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Sturm and Drang at Whole Foods

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Sometime during the past couple of weeks you may have caught a downwind draft from the tempest stirred up by a Wall Street Journal editorial written by the CEO of Whole Foods, John Mackey. To set the stage and let you know immediately where he stood, Mackey opened with this quote from Margaret Thatcher: “The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.”

Reading his piece, you quickly learn that Mr. Mackey is very (very) much against any form of government-funded health care. Other quotes position him as a person who opposes government intervention of any kind, into anything.

What Mackey essentially offers Whole Foods employees is a very high deductible ($2,500) insurance plan. He believes people will really never have to use it anyway if they eat right, exercise regularly, maintain a healthy weight, etc. He also crows that Whole Foods employees voted on this plan themselves and are very satisfied with it.

My take is this: whenever I’ve been in a Whole Foods, everyone working there looks about 25 years old, not exactly material for chronic illness. Personally, I haven’t run across many 20-somethings who understand the ramifications of health insurance well enough to vote on “the best plan.” They’ll discover just how awful it is when they get appendicitis (which can’t be prevented by exercise) and find their deductible exceeds a month’s take home pay.

Anyway, parts of the internet are abuzz with anger from longstanding Whole Foods customers that its CEO could be so blatantly right-wing. I’ve probably heard “I’ll never set foot in Whole Foods again” from a dozen patients this week. “We’ll boycott…”

Boycott, shmoycott. I predict protestors will forget all this in a few weeks. Were Mr. Mackey to come forth as vehemently anti-union and anti-employees’ rights, the boycotters would still be back in those hallowed aisles. Oh, sorry–Mackey’s already done that. He’s alleged to have said a “union is like having herpes.”

The food industry is largely union: Jewel and Dominick’s workers are well protected and have excellent health plans. You actually encounter employees in these stores who have been there for years. At Whole Foods, kids come and go.

My own view is that a lot of people keep shopping at Whole Foods because of a psychological quirk psychiatrists call “magical thinking.” This means “if I behave in such and such a way, even though it may be illogical, I will ultimately be rewarded.” The imagined reward for shopping at Whole Foods is always big, ranging somewhere between better health and living forever. It’s true you can find some awesomely healthful foods there, including oatmeal, lentils, and mung beans in their dry food bins. You can also find super-pricey potato chips that are just as bad for you as the ones sold at your local gas station.

As for Mr. Mackey’s stance and politics, that’s his business. Whole Foods certainly is his company to do with what he wants. And it’s certainly your decision where to shop. But you may be asking, “Has he always been like this? And why?”

It helps to understand the Whole Foods philosophy of growth: maximum return on stockholder investment by capitalizing on a niche market and wiping out competitors. They’re as cold blooded about this as Wal-Mart wiping out main street businesses in small towns across America. Virtually all the small natural food stores in Chicago have gone under. The larger ones, like Fresh Fields and Wild Oats, were bought out by Whole Foods. The Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) fought these acquisitions bitterly, correctly predicting that one grocery chain would control prices in a single area, in essence creating a monopoly. Mackey posted an anonymous series of diatribes against the SEC about government intervention. Whole Foods ultimately did win, thanks to a Bush-appointed judge who ruled against the SEC objections.

I got an amazing new perspective on the Whole Foods philosophy recently when I read an article about the lasting influence of novelist Ayn Rand. For those of you who don’t remember, Rand wrote a pair of immensely long novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, which served as the springboard of her creepy philosophy, summarized in her non-fiction The Virtue of Selfishness. This is not a book for the warm-of-heart. You’ll learn that greed is good, and you should never help anyone less fortunate than yourself as they’re only trying to steal your success. The novels were, and continue to be, a big hit with young conservative clubs and libertarians.

This Ayn Rand article talked about two well-known people whose life paths had been strongly guided by her books. The first, Alan Greenspan, was no surprise. He’d been a member of the Ayn Rand organization, called “objectivists,” for years. Now that we’re in an economic depression–with Greenspan actually apologizing–we can see where a totally unregulated economy (“no government interference”) has brought us.

The second was John Mackey.

Be well,
David Edelberg, MD

Leave a Comment


  1. Orenzia Jaskiewicz says:

    Dear Dr. Edelberg,
    Wish I had a nickel for each time I said, “We (Americans, human beings) have to begin to share; this philosophy which dichotomizes, then justifies taking advantage of the “other” must be overthrown. It’s so wonderful to hear a doctor of your caliber speak against “objectivism”. It’ll take a minute to make the change because stockholders are the new “gods” (those who determine the morality). I believe in the inherent ability of the good to prevail. If there’s anything I can do to assist help, sign me up. Thank you. It’s nice to know I’m not alone in this.
    Be well and happy,
    Yours Truly,
    Orenzia

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