Point Austin: Let Them Eat Sprouts!

John Mackey weighs in on health care – and recommends lots of spinach

Point Austin
John Mackey has put his big foot in it again.

The Whole Foods CEO recently dodged SEC sanctions for anonymously slagging his competitors (and singing his own praises) online – insider misbehavior generally frowned upon by the stock market honchos. He might have learned his lesson. Instead, last week Mackey published a Wall Street Journal op-ed denouncing the proposed national health care reforms pending in Congress as socialism (one can only wish) and promoting his own, free-market cum bean sprouts plan that would enable us all, in Mackey's veggie utopia, "to live largely disease-free lives until we are well into our 90s and even past 100 years of age."

If you believe that, I've got some free-range Oompa-Loompas for sale.

Although an advocate for healthy food, Mackey's default political perspective is that of a right-libertarian businessman – let me make gobs of money, and get out of my way – so his eight "reform" proposals are painfully predictable. He wants to expand the use of high-deductible health insurance and "health savings accounts," deregulate insurance companies, enact more "tort reform," squeeze Medicare (and Social Security as well), and so on. Inevitably, Mackey's proposals would do little to address the real national problems with health care – most particularly the 70 million Americans who have little or no access to adequate care. His notions do have one thing in common: They would make it cheaper and easier for employers to avoid providing effective health care benefits for their employees. (It's illuminating to learn, by the way, that the Chronicle provides its 70 or so employees better health benefits than Mackey's Fortune 500 international behemoth.)

And all those folks doing without health insurance? Mackey proposes giving more tax breaks to rich people ... so they'll donate to health insurance programs for poor people.

Yeah, that'll work.

What I Meant to Say ...

The whole thing would be silly enough to ignore but for the fact that it came from "John Mackey, CEO" – and that the WSJ bannered it with the headline, "The Whole Foods Alternative to Obama­Care." Polar­ized public reaction has been swift, the company's online forums are filled with partisan outrage or glee (prog foodies are stunned at Mackey's reactionary politics, while knee-jerk loonitarians swear henceforth to shop nowhere but Whole Foods), and Mackey himself has since posted a disclaimer of the WSJ's headline: "I do not mention the President at all in this piece" – as if that were the only issue.

More forcibly, liberal activists looking for some public ways to respond to the nationally organized right-wing push to stop any and all reform have seized on Whole Foods as a large, visible target. When I last checked the new Facebook "Boycott Whole Foods" group, more than 16,000 people had signed on. No wonder Mackey posted a plaintive request: "I fully realize that there are many opinions on the healthcare debate, including inside my own company. As we, as a nation, continue to discuss this, I am hopeful that both sides can do so in a civil manner that will lead to positive change for all concerned."

If It's Broke, Fix It

Fair enough. I asked someone on "the other side" – that is, someone who is actually addressing the problem – to take a look at Mackey's proposals and respond. U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, currently among those Demo­crats fighting a desperate battle to maintain the public option in the pending legislation, had a few choice comments. "As one of his shareholders and regular customers," he responded, "I think John should stick to Whole Foods, because he certainly offers no formula for Whole Health Care Access.

"Health savings accounts may be less expensive for employers," he continued, "but they hold little potential for meaningful coverage for the many who lack affordable, comprehensive health insurance. The failure of the private health insurance market is reflected in the fact that at least 72 million Americans lack adequate coverage, and that health care costs remain the leading cause of both credit card debt and personal bankruptcy." He goes on to note that HSAs have in fact led to inadequate access to care and higher medical debt and that eliminating insurance regulation would be a license for even more exclusions of those who really need coverage. As for "tort reform," Doggett asks, "Have you ever met anyone whose health insurance premiums have gone down after tort reform was enacted? (Tort reform was enacted in Texas in 2003, yet between 2000 and 2007, health insurance premiums increased by 104%.)"

A Careful Reading

In sum, Mackey's proposals amount to several variations of "I've got mine, and let the weakest go to the wall" – as many of Whole Foods' youthful employees will discover as they fall prey to the inevitable weaknesses (and illnesses) of middle age. But his individual proposals are in fact less noxious than his larger Ayn Randian argument: that public community is a fiction, and we are all on our own, or as he ahistorically puts it, "A careful reading of both The Declaration of Inde­pen­dence and the Constitution will not reveal any intrinsic right to health care, food or shelter, because there isn't any." (He takes an equally dim view of the constitutionally guaranteed right of workers to form unions.)

I guess Mackey missed those obscure passages about the inalienable right to life – a meaningless phrase without adequate and equal protections of that life – and the charge to "promote the general welfare." The Constitution also binds us as a nation to our international agreements, like the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states (Article 25): "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care."

I'm lukewarm about a boycott, since Whole Foods' employees have always treated me well and are not responsible for their boss' ignorance. If we boycotted every business with a bonehead for a CEO, we'd all go naked and hungry. But while the debate rages, I'm not going to be in any great hurry to wander down to Sixth and Lamar for organic produce, or even a pulled pork sandwich. The local farmers' market looks better all the time.

For a skeptically annotated version of John Mackey's essay on health care reform, see "Mackey Annotated."

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health care, John Mackey, Whole Foods, Lloyd Doggett

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