Hippie Capitalists and Other Rare Wonders of the Modern World


How 'bout them apples?

The New Yorker has run a pretty good profile (PGP) of Whole Foods co-founder and Chairman CEO (and recently resigned CEO chairman!) John Mackey, cover boy on our January 2010 issue. You will learn there such tidbits as the fact that Mackey's dad was CEO of "a health-care company, which was sold…for nearly a billion dollars," that "sometimes the store deploys 'dummies,' wooden or cardboard devices hidden under mounds of produce, to create an illusion of greater supply" (shakes fist if true in Washington, D.C.), and much more than you probably ever want to know about the skinny vegan's sex life.

Profiler Nick Paumgarten does a good job with the material, if even he does lean a bit too heavy on the what-a-paradox! theme. For example:

It's a welter of paradoxes: a staunchly anti-union enterprise that embraces some progressive labor practices; a self-styled world-improver that must also deliver quarterly results to Wall Street; a big-box chain putting on small-town airs; an evangelist for healthy eating that sells sausages, ice cream, and beer.

You mean…it's possible to treat employees well without a union, improve the world without voluntarily denying yourself access to capital, eat healthy without giving up delicious (and perfectly healthy) sausages, ice cream, and beer? Wonders will apparently never cease.

But the real attempt to view a Kodachrome world through a black-and-white lens comes in these two passages:

He can't help but speak his mind, out of which spring confounding ideas and conventionally irreconcilable contradictions. The man who has perhaps done as much as anyone to bring the natural-foods movement from the crunchy fringe into the mainstream is also a vocal libertarian, an orthodox free-marketer, an admirer of Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan, and Ayn Rand. In the 2008 Presidential election, he voted for Bob Barr—Ron Paul wasn't on the ballot.

Total subtitle abuse

The right-wing hippie is a rare bird […]

"[C]onscious capitalism" [is Mackey's concept that] some people, smelling an oxymoron, or worse, snicker at. His idea is that business should have a higher purpose—that, just as doctors heal and teachers educate, businesspeople should be after something besides money. It may be an easier argument for a grocer to make; he feeds people, and if he feeds them properly he heals and educates them, too. But it borders on humbug when you apply it to, say, Wall Street. Consciousness, as it relates to capitalism, is in the eyes not so much of the beholder as of the capitalist.

Really? Are we still in a place where it comes as a shock that some right-wingers (let alone libertarians) are crunchy, and that some successful capitalists are hippie idealists? I daresay former hippie Steve Jobs has been chasing after something besides the do-rey-mi all these years. Google has that slogan for a reason. And far away from the conventional longhairs-learn-venture-capital legend of the Silicon Valley there are hundreds of thousands of restaurant owners, toymakers, publishers, cardboard box factory-owners, record label entrepreneurs, eBay auctioneers…you name it, who wake up in the morning motivated by the conviction that they are making their little corner of the world a little bit better.

OK, it's not the shoes

What's more, there isn't a New Yorker writer among us who doesn't make his own consumption choices based at least a smidgeon on the presumed consciousness of the capitalist providing it. There's a reason why my French brother-in-law wanted an American Apparel T-shirt for Christmas, why many Peet's customers wouldn't dream of setting foot in a Starbucks, why insufferable "college radio" fans in the mid-'80s (*cough*) fetishized music from indie labels. We tend to patronize companies that seem to share our values, whether Trader Joe's, In-N-Out Burger or Dischord Records.

As for Wall Street, I'll just quote the president of the United States:

the truth is that a dollar of capital in a bank can actually result in $8 or $10 of loans to families and businesses.

While that's not actually true, there is a broad point underneath it: You really would rather have a capital market than not, whether you own a retirement plan, a beloved mom-and-pop store that would like to raise cash, or the conviction that the federal government can borrow gobs of money to pay for beautiful social programs forever and ever. Those hated Wall Streetsters may look or act unconscious (especially in your fantasy life), but without the liquidity they help provide our economy would be unconscionable.

Reason's main Mackey file here, including this video: