Mackey in the Whole

Reading Food Fighter, a 2010 New Yorker piece, anti-union and libertarian John Mackey seems like an odd choice to have founded an organic grocery chain, but maybe you have to be odd to want to such a thing. Like More Guns, Less Crime author John Lott, Mackey was revealed to have actively posted online as a sock puppet:

Using the pseudonym Rahodeb — a variation of Deborah, his wife’s name — Mr. Mackey typed out more than 1,100 entries on Yahoo Finance’s bulletin board over a seven-year period, championing his company’s stock and occasionally blasting a rival, Wild Oats Markets.

WFM acquired Wild Oats, Mackey promised stop being a sock puppet, and promised to stop having affairs. In 2010, Mackey made headlines by attacking the Affordable Care Act in the Wall Street Journal. Many of his liberal customers (including me) talked about a boycott, but the furor eventually died down. Then just last week he referred to ACA, which almost everyone calls Obamacare, as more like Fascism than Socialism. In a Harvard Business Review OpEd, Mackey ‘regrets’ his words, but defends his opposition to the Affordable Care Act:

How Whole Foods Market Innovates in Employee Health Care

Providing employee health care has become a real challenge for businesses, especially in the United States, where costs keep rising inexorably. Though I regret my poor choice of words in describing Obamacare as fascism, clearly something needs to be done to bring affordable, quality healthcare to everyone in this country. I simply think that free enterprise — where people voluntarily exchange for mutual benefit — is a better answer than any government-mandated or -controlled program.

Companies can make a big difference for their employees — providing good health insurance and promoting good health — all while keeping costs down. I call companies who operate this way “conscious businesses” because they understand that health care should not be only about containing costs — it should be about helping people lead healthy, vibrant, fulfilling lives. I have tried to build my own company on these principles.

Which is great if you work full-time for WFM, or even for my employer. But what if you work for WalMart — another anti-union employer devoted to spending as little as possible on its employees? Speaking to the Seattle Times about his first book, Mackey thinks the answer is in ethics:

In “Conscious Capitalism,” Mackey’s first book, the 59-year-old founder and co-CEO of Whole Foods Markets offers nothing less than a full-throated psalm for the power of free markets to create value and lift humanity.

Yet at its core, and true to Mackey’s ability to avoid those hard-and-fast labels, the book also delivers a pointed critique on how capitalism can lead business astray if its practice isn’t grounded in a sound ethical foundation.

“If everybody is always calculating what’s to their advantage, and no one comes with generosity, or kindness, or compassion, or forgiveness — higher virtues — your society starts to break down,” Mackey said in an interview at his company’s Austin headquarters. “I actually think that’s what’s happening in America right now.”

Mackey ties those virtues to Judeo-Christian religions, but many people that espouse those religions are entirely comfortable being savagely competitive and nakedly self-interested when they aren’t at their place of worship. When you can’t rely on paternalism or religion, what can you do but make laws?

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