Health Care and Whole Foods

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1. The left blogosphere is excited about the NYT article "Democrats Seem Set to Go It Alone on a Health Bill." As someone who was conditioned by the Clinton-era grindcore GOP to expect health-care reform to go nowhere, I think a more accurate framing would be "Democrats Seem Set to Realize the Obvious," but it's more interesting than playing strip-poker with the bill until it's useless.

2. About that Whole Foods thing....

The upshot is that maybe John Mackey now realizes that lots of people disagree with him. Which I do, I thought his op-ed was dumb (more on that in a second).

But that's about the only upshot. In other words, I agree with Mary Schmich, save for this:

"Mackey, Whole Foods' CEO, is a libertarian [Ed. note: here's a good expansion on that by Mackey himself]. His politics crash into Whole Foods' corporately crafted reputation as a utopia of the local, the organic, the farm-fed, the fair-traded, the environmentally sustainable and the socially responsible."

That's just irresponsibly lazy thinking - the sort of off-hand transition that writers shrug off without realizing how much damage their assumptions can do.

All journalists should get tattooed, Memento-style: correlation is not causation. Libertarianism, insofar as anyone can define it, is really just about personal freedom, a minimum or absence of government control, the free market as an arbiter of fairness, and profit motive as professional morality, though Mackey himself doesn't agree with all of that. Libertarianism isn't inherently opposed to environmentalism, or better food, or health care. I agree with a lot of libertarians on a lot of issues. I'm arguably just plum libertarian on a lot of issues. Either way, I don't assume that everything libertarians think "crashes" into everything liberals think (like, "don't violate habeas corpus, you monsters" or "stop feeding pot smokers into the prison-industrial complex").

So: John Mackey thinks people would be healthier, happier, and live longer if they ate well. More often than not people want to be happy and live a long time. Therefore a company that sells healthy food will make money. So John Mackey thinks that if he offers healthy food, people will buy it, and he will make money, and if his employees are happy his company will have a good reputation, and he'll make more money, and if people are happier and healthier they'll make more money, and spend more of that money on his products, etc.

And all that works out pretty well for him. From everything I know about Mackey, he seems to be, as these things go, a conscientious capitalist (though his sockpuppet attack on rival Wild Oats on Yahoo! Finance message boards makes me skeptical, even if his defense is compelling). And I don't think I'm alone. Whole Foods is good at what it does, and I think what it does is good - mainstreaming the thoughtful production and sale of consumer goods while providing well for employees. Mackey's political and philosophical beliefs might outweigh that for you, and that's your business, but it's worth putting it in context.

Where I think Mackey is misguided and naive is in his belief that it works out for everyone in all situations. Health care isn't groceries. If Mackey lost his conscience and Whole Foods started selling shitty food, that's easily addressed by consumers - they might have to pitch one trip's worth of groceries, but they'd go somewhere else.

But if those consumers got screwed out of their health care by an insurance company, they can't go elsewhere. If you get cancer, and your insurance company decides not to cover it because they ginned up some pre-existing condition that you didn't know you had or shouldn't be relevant (this is called rescission, and it's a serious issue), you can't just go to another insurance company and say "hey, treat my cancer, and pick up my tab at the old insurance company while you're at it." A shitty grocery store can't destroy your life - figuratively or literally - with one decision. A shitty health insurer can.

Also, keep in mind that Mackey has, for his entire life, been selling to well-informed, well-heeled customers. Not everyone has lots of money or information. Some people are poor, some people are desperate, some people are dumb, and some people are all of that and more. Those people are easy marks (especially when it comes to something as arcane as health insurance) or unappealing targets, in no way able to keep up their end of the ideal free-market transaction, and that's where a lot of liberals diverge from libertarian views - they think those people should be provided for and protected by the government, either directly or through the legislation of private business. Liberals think that should be the case because of moral beliefs, or because they think a healthier populace would make America more functional and productive.

Ultimately I'm undecided on the boycott generally. It doesn't affect me much - when I'm willing or able to pay more for groceries I shop at the locally-sourced market near my house, because I like the people who run it (personal), I think shopping local is important because it keeps more money in my city and neighborhood (civic), and because I want to keep having a grocer a couple blocks from my apartment (selfish). If it makes Mackey a bit more thoughtful about the universal application of his beliefs - just as criticism changed his views on animal welfare - it might be a good thing. (Plus: he's a libertarian, so if in the wake of a PR failure the market wants to tell him to eat it, that's his tough beans.) On the other hand, Whole Foods really isn't the enemy here.

Update: Radley Balko, a libertarian who I think is a genius 50% of the time (his reporting on forensics and law in Mississippi has been one of the best and most critical ongoing investigative series in recent years - read through it if you get the chance), agree with another 25% of the time, and disagree with the remaining 25% of the time, has a must-read post on the Whole Foods boycott. The only thing I disagree with is that, as noted, a boycott might be an effective way of getting a powerful voice to reconsider (what I think is) a narrow and ineffective approach to health-care reform - "a lot of painless non-solutions," as Andrew Beaujon puts it. But for the most part I agree with Balko that Mackey and his company do a lot of admirable things, to the extent that I couldn't personally bring myself to stop shopping there.

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