When McKinsey Comes to Town: The Hidden Influence of the World’s Most Powerful Consulting Firm. By Walt Bogdanich and Michael Forsythe. New York: Doubleday, 2022. 368 pp.
In early 2021, as the United States was in the thick of the pandemic, the storied consulting firm McKinsey settled a lawsuit brought against it by the attorneys general of 47 states for its role in helping Purdue Pharma to “turbocharge” the sale of the addictive opioid painkiller OxyContin. McKinsey’s admission of culpability, and the US$573 million it agreed to pay in damages, constituted a stunning and unusual public humiliation for one of the most influential companies in the world. In a time of rising anger at large corporations over everything from job insecurity to inequality to inflation, McKinsey’s role in the opioid crisis was perceived as the tip of a proverbial iceberg—evidence of the existence of a secret web of corrupt ties between corporations and governments, the result of which has been the channeling of immense benefits to the few at the expense of the many.
That is the main gist of a new book by Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times reporter Walt Bogdanich and his co-author (also at the Times) Michael Forsythe. When McKinsey Comes to Town: The Hidden Influence of the World’s Most Powerful Consulting Firm is a work of deep reportage, combining both narrative vigor and the voices of dozens of participants. Many of their sources are former McKinsey employees, who were unsurprisingly more likely to open up about the firm’s work that had concerned them. Beyond those former consultants, the book certainly does not lack for reportage. The overarching question about how contemporary capitalism functions is one of the most pressing of our day.
Richly reported and sourced books like this one often seek to teach us just how complicated the world really is. This one, however, does the opposite. When McKinsey Comes to Town comes with a singular goal—to level a searing indictment against a company that says it wants to make the world a better place, but which, in the authors’ telling, routinely violates its stated principles in the service of its customers’ (and its own) bottom line. On its website, the firm states that its primary purpose is “to help create positive, enduring change in the world.” Bogdanich and Forsythe see it differently: “McKinsey has allowed its consultants to reap big paydays promoting addictive products, recommending policies that expand income inequality, and serving bad actors on the international stage, including major polluters” (p. 278).
McKinsey is famous in business and government circles. It is one of the most influential consulting companies on the planet, and its clients include most of the world’s largest corporations, and numerous federal and state government agencies in the United States and their equivalents abroad. The company works discreetly, and hence does not attract the same attention as, say, Microsoft or ExxonMobil. Its consultants work, confidentially, on a vast range of projects, many of which focus on how a client can more efficiently and effectively achieve its goals. In the case of a company, that may be to operate at higher margins and lower costs. For a government agency, it may be to deliver more services for less money. The result is that even though the firm presents itself as a “values-driven organization” (p. 17), those values often entail recommendations that lead to job cuts, fewer services, and more profit for already profitable companies. Companies do not necessarily seek to lay off workers, but in the pursuit of profit, that is often a viable path, especially when those workers can be replaced by technology. Governments do not necessarily seek to offer fewer benefits and services, but that is often the path when faced with spiraling costs and pressure on budgets.
Bogdanich and Forsythe structure the book as a series of case studies exposing how McKinsey has time and again violated its values and caused societal harm. Clearly, the company’s work with Purdue Pharma to market more OxyContin, even after it had become clear how addictive and destructive that opioid is, was an unambiguous case of putting profit before people. The book is a veritable compendium of such examples, chapter after chapter of case studies involving foreign governments such as South Africa and the U.K.’s National Health Services, state governments in the United States, and companies such as Disney and Walmart. That should make for a compelling brief, but few of the other cases rival Purdue.
The authors state their position with energy and verve, but ultimately, they fail to nail their case. The thrust of the book is to assign guilt by association. Practically every chapter proceeds something like this: X does something objectionable, hence it is a bad actor. McKinsey has worked for X. Hence McKinsey is a bad actor. That syllogism might be convincing for some, but it sidesteps a vital question of defining when and what makes an actor bad.
Take the work McKinsey did for ICE, the U.S. government agency responsible for enforcing immigration laws. ICE has turned to McKinsey for multiple projects since the agency’s creation in 2003. Bogdanich and Forsythe demonstrate how that work had come under intense scrutiny by 2018, after the Trump administration began using ICE as the sharp end of a spear to implement increasingly draconian policies in detaining and deporting not just illegal immigrants but also asylum seekers entering the United States along the southern border with Mexico.
Much of the controversy about McKinsey’s ICE work was internal: It was McKinsey’s own staff that turned against the idea of ICE as a client (even though that work during the Obama years sparked no such outrage). This dissent led to several town halls and forums where junior consultants and associates vented their disappointment with McKinsey senior leaders’ being complicit in Trump administration enforcement policies and demanded that the firm stop this work. It did.
That could be a story of a how a large firm allowed for significant internal debate and dissension about the line between values and profit, with many voices providing input even as the solutions did not fully satisfy anyone. Instead, this story becomes for Bogdanich and Forsythe another simple equation of McKinsey being de facto compromised. But the authors leave unaddressed what litmus the firm was and is supposed to use. Should it be monitoring a change in administrations for guidance about whether to have a government as a client? Should it never work for autocratic governments—even those that allow for measures of freedom or show signs of democratic opening? And on what basis should a company make such choices? Is there a clear list of products that it should not help any company to sell other than those that are illegal? There are a few clear red lines—certain types of opioids, for one, and not assisting in genocide, another—but there are many more opaque ones.
Sometimes the case studies in the book can venture into the comical. In an inadvertently amusing chapter on McKinsey’s work with the Houston Astros, we are treated to the rather implausible claim that the 2017 sign-stealing scandal was attributable to McKinsey. “The firm’s role in shaping the culture of the Astros was undeniable,” the authors argue (p. 220). But what did McKinsey do for the Astros? It helped them to adopt the so-called moneyball techniques made famous by Michael Lewis’s book (and the movie starring Brad Pitt). It is not clear how the authors get from statistical analysis of player attributes to gross dishonesty, and readers need more before we can join the authors in their judgement.
Although there is something appealing, even admirable, in the uncompromising moral stance that runs through this book, one cannot escape the feeling that When McKinsey Comes to Town represents a series of missed opportunities. Foremost among those was the chance to address the age-old dilemma of when, if ever, it is permissible to work with entities and organizations that do not share your moral standards or worse. The authors’ China case would have been a perfect place to address this question. Much of McKinsey’s work in China over the past two decades has been to help state-owned enterprises become more competitive with their global counterparts. The firm often hired children of elites, as it does in every country, including the United States. China’s repression of the Uyghurs is a bright line, but the authors do not accuse McKinsey of being complicit in that. Instead, their issue is that McKinsey was working in China at all, and they say that the answer to whether they should be is “obvious” (p. 98). But if so, then that is effectively an indictment of practically all Western engagement with China over the past several decades. That case can be made, but it cannot be assumed.
Finally, this book missed an opportunity to take on more consequential game. Though it is never fair to chastise an author for not writing the book you think they should have written, one cannot escape the feeling that this book really wants to be a critique of capitalism. After all, most of the authors’ complaints are, fundamentally, with unfettered markets and the relentless pursuit of the bottom line at the expense of other values (such as clean air or social equality). McKinsey is certainly one of the system’s most effective functionaries. But a world without McKinsey would not be appreciably different from the one we live in now. This reader is forced to conclude, then, that the prosecutorial energy that animates When McKinsey Comes to Town—and which makes it such a rollicking (if frustrating) read—was, in the end, rather misplaced.
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