"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Whole Foods Boycott is a Travesty

Whole Foods chairman John Mackey, speaking for himself but drawing on his experience starting a natural foods empire, made some cogent points against national health insurance.

Of course, it's exasperating to read his opening epigram, quoting Margaret Thatcher that "The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people's money." It's cute of course, but running out of planet is a much bigger deal these days than running out of "money", whatever that is viewed as an aggregate anyway. It's dumb and contentious and snide and just slightly funny, just the sort of thing to polarize people.

But his arguments are, while not entirely sound in my opinion, cogently presented and respectfully advocated. The last thing we want to do is punish conservative viewpoints that are coherent as if they were the mouth-foaming nonsense we see on other Murdoch venues. A boycott should be directed at someone doing something unreasonable, like advertising on a program that consistently issues vicious lies about the president. A fellow just speaking his mind has every right to speak it, or what's a democracy for?

You don't boycott somebody because you disagree with them. You boycott somebody because they have acted unethically. Someone honestly speaking his mind in public deserves thanks, not punishment. That's leaving aside the punishment of all the good people who work in the company which, after all, Mackey no longer controls.

The first step in getting others to listen to you is starting to listen to them. Obama is getting a lot of grief for taking it too far, but so many people haven't yet noticed that Obama listens. So I guess he will keep listening. I suggest the rest of us follow his lead.

The problems that this blog addresses are mostly about people closing their minds and their hearts to challenging ideas. This sort of bitter hostility is not unique to one side or the other of the political spectrum, as the Whole Foods boycott makes clear. It's dangerous and it's sad.

I really hope national health care passes, but I really hope this obnoxious boycott fails.


Dano said...

Were I to spend any more money in a volume of space that annoys me with high prices and narcissistic clientele posing around in my way, I feel my money would go to an ideologue who parrots Republican talking points. Which is what he did.

So we can reframe 'organic' around more than 'me' and people that can afford such consumer goods, or not. Surely your point of view is interesting and not immediately refutable, but so is mine, and so is my money.

Signaling. The segment of society that still believes in The Almighty Market surely will understand my lack of patronage.



Anonymous said...

Not sure how widespread this "boycott" really will get, but a few notes as someone who agrees with your points.

Obviously anecdote is no substitute for data, but most of the people I know who are actually miffed at Whole Foods because of Mackey are so not simply for the health care op-ed (which some of them are only vaguely aware of), but also his recent claims that his stores' products are largely junk (that "junk" being what a lot of people deliberately shop there for). But it's more that his recent headline-grabbing forays into the public eye recently seem to be cynical attempts to garner publicity while simultaneously attempting to brush off some of the association of Whole Foods with high end shopping "limousine liberalism", etc. that is no doubt doing them no favors in this flagging economy.

There also doesn't seem to be a clear distinction in either the media or the public at large that there is a difference between a boycott on ethical grounds and the more pedestrian "voting with one's dollar". A lot of shoppers and reporting seem to be confusing the latter with the former. Taking umbrage with a CEO's behavior and choosing to spend your money elsewhere when you feel he is denigrating his own brand and customer base is hardly "tragic". Of course if this develops into an actual movement and not some flash-in-the-pan Facebook phenomenon, I will duly reconsider my current take.

All that being said, Whole Foods is where I have shopped to secure a lot of the hard to find craft brewers like Great Divide, Lagunitas, et al. And it's where I still will, as this whole thing seems a bit misplaced and over-hyped to me.

thingsbreak said...

It's probably also worth recognizing that Whole Foods has been targeted by progressive groups prior to that op-ed for its allegedly anti-labor stance, and I would be more than a little of this kerfuffle is being ginned up by these groups who think that health care will provide them with a more sympathetic cause than unions.

Dano said...

I don't shop at WalMart because of the outcomes of their policies; my dollars spent there would be a tacit signal of acceptance of those policies. I won't shop at WholePaycheck because of the outcomes of their leader's policies (if successful); my dollars spent there would be a tacit signal of acceptance of those policies.

There is no need to gin up a controversy, as his words make it clear where his allegiances lie. Actions. Signaling. Morality in personal action.



Michael Tobis said...

Dano, Even if Whole Foods were John Mackey's personal property I would disagree with you strongly on this.

Attempting to punish reasoned speech in an atmosphere rife with unreasoned hysteria, is, to quote Shreck, the opposite of helping.

I don't actually believe that the present health care system makes any sense. I attribute its failure to the American union movement, which, unlike labor movements in other countries, went after healthcare for its members and not for everybody. Its success bred the present situation.

And I think single payer is the best approach. We should just collectively buy out the insurance companies at a fair price. Period.

Since that isn't going to happen, it isn't obvious what is right. I don't agree with Mackey but if he is not entitled to his opinion without fear of punishment, who is to say I am entitled to mine?

I see the attack on Whole Foods as an attack on reasoned, well intentioned and public spirited speech.

Now, I eat lunch at WF regularly, occasionally shop there, and live in their home town. So maybe my own interests are threatened. But my first reaction to the essay was to wish all conservatives would argue in that way.




We are looking for the subset of people who are conservative but amenable to reason. Their preferred solutions to problems are not going to be yours or mine. As long as they recognize problems and work toward solutions, in the end they are allies against the people who are so rattled they want to bring civilization down.

So, Dano, I disagree with you vehemently on this one. I can't resist noting that I don't propose to boycott you, i.e., work actively to weaken the social position of your associates, on that basis.

the key to the cabinet said...

just to lighten the debate...i found this really funny article on whole foods product names...check it out over here: http://onthebutton.wordpress.com/2009/08/19/wholefoods/

Joel said...


I hope you don't mind me noting that I made a similar point in this week's Philadelphia Weekly -- and I'm taking a beating for it. An excerpt:


For weeks now, liberals have been complaining about the distortions and vicious behavior from the right. So an opponent of President Obama’s reform proposals comes along and 
offers a thoughtful-but-probably-mistaken-
contrary opinion and we’re going to punish him for that? If that’s the case, why shouldn’t conservatives like Arlen Specter’s accuser in Lebanon scream and throw tantrums? A boycott would probably be counterproductive.

Don’t get me wrong. Purely as a business matter, Mackey’s op-ed was a stunningly bad piece of brand management. Whole Foods has always sold more than food; it sells ideas of food as an expression of environmental values and foodie pretentiousness that appeal more to the left than to the right. Whole Foods’ customers have always seemed to embody the “latte-sipping, arugula-eating” stereotype of liberals summoned by conservatives who claim to speak for “real America.”

Mackey’s op-ed punctured the self-image of his customers. So that was dumb.

But boycotting Whole Foods is a futile and impotent act that does nothing to get health reform passed.

Michael Tobis said...

Joel, I'm happy to concede precedence to you.

When two people independently say almost exactly the same thing it's usually because there's some truth to it.

Dano said...

So, Dano, I disagree with you vehemently on this one. I can't resist noting that I don't propose to boycott you, i.e., work actively to weaken the social position of your associates, on that basis.

Perfectly fine to disagree Michael.

I'm not 'punishing' him for his views, as I'm not picketing and trying to get others to picket, I'm not trying to get others to boycott, not trying to get others to carry a gun to any forum where he visits, not trying to get others to spread scurrilous lies about his company, not trying to get others to fill out form letters and send them to other states' elected officials while pretending to be a constituent.

I'm merely over it and will no longer go there 4-6x/year to spend more money than I need to on just a few of his overpriced boutique consumer goods, all the while dodging distracted people with no regard for others' space.

That's the genius of capitalism - individual rational agents maximizing information to efficiently obtain utility. Status obtained from consuming boutique goods from such a place isn't needed in my house.



(word verif says "consequ", the meaning of which is an exercise left to the reader)

Michael Tobis said...

To make it clear, I don't object to you not shopping there, and I don;t object to you trying to convince others not to shop there.

I do object to you or others creating an organized movement trying to get others not to shop there solely because you disagree with the opinions of the CEO. Especially now. This doesn't rise to anything comparable to what Fox News is doing, and both distracts from and detracts from the effort to call attention to their horrible, inexcusable activities.

Nosmo said...

The boycott was covered on NPR's All Things Considered yesterday. They mentioned there was a Facebook page with a lot of people joining.

BTW, the whole foods in Berkeley has the cheapest and best bulk dry goods around. Not everything is expensive here

Anonymous said...

Turns out Mackey's a denialist, too.

I am shock, SHOCKED, to learn this of course.