Wednesday night's Democratic debate will no doubt run over the topics already covered in the previous debates. That means Medicare for All, a wealth tax, foreign policy, maybe a question or two on climate change. But the moderators and the other candidates should also move on to a new topic: What exactly did Pete Buttigieg, who has lately emerged as a viable presidential contender, do when he worked for the powerful management consultant firm McKinsey and Company?
The South Bend mayor spent three years, from 2007 to 2010, at McKinsey following his time at Harvard and Oxford. (It was also during this time that he joined the military, going on to serve six years as an intelligence officer in the Navy Reserves, including a six-month deployment to Afghanistan.) According to his memoir, Buttigieg joined McKinsey "to learn what wasn’t on the page and get an education in the real world."
McKinsey represents a very particular slice of the real world. The company essentially dispatches rosy-cheeked Rhodes scholars to clients all over the world to tell them how they can become more efficient and effective. This can mean many different things. Sometimes, it means McKinsey employees tell a business how many people to fire. (In The Firm: The Story of McKinsey and Its Secret Influence on American Business, financial journalist Duff McDonald describes McKinsey as the "single greatest legitimiser of mass lay-offs… in modern history.") Sometimes, it means advising authoritarian governments and state-run businesses; McKinsey consultants have worked with Chinese firms acting in opposition to U.S. interests and gone on to work at the Russian energy companies they were advising. Past McKinsey clients include Enron, Purdue Pharma, and Saudi Arabia. This is a company that tells other companies (and governments) how to be as ruthless as possible, and dresses up its methods in a bunch of acronyms and buzzwords.
What Buttigieg's duties were at McKinsey isn't clear. "I did math for a living around economics—the economics of energy and the economics of stabilizing very tough places around the world in order to make sure there’s less violence there,” he said at a 2010 candidate forum in South Bend hosted by the Tea Party-aligned Citizens for Common Sense during his losing campaign for state treasurer. "But I got to thinking, if I’m any good at stabilizing economies, maybe I ought to try to help stabilize the economy right here in Indiana." Buttigieg would reiterate this line of rhetoric during his mayoral bid. "I got my street smarts working in war zones on economic stabilization," he told the South Bend Tribune in an interview that BuzzFeed News dug up last week. "I think that experience stands up next to anybody's."
A candidate's biography is often hugely important to their campaign, and when a politician has a record as short as Buttigieg's it is particularly important to scrutinize every aspect of it. But when pressed about the McKinsey "experience" that has evidently helped formed Mayor Pete's thinking, his campaign defers to the non-disclosure agreements by which it says he is still covered. From the BuzzFeed News report:
Asked… if Buttigieg would be willing to provide more information about his role at the firm, spokesperson Chris Meagher confirmed that the campaign on at least two occasions has asked McKinsey about ways around the nondisclosure pact.
Buttigieg’s work "is largely covered by a non-disclosure agreement,” Meagher said Friday. "Previously, the campaign had reached out to McKinsey to inquire about what the NDA encompasses, and this week again reached out to McKinsey about the possibility of being released from the NDA."
A McKinsey spokesperson declined to comment about Buttigieg’s work there—the firm only would confirm he was hired in June 2007 and left in March 2010. The spokesperson also wouldn’t comment about the likelihood of Buttigieg being released from a confidentiality pact.
Now Buttigieg finds himself in a curious and conflicted position, invoking his experience at McKinsey as important for his political development ("I’d describe myself as a Democratic capitalist," he said in April. "I believe in capitalism. I cut my teeth in the business community") while also distancing himself from some of the firm's more controversial practices ("It’s infuriating to see the choices that they’ve made" since he left, Buttigieg said in October.) He's even gone so far as to claim that his time at McKinsey is "not something that I think is essential in my story."
But candidates do not get to define what is and is not essential to the public's understanding of them. As Buttigieg has rocketed up in recent polling of Iowa and New Hampshire, everything about him is being scrutinized, from his his Holocaust memorial glamor shots to his terrible campaign dances to his utter lack of support among Black voters. Now that there's a chance—however small—that he could actually win, his fellow candidates and the media need to take him seriously.
That means linking him to McKinsey, explaining that McKinsey represents the worst of global neoliberalism, and demanding that he describe his work for the company. He should be forced to make a choice about whether to continue honoring his non-disclosure agreement on live television, and he should be continued to be pressed about his career before politics.
The other Democrats in the race should do us all a favor and find out what "economic stabilization," whether in Kabul or South Bend, really means to Mayor Pete.