A (Slightly Biased) Roundup of the Whole Foods/Health Care Kerfuffle


Last week, Matt Welch posted a link to Whole Foods CEO John Mackey's op-ed in the Wall Street Journal outlining his free market-oriented plan for health care reform.

Mackey's article provoked a backlash from some of his more politically liberal customers, or at least people who claimed to be his customers. Daily Kos diarists fumed with outrage at Mackey's apparent betrayal. Sadly, No! declared it Simply Loathesome! My DD's Charles Lemos expressed his "infinite respect" for Mackey's business vision, but upon reading the op-ed was "struck how out of touch the Ayn Rand worshiping iconoclastic libertarian" is.

It's no secret that Mackey is a libertarian (and donor to the Reason Foundation, publisher of Reason magazine and Reason.com). I guess the outrage here is that he actually had the temerity to express his opinions in public, although he's done that before too, including in our magazine.

Still, the consensus lefty position seems to be that CEOs should just shut up, even if advocating, as Mackey did, some ideas they've tested at their own companies and found to work. Or at least shut up if they're advocating ideas that the left doesn't like. That seems to be where Think Progress blogger Matthew Yglesias comes down:

Corporate executives have a lot of social and political power in the United States, in a way that goes above and beyond the social and political power that stems directly from their wealth. The opinions of businessmen on political issues are taken very seriously by the press and by politicians on both sides of the aisle. Once upon a time perhaps union leaders exercised the same kind of sway, but these days all Republicans, most of the media, and some Democrats feel comfortable writing labor off as just an "interest group" while Warren Buffet and Bill Gates and Jack Welch are treated as all-purpose sages. One could easily imagine a world in which CEOs were reluctant to play the role of freelance political pundit out of fear of alienating their customer base. And it seems to me that that might very well be a nice world to live in.

Just a hunch, but I'm guessing that in this "nice world" Yglesias speaks of, a company like Walmart would still be permitted give organizations like Think Progress $500,000-$1 million to help push an employer health insurance mandate, and Matthew Yglesias would still put up blog posts praising the company for its leadership.

(Odd how this health care stuff has the left touting Walmart and the right touting Whole Foods, isn't it?)

Over at my personal blog, I put up a much-discussed response to the boycott here, and followed up with a response to that post's fallout here. Summation of my argument:  Whole Foods is unfailingly listed among the most employee-friendly, environmentally-conscious, animal-friendly, and generally socially conscientious companies in the country. Remember, this is the same company that nearly cracked the subtitle of Jonah Goldberg's book as an example of liberal fascism. The left's tantrum in reaction to Mackey's op-ed implies his health care ideas are so offensive, they make all that "good corporate citizen" stuff obsolete. That is: Mackey expressing his ideas about health care reform are way more insidious than the actual practices his company has undertaken since its inception. It's really an effort to zone fairly mainstream ideas like HSAs and tort reform out of the realm of serious debate.

That seems to be the gist of Alyce Lomax's smart response to all of this at the Motley Fool, too:

Shouldn't the very people contemplating a Whole Foods boycott on these grounds applaud many of the company's existing initiatives? Are they aware of its progressive, employee-friendly policies? And if so, does this mean they don't care as much as they think they do?

I mean, really, how dare Whole Foods let employees vote on their benefits, when most retail workers get no benefits whatsoever? The nerve of Mackey, forgoing his base salary and capping management's pay at 19 times that of his lowest-paid employee? What is Whole Foods thinking, donating part of its profits to local and global organizations working to make a positive difference? And giving the majority of its stock options to rank-and-file employees, rather than upper management? That's just diabolical!

Mackey, meanwhile, tried some damage control by putting up a post on his Whole Foods blog distinguishing what he originally sent to the Journal from what was added by Journal editors. That only made the perennially angry lefty Mark Kleiman even angrier. It also triggered this pithy response from the pithily named blog, "Fuck Conservatives."

For what it's worth, the "Boycott Whole Foods" Facebook group now stands at 14,000 people. And as of this posting, Whole Foods stock is trading at $28, which is actually a smidge above where it stood before Mackey's op-ed.