The Conscience of a Capitalist

The Whole Foods founder talks about his Journal health-care op-ed that spawned a boycott, how he deals with unions, and why he thinks CEOs are overpaid.

From the Wall Street Journal, Sunday, October 4
By STEPHEN MOORE

“I honestly don’t know why the article became such a lightning rod,” says John Mackey, CEO and founder of Whole Foods Market Inc., as he tries to explain the firestorm caused by his August op-ed on these pages opposing government-run health care. “I think a lot of people who got angry haven’t read what I actually wrote. There was a lot of emotional reaction—fear and anger. I just wanted to get people to think about whether there was a better way to reform the system.”

Mr. Mackey has flown into Washington, D.C., for a board meeting of the Global Animal Partnership, a group that advocates for the humane treatment of animals. There was no private jet: He arrived on Southwest Airlines from Austin, Texas, and he bought the “Wanna Getaway” bottom basement fare. “I barely got the last aisle seat,” he says. While in town he stays in the bedroom of his regional president, who lives in Maryland.

For the 12th straight year, Mr. Mackey’s company has been praised as one of the “100 Best Companies to Work For” by Fortune Magazine. Whole Foods sells healthy food, practices “socially responsible trade,” and prides itself on promoting foods that are grown to support “biodiversity and healthy soils.” Mr. Mackey donates 5% of company profits to charity and has been one of America’s loudest critics of runaway compensation on Wall Street. And he pays himself $1 a year. He would seem to be a model corporate citizen.

Yet his now famous op-ed incited a boycott of Whole Foods by some of his left-wing customers. His piece advised that “the last thing our country needs is a massive new health-care entitlement that will create hundreds of billions of dollars of new unfunded deficits and move us closer to a complete government takeover of our health-care system.” Free-market groups retaliated with a “buy-cott,” encouraging people to purchase more groceries at Whole Foods.

Why did he write the piece in the first place?

“President Obama called for constructive suggestions for health-care reform,” he explains. “I took him at his word.” Mr. Mackey continues: “It just seems to me there are some fundamental reforms that we’ve adopted at Whole Foods that would make health care much more affordable for the uninsured.”

What Mr. Mackey is proposing is more or less what he has already implemented at his company—a plan that would allow more health savings accounts (HSAs), more low-premium, high-deductible plans, more incentives for wellness, and medical malpractice reform. None of these initiatives are in any of the Democratic bills winding their way through Congress. In fact, the Democrats want to kill HSAs and high-deductible plans and mandate coverage options that would inflate health insurance costs.

The Whole Foods health-care story has been largely ignored by proponents of a government-run system. But it could be a template for those in Washington who want to drive down costs and insure the uninsured.

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