Sunday, August 16, 2009

Ignoring the Whole Foods Boycott

John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, wrote an Op-Ed piece in the Wall Street Journal about health care reform. Many liberals were upset about some of his ideas, and are proposing to boycott Whole Foods.

I actually agree with this right wing commentator, that a boycott of Whole Foods is ridiculous. Full disclosure: I worked at Whole Foods for several months. I was only there on probation, I was never fully hired. But I liked it, I still admire the company, and I still shop there. I realize that the prices aren't the most consumer-friendly, but I love the atmosphere, and their mac and cheese is to die for.

I object to the boycott of Whole Foods for one reason: I object to the idea of boycotting a company over the expression of ideas of one of its employees, even if it is the CEO. I make a clear distinction between the expression of ideas of one of a company's employees, and the company's practices. I have no problem boycotting a company over the practices of the corporation as a whole. For example, if I ever have an opportunity to boycott Blackwater, I'll probably do it in a heartbeat. But, then again, I seriously doubt I will ever have the opportunity to even consider spending money with Blackwater, so that's mostly besides the point.

For me, this is a test of tolerance. John Mackey is perfectly free to express his ideas. I don't agree with all of them, but some I find somewhat intriguing, like this one:
- Repeal all state laws which prevent insurance companies from competing across state lines. We should all have the legal right to purchase health insurance from any insurance company in any state and we should be able use that insurance wherever we live. Health insurance should be portable.
That makes sense to me. One of the biggest problems with healthcare right now is the consolidation of the healthcare insurance industry. I'm all in favor of more competition here. He also endorses Medicare reform, which I might agree with if he had provided any kind of detail. His ideas mostly run to the conservative side of the argument, which is not surprising for an Op-Ed in the WSJ, but is somewhat surprising for someone many of whose customers are dyed-in-the-wool liberals. This article may be reasonable from a political perspective, or at least not extremist, but maybe not such a great idea from a marketing angle. But just on the basis of content, I don't see much worth boycotting here.

Beyond the content, boycotting Whole Foods because the CEO wrote an Op-Ed you disagree with is just childish. A boycott is the LBO (large blunt object) of a debate - it's a baseball bat as opposed to a scalpel. If you're claiming to have a superior argument, the best way to prove that is to present a better argument, which would presumably be a more nuanced one, as well. There's not much subtlety in a call for a boycott.

A boycott is also a terrible idea tactically, because it deprives you of the opportunity to engage the other in a meaningful debate. You are therefore depriving yourself of an opportunity to prove the other person wrong. A boycott should be a weapon of absolutely last resort, when all other reasonable means of persuasion have failed. It should not be the first thing that comes to mind. It is, unfortunately, a great example of a knee-jerk reaction.

I think Mackey's great mistake here is that the article just isn't very well-written. He starts out with a quote from Margaret Thatcher. Again, not surprising for the WSJ, but also again, a great way to piss off the kind of people who shop at Whole Foods. Doesn't this company employ PR people? I can see giving the man points for principle, if he's willing to alienate customers to air his true beliefs, but I also think that's a fairly stupid management practice.

He touts Whole Foods' approach to health care. All well and good, and expected from a CEO. Pat yourself on the back for treating your employees well - that's what CEOs are supposed to do: promote the company. I didn't stick around long enough to partake of the health insurance, but that's just me. I do remember that the employee stock ownership plans were quite popular.

But then he crosses the line in two places. First, he claims that there is no "right" to health care. That's a philosophical issue, not just a policy debate. Here he's opening himself up to the charge that, as someone who never has to worry about whether or not he can afford health care, he is denying to others what is available to him just as a function of his individual wealth. That makes him look heartless and cold. He writes:
A careful reading of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution will not reveal any intrinsic right to health care, food or shelter. That's because there isn't any. This "right" has never existed in America
Apparently he missed the parts about the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," and the line about about how we the people came together in order to form a more perfect union to, among other things, "promote the general welfare." I'm not sure how he missed that last part if he claims that he read the Constitution closely - it is, after all, in the Preamble. Personally, I think helping our fellow citizens take care of their health, particularly when they themselves are unable to do so, is a key part of "promoting the general welfare" through a "more perfect union." Maybe I'm just a bleeding heart liberal.

Mackey's biggest mistake, however, was in the final part of the piece, when he mixes two things he so far hasn't, and really shouldn't: marketing his own company, and articulating his own personal political philosophy. He tells us that a key part of health care reform is eating healthy and taking care of ourselves. All well and good - except that he writes it in a way that - surprise! strongly suggests we would do well to shop at Whole Foods. So we should all be free to make our own choices, but we should also be responsible, and we should make our own choices about how to be responsible in a way that directly benefits Mr. John Mackey.

Someone call Ron Paul - he now has competition for Best Libertarian. Oddly enough, however, Mr. Mackey's libertarianism has a puritanical streak - everyone should do what they want, but they should listen to my advice about how they should live their lives. It seems like Mackey really can't decide whether or not he is a free-market conservative or a do-gooder liberal. Finessing that contradiction, of course, makes perfect sense for the CEO of Whole Foods - he believes in giving people the power to do the right thing for themselves, and he believes in his right to make a profit by doing so. It works perfectly fine as the guiding principle of a corporation. It does not work as the guiding principle of government, because government exists in large part so that we may do things collectively that we cannot do as individuals, and that we cannot do collectively at a profit.

I still have a great deal of respect for John Mackey as the CEO of a company. Well, maybe a little less, now that I have reason to question his politics/marketing savvy. But this is just one episode, and Whole Foods is still a great place to shop for certain things. But if I were Mr. Mackey, I would spend some good money on a better PR firm and a political consultant who has a good grasp of how to explain libertarian concepts, particularly to liberals, without sounding like a pompous, arrogant, self-serving jerk.

No comments: