial crisis and Vietnam War respectively apparently does nothing to shake the Economist’s confidence in the wisdom of technocratic businessmen.

Spreading Management-Friendly Ideas

McKinsey claims to be a dispassionate assessor of data and provider of recommendations, but its bias is given away by the name of the industry it helped create: management consulting. The people who enlist its services and pay its fees fall firmly on one side of the labor-management divide. McKinsey will never make a recommendation that truly threatens its core audience—any analysis is bounded. Searching for cost savings? Everything is on the table, except executive bonuses, of course.

The initial rise of McKinsey and other management consultancies was due less to the force of their ideas or the ability of their people than to government anti-monopoly legislation, specifically the Glass Steagall Act of 1933. According to Christopher McKenna, in addition to separating commercial and investment banking, “the legislators also outlawed the consultative and reorganizational activities previously performed by banks.” This created an opening for management consulting firms: “Corporate executives, aware that the New Deal laws prohibited them from employing trade associations, industry cartels, or bankers to create industry benchmarks and to learn about administrative innovations, turned instead to management consultants as their primary source of interorganizational knowledge.” At McKinsey, there are benchmarks for everything, whether it’s the percentage of expected R&D savings following a pharma merger or the cost of temporary IT labor in the American Southwest. Over the years, McKinsey’s work with pretty much every player in every industry has made it the panopticon of global business, willing to share what competitors are up to (as anonymized “best practices” of course), for a price. 

In addition to the favorable regulatory environment, McKinsey’s pro-market, hyper-rational ideas spread through what organizational theorists Paul DiMaggio and Walter Powell call “mimetic isomorphism,” the tendency of institutions facing uncertainty to become more and more alike. In a quest for legitimacy in the eyes of employees, customers, and competitors, “Large organizations choose from a relatively small set of major consulting firms, which, like Johnny Appleseeds, spread a few organizational models throughout the land.” As a result, “…schools assume the structure of the workplace, hospital and university administrations come to resemble the management of for-profit firms, and the modernization of the world economy proceeds unabated.”

McKinsey’s reorganization of most of the large companies in post-war Europe demonstrates mimetic isomorphism in action. Facing extreme uncertainty and pressure from American firms, European companies modeled themselves after organizations perceived to be successful (American ones) and relied heavily on a single source of vital resources (McKinsey). Whether American corporate success was due to the decentralized organization model or the fact that their competition was in literal ruins is of little consequence. Decentralization took off because the cool companies decentralized, with McKinsey whispering in their ears. The net effect of these forces was to exacerbate some of the most damaging trends in contemporary life: the growth of wealth inequality and the increased insecurity of private employment.

In the 1950s, McKinsey consultant Arch Patton pioneered the field of executive compensation after discovering that worker wages had risen faster than management wages. (Gasp!) This led to a lucrative business: helping executives justify more and more extreme paychecks. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the typical CEO made 20 times the median employee’s compensation in 1965. In 2015, that ratio had climbed to 286. When Patton was asked in the 1980s how he felt about his legacy, he had one word: “Guilty.”

In the corporate world, the most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from McKinsey, and I’m here to help. The firm’s appearance is known as a harbinger of layoffs (one of most famous representations of consultants in pop culture is “the Bobs” from Office Space). While McKinsey will claim that it never identifies individuals to be cut, its willingness and effectiveness in recommending the axe begins in its roots. In 1935, James O. McKinsey left the firm he started to run a client, the Midwest department store chain Marshall Field. He was tasked with implementing the cost-cutting measures he recommended, resulting in “McKinsey’s purge” of 1,200 employees. In The Firm, McDonald writes, “McKinsey was a true forerunner of the 1980s revolutions in reorganization, downsizing, and rationalization– which are really just layoffs in different guises… McKinsey once argued that it ‘only assesses situations, not people.’” Note the classic obfuscation. What are situations without people? McDonald goes on, “…it may not be too far off the mark to suggest that McKinsey has been the impetus for more layoffs than any other entity in corporate history.”

Would these companies have laid off their employees, McKinsey or no? The presence of data-driven outsiders provides cover for executives to do things they may not have done otherwise. McKinsey could also point out that their competitors were taking similar steps (probably following the firm’s recommendations). Would these companies have survived without mass layoffs? In some cases, no, but in many cases, alternatives were possible but not considered (like looking at executive compensation or the cost of expensive consultants). Sometimes, layoffs are not even framed as necessary, like when McKinsey client Proctor & Gamble laid off 13,000 workers and the CEO said the public “has come to think of corporate restructuring as a sign of trouble, but this is definitely not P&G’s situation.”

In most companies, the fastest way to find savings is to reduce headcount, but McKinsey doesn’t have to live with the consequences of the decisions it makes—the irreparable damage mass layoffs can do to a company’s culture and operations, in addition to the impact they can have on the lives of the terminated.

“The Best and the Brightest”

For one of the most successful capitalist enterprises in history, McKinsey controls surprisingly little capital. There are no factories or machines owned by the firm. It has no products, really (a few godawful pieces of software aside). Even its offices sit in rented glass and steel towers in the world’s major cities. McKinsey is nothing without its human capital. Who, then, are these extremely expensive people?

There is a type. By and large, they have at least one degree from a prestigious university. They are intensely analytical and eager to deconstruct the world around them. They have been rightly called “insecure overachievers,” a type of striving neurotic endemic to the Ivy League campuses that feed McKinsey’s halls. While there, I worked with Rhodes Scholars, special operators and fighter pilots, doctors and advisers to presidents, physicists, journalists, and Olympians. Excluding the U.S. government, McKinsey employs the most Rhodes and Marshall Scholars as well as STEM PhDs from top programs. It also recruits heavily at top medical and law schools (though decreasing the number of practicing lawyers in the world may be the most unambiguously good thing McKinsey does). More than 70 past and present Fortune 500 CEOs are McKinsey alumni, and the odds of a McKinsey employee becoming a public company CEO are the best in the world (1 out of 690). Its alumni include Sheryl Sandberg and Chelsea Clinton, Google CEO Sundar Pichai and former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling, and Yul Kwon, the winner of Survivor: Cook Islands. The firm also has a habit of producing some of the nastiest Republican politicians (Tom Cotton and Bobby Jindal). Maybe these people already had the ability, determination, ruthlessness, and emptiness that could only be filled by professional achievement needed to attain these positions of status and influence, but they often cite their time at McKinsey as a crucial step in their path to world domination.

McKinsey is far from the only company to harvest fresh graduates from the Ivy League, and if it disappeared tomorrow, the best and the brightest would continue to fill the ranks of Bain and the Boston Consulting Group (and Goldman and Google). But McKinsey was the first firm to make the bet that raw ability and potential trumps experience. It was the first major consulting firm to hire straight out of business school and the first to hire straight from undergraduate programs, consistently drawing the top students from Harvard.

This is part of a larger pernicious trend. The age at which students start committing to “careers of excellence” is getting younger and younger. Students begin recruiting for jobs in management consulting in the fall of their junior year amid an environment that leaves them, “…wondering whether there’s something wrong with them if they’re not interested in consulting and investment banking.” This is in large part due to the hyper-competitiveness capitalism engenders. Young people are making decisions about their academic and professional careers before they’ve had a chance to interrogate their values and thoughtfully decide how they want to spend their lives. One of the biggest appeals of management consulting is that it serves as the undecided major of careers, opening more doors than it closes. College seniors with a McKinsey offer can accurately make a two-year commitment, learn useful skills, gain an impressive network, and gold stamp their resume before joining the Peace Corps and returning to their previously-planned career of do-goodery. Beyond the skill-building, McKinsey markets itself as a place to do good while you’re there (two of the four practice cases on its interviewing page are in the social/public sector despite less than 10 percent of the firm’s work coming from those sectors).

But those two years change you. Idealism turns to cynicism in the face of the cold realities of the world. Shitty college apartments and dining hall meals turn into luxury Starwood properties and expensed Michelin star dinners. The job opportunities at the end of the brief stint can pay $300,000 per year (private equity shops being a prime post-McKinsey destination). And throughout this time, you’re surrounded by other people who made the same decision. For some of them, those two years turned into four turned into 10. Most others will leave as planned, but not to a career of do-goodery. All of these people have come up with justifications for their decision and are eager to share them. Some examples, “you’re building career capital that you can apply to whatever nonprofit or political cause you support down the line,” or “the speed and innovation of the private sector makes it the best place to have impact”, or “someone is going to do the job, so might as well be me (and I’ll do more good than the likely replacement).”

Precious few of my colleagues have shown signs that their post-McKinsey careers will be more prosocial than their McKinsey career, but even for those who do, their understanding of how to improve the world has been thoroughly McKinseyfied. In Winners Take All, writer and former McKinsey analyst Anand Giridharadas describes what he calls “MarketWorld,” which is:

“…an ascendant power elite that is defined by the concurrent drives to do well and do good, to change the world while also profiting from the status quo…these elites believe and promote the idea that social change should be pursued principally through the free market and voluntary action…that it should be supervised by the winners of capitalism and their allies, and not be antagonistic to their needs; and that the biggest beneficiaries of the status quo should play a leading role in the status quo’s reform…The MarketWorld problem-solver does not tend to hunt for perpetrators and is not interested in blame.”

I’ve seen this tendency in myself. It was harder for me to embrace a Left worldview because of the social ties I have with people who are perpetrators of the many harms inherent in our system. I have also seen this in my former colleagues, like a healthcare specialist who volunteered for numerous Democratic campaigns and strongly opposed single-payer healthcare. The definitive evidence he marshalled for why single-payer was a terrible idea was a Vox piece arguing that the system would only save money if doctors were paid less. Clearly, this outcome was more intolerable than 30 million Americans continuing to go without insurance. On his McKinsey engagements, he works primarily with doctors and healthcare administrators, the people whose paychecks and jobs would be most negatively affected by a transition to a single-payer system. Their lives and livelihoods are far more salient than the millions of uninsured who exist only as numbers in spreadsheets. Any solution that requires redistribution of any wealth or power from the ruling class (the only class who can afford to hire McKinsey) is not even worth considering.

It is the same situation described by Tolstoy: “I sit on a man’s back choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am sorry for him and wish to lighten his load by all means possible… except by getting off his back.”

We are now living with the consequences of the world McKinsey created. Market fundamentalism is the default mode for businesses and governments the world over. Abstraction and myth insulate actors from the atrocities they help perpetuate. Businesses that resisted the pressure to rationalize every decision based on its impact on shareholder value were beaten out or eaten up by those who shed the last remnants of their humanity. With another heavyweight on the side of management, McKinsey tipped the scale even further away from labor, contributing directly to the increase in wealth inequality plaguing the world. Governments are now more similar to the private sector and more reliant on their services. The “best and the brightest” devote themselves to client service instead of public service.

Not all of these results are wholly attributable to McKinsey—there are many conspirators to these crimes. But no firm has touched more and been seen less. 

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