When McKinsey aids ICE and Rikers, is it amoral or immoral?
McKinsey & Company is a prestigious management consulting firm known more for being excellent than for being good. Which is to say, only the most die-hard free market capitalist would take a job there expecting to make the world a better place. But many people who choose to work there––and it is a choice for these consultants, given the firm’s selectiveness––view the tasks as an amoral application of market wisdom, not an immoral consolidation of power and resources for the already empowered.
Certainly, this is what Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg wants the public to believe about his time working there. “There’s nothing particularly sizzling about the list of clients that I served,” Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, told Rachel Maddow this week. And Vox seems to agree, at least in part: “It’s not like Buttigieg was McKinsey’s CEO; it was an early job after he graduated from school.”
“It’s a place that is as amoral as the American business community in general, or at least the corporate community, can be. And that’s one of the problems with it,” Buttigieg told The Atlantic. “I never worked or was asked to work on things that I had a problem with, but it’s a place that I think, like any other law firm or firms that deal with companies, just thinks about client work and doesn’t always think about the bigger implications.”
But when companies, and the people who work there, fail to consider the “bigger implications” of what they do, that does nothing to protect vulnerable people from suffering. It puts them at risk. And it doesn’t let the employees off the hook, ethically speaking. “I can think of at least four times in the decade since I left that I’ve opened the newspaper and been disgusted about something I saw,” Buttigieg told a group of New Hampshire voters last week. “And what you see is a company that I think basically reflects what’s wrong with corporate America. It’s all about shareholders and profit maximization, that’s what companies do—which is why companies need to be regulated … so they’re never going outside the boundaries of what is morally acceptable.”
Given the media attention to the prominent role McKinsey and other major corporations have played assisting prisons, police, and ICE in inflicting harm, it is increasingly difficult for people like Buttigieg to argue that his actions as a low-level employee were amoral: They were immoral.
Two days ago, ProPublica released a damning article that details the role McKinsey played in attempting to reduce violence at the Rikers Island jail complex. Having been retained by the city for three years, McKinsey sent a report in 2017 to the New York City corrections commissioner announcing that after three years, McKinsey’s anti-violence strategy in its “Restart” housing units at Rikers had led to a drop in violence of over 50 percent. “The number was bogus,” writes Ian MacDougall. “Jail officials and McKinsey consultants had jointly rigged the Restart program in its earliest phase to all but guarantee there would be few violent episodes, according to documents and interviews. They stacked the units with inmates they believed to be compliant and unlikely to get into fights or to attack staff.”
As they came up with their plan, the consultants did not solicit the views of prisoners, clinic staff, or others with direct insights into drivers of violence. The closest the consultants came to interacting with incarcerated people during that stage was to watch them through glass from inside guard booths. Just as troubling, “McKinsey began adopting the mindset of the correction officers, according to one of its consultants. The firm’s initiatives included facilitating the expanded use of Tasers, shotguns and K9 patrol dogs (‘aggressive dogs,’ in the words of one McKinsey presentation),” reports MacDougall. During one meeting, some McKinsey consultants said they wanted to beat prisoners to get an unruly situation under control, and a former employee said that a senior partner grew exasperated by the tough-guy posturing. “Guys, you’ve gone native,” the former consultant recalls him saying. “I think you’ve been spending too much time with the correctional officers.”
By the time McKinsey left, having been paid $27.5 million by the city, prisoners and jail staff at Rikers were at significantly greater risk than when McKinsey’s engagement began. In October of this year, the New York City Council voted to close Rikers. That same month, a federal monitor, “appointed by a court to oversee reform at Rikers, revealed that violence by jail guards there continues to worsen. Overall, using the metrics employed by McKinsey, jailhouse violence has risen nearly 50 percent since the firm began its assignment.”
The Rikers story is one of failure, but when McKinsey is successful, the results can be even more terrifying. Days after President Trump took office in 2017, he issued two executive orders ordering “all legally available resources” to be directed toward cracking down on immigration. ICE quickly redirected McKinsey, which had been retained by previous administrations, toward helping the agency figure out how to execute the orders. McKinsey did not terminate the contract in protest; it complied, and even surpassed the enthusiasm of those in government. “But the money-saving recommendations the consultants came up with made some career ICE workers uncomfortable,” reports MacDougall in a separate piece for ProPublica and the New York Times.
“They proposed cuts in spending on food for migrants, as well as on medical care and supervision of detainees,” MacDougall writes. “McKinsey’s team also looked for ways to accelerate the deportation process, provoking worries among some ICE staff members that the recommendations risked short-circuiting due-process protections for migrants fighting removal from the United States.”
It might be difficult to imagine that politically neutral consultants, whose primary commitments were to the client and the market, could display so much callousness toward human suffering that they made employees at the famously cruel ICE agency uncomfortable. But blind adherence to the bottom line and the free market, without ethical boundaries, can devastate the line between amorality and immorality. According to three people who worked on the project, MacDougall writes, the consultants “seemed focused solely on cutting costs and speeding up deportations—actions whose success could be measured in numbers—with little acknowledgment that these policies affected thousands of human beings. In meetings with McKinsey consultants, agency staff members questioned whether saving pennies on food and medical care for detainees justified the potential human cost.”
When ethical concerns were raised among McKinsey’s employees and former partners, the firm’s global managing partner, Kevin Sneader, assured them in a 2018 email that McKinsey “will not, under any circumstances, engage in work, anywhere in the world, that advances or assists policies that are at odds with our values.” Which might make one wonder what exactly those values are and if any boundaries exist at all. In response to MacDougall’s reporting, McKinsey released a statement that reiterated its mission: “At the heart of our public sector practice is a commitment to ensuring that the agencies of federal, state and local governments can operate efficiently and effectively.” Efficiency and effectiveness do not, however, protect against tragedy or cruelty.
This week, video was released showing a 16-year-old boy die alone on a floor in immigration custody. “His loved ones watched him die, months and months after they had already lost him, when the footage was finally made public,” writes Maximillian Alvarez for Current Affairs. “They watched, unable to hold him, unable to comfort him in his last confused and scared moments. They watched, knowing that merely yards away, just down the hall, a good number of healthy and able-bodied Americans sat, bored, whiling away the night. They sat, bored, breathing effortlessly, unthinkingly, while somebody’s baby kicked and coughed and clung desperately to being alive.” The Border Patrol’s “subject activity log” claims that an agent checked on the boy three times over the course of the night, from the time he collapsed to the time he was found dead in the same spot. But this will never be confirmed by the surveillance tape, which Customs and Border Protection tried to keep from the public, because it goes black for those four crucial hours.
Buttigieg is telling the truth when he says of McKinsey, “When you have an apparatus like that that is so woven into the American private sector, it’s going to be as moral or immoral or amoral as the American private sector itself.” His statement does not justify his actions as much as he seems to think it should. We know enough to know just how immoral the private sector can be.