The Big Con: How the Consulting Industry Weakens our Businesses, Infantilizes our Governments and Warps our Economies
By Maria Mazzucato and Rosie Collington
Penguin, 352 pages, $30
Back in 2019, my hometown of Uppsala briefly made national news in quite an embarrassing way. As it turned out, the municipality was employing nearly 90 people with the official job title of “communicator.” That was bad enough, but the problems hardly stopped there. Not only did the sheer number of “communicators” seem grossly out of proportion to the needs of a city of 180,000, the municipality itself couldn’t seem to get a handle on what these employees were even meant to do. A friend who teaches at a municipal school told me at the time that he had once walked into the communications department during the workday to find the people there using their work computers to play World of Warcraft.
As the scandal was unfolding, a large consulting firm was called in to conduct an overview of the communications department, to figure out what it was these people actually did all day. Public debate at the time tended to follow a predictable pattern: Conservative commentators lamented the wastefulness of the municipality and the dysfunction of the nanny state; some penned attacks on “socialism” writ large. For my part, I saw the existence of the “communicators” as proof of Peter Turchin’s elite-overproduction thesis and an instance of what I have dubbed the “transferiat”: a subclass of credentialed government and NGO employees who subsist off of rent-seeking and parasitism on the public fisc. The consultants who were called in, for their part, simply came and went, without so much as a peep. Nobody really paid them, or their role, any attention. Everyone—whether they were on the left or on the right—had bigger fish to fry.
In retrospect, this was a serious omission on the part of everyone involved in the controversy. As Mariana Mazzucato and Rosie Collington reveal in The Big Con: How the Consulting Industry Weakens Our Businesses, Infantilizes Our Governments, and Warps Our Economies, the consulting industry is a key player in all the tendencies on display in the 2019 Uppsala fracas: dysfunctional, wasteful governance, parasitic rent-seeking, and the proliferation of “bullshit jobs.” But as was the case then, part of the industry’s resilience lies in its ability to operate in the shadows, avoid public scrutiny, and thus escape any accountability for its dubious role.