Whole Foods's Mackey: Libertarian Daydreams, "Fascist" Nightmares, And Real People's Health

The quote of the day comes from Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, who suggested to NPR that Obamacare is a "fascist" program. Other CEOs are still insisting the health bill's too "socialist," as Mackey has in the past.

(Mackey now says he regrets using that word. See update below.)

Smart CEOs would be demanding more "socialism," not less, in our healthcare system. That would be good for America -- and good for business, too.

Daydream Believer

Mackey would undoubtedly recoil in horror at the idea. He says he's a "libertarian," but I've long believed that "libertarian" is usually a synonym for "economic right-winger."

Mackey is truly brilliant -- and I say this with genuine admiration -- in the kind of salesmanship and quality control that made him the grocer to an entire generation of Baby Boomers. I respect him a great deal for that, as I respect any successful and constructive entrepreneur.

Unfortunately, his policy ideas target the same generation that's made him rich -- and would hurt their children and grandchildren's generations even more.

John Mackey is biting the hand he feeds -- and which in turn feeds him.

Those were the days, my friend

Full disclosure: I am a member of the often-reviled Boomer set myself.

Here's how old I am: Our family's first retail grocer, in the late 1950s and early 1960s in Utica NY, was an Italian immigrant named Anthony. He would bring a horse-drawn cart -- yes, horse drawn -- to the foot of each street every morning, where he'd announce his arrival by shouting out his own name:

"Hey! Anthony!"

The journey from Anthony to Mackey marks the arc of corporate ascendancy. The distance between them is the measure of our shift from a truly free-market economy to an oligopoly of self-entitled titans.

Political Science

When asked if he still believed that Obamacare was "socialism," Mackey said "Technically speaking, it's more like fascism. Socialism is where the government owns the means of production. In fascism, the government doesn't own the means of production, but they do control it -- and that's what's happening with our health care programs and these reforms."

What he left out was the fact that, in fascism, corporations and government work together for their mutual benefit.

Mackey's comments have predictably outraged Democrats, since fascism is associated with violent and genocidal dictatorships. There's no fixed definition for the word, even among political scientists, but the concept is closely associated with extreme nationalism, suppression of minorities, and the use of religious institutions to reinforce state power.

It's offensive to call this moderate bill or its authors "fascistic." When it comes to PR, Whole Food needs a cleanup in aisle #3.

But I think I know why he said it.

People got to be free

Mackey, like many other right-wingers, seems to be driven by strong emotional impulses. Some of those impulses are noble (if not taken to excess), like the desire for individual freedom and an innate resistance to unjust authority.

Mackey seems angry that the bill forces people to buy a corporate product. While it's absurd and offensive to say that the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act is "fascist," he's touched on its deepest flaw -- and its most unjust feature: It forces Americans to buy a private-sector product, and penalizes them through taxation if they don't.

That bugs a lot of people, including me. It also misses an opportunity to rein in health care costs and improve on our spotty, overpriced, and inadequate private-sector insurance benefits.


When Obama abandoned the public option, a feature which would have allowed Americans under 65 to buy into Medicare, the bill drove millions of additional customers into the inefficient and profit-driven health insurance industry -- and became fundamentally less fair.

The public option can lower health care costs for everybody by introducing true competition into the health care economy, where there's virtually none today. Studies have shown that individual health insurers and HMOs dominate most markets in a non-competitive manner. (Blue Cross of Alabama has cornered more than 90 percent of its market, for example.)

It's meaningless to talk about "competition" in the "health care market." There is no competition -- and there's no free market in health care.

A public option would drive down costs -- and reduce the government deficit. That should make Mackey happy, since he expressed great concern about the deficit in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. Unfortunately, he did so by repeating half-truths, untruths, and misinformations -- for example, that Social Security contributes to the deficit (it's entirely self-funded).

Mackey is right that defense costs are too high, but he misdiagnoses Medicare and Medicaid's problems completely: The cost problems in government health programs are driven by the misapplication of the profit motive to medical care.

It's Only Make Believe

But "libertarians" and other right-wingers don't want to see an expansion of Medicare -- even though it would reduce the deficit, and even though it's much more efficient than private-sector health insurance.

Instead, Mackey is arguing, in the Huffington Post and elsewhere, for a nonexistent healthcare fantasyland where "free competition" and "consumer choice" magically drive down health care costs -- something that's never happened on planet Earth. And he's arguing against the proven results of a publicly-managed health care system that has allowed other countries to provide much more comprehensive care at far lower costs than we do.

That kind of escapist libertarian thinking is bad for our health -- and our wallets.

Taking Care of Business

Libertarian escapism about health care is also bad for business. It leaves us with less money to spend on the pricey (but typically high-quality) groceries on sale at Whole Foods, where I like to shop sometimes myself. It hurts all American businesses, making them less competitive globally and less profitable at home.

Medicare is the most "socialized" program we have -- and the most popular. Most Tea Party members (76 percent) are against cutting it in the manner John Mackey proposes. But instead of expanding Medicare, John Mackey wants to cut Social Security instead. That would decimate the financial security of the same Baby Boomers that have made him so rich and powerful.

John Mackey's politics are bad for Whole Foods -- not just because opinions may drive customers away, but because his proposals would hurt his corporation's profitability.

C'mon, people, let's get together

Mackey's new book is called Conscious Capitalism, and the first definition of "conscious" is "to be awake." Mackey should wake up to our economic realities. Then he should throw his voice, his weight, and his influence behind a new public option proposal sponsored by some of the House's most liberal members.

It's not as crazy as it sounds: In the run up to Medicare, 51 percent of Republicans supported the public option.

John Mackey working with the House's most progressive Democrats? Now that's what I call "conscious capitalism."

(UPDATE: Mackey now says he regrets using the word "fascism" to describe the program. Having listened to his original comments in context, I believe him.)