The boycott of Whole Foods. Heather Horn has a blogosphere round-up. Horn:
The controversy over Whole Foods CEO John Mackey’s anti-ObamaCare stance is now well into its third round. It all started with Mackey’s August 11 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. In it, Mackey argued 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 much closer to a government takeover of our health-care system.” He presented, instead, The Whole Foods Alternative to ObamaCare:
- “Remove the legal obstacles that slow the creation of high-deductible health insurance plans and health savings accounts.”
- “Equalize the tax laws so that employer-provided health insurance and individually owned health insurance have the same tax benefits.”
- Allow competition across state lines.
- “Repeal government mandates regarding what insurance companies must cover.”
- “Enact tort reform.”
- “Make costs transparent.”
- “Enact medicare reform.”
- Revise tax law to make it easier to donate to those without insurance.
Then came the backlash. Brian Beutler of TPM noted the inclusion of a diet endorsement in the op-ed, and offered a translation of Mackey’s manifesto: “”Whole Foods is the solution to all of America’s health care woes.”
Let me see if I have the logic correct here: Whole Foods is consistently ranked among the most employee-friendly places to work in the service industry. In fact, Whole Foods treats employees a hell of a lot better than most liberal activist groups do. The company has strict environmental and humane animal treatment standards about how its food is grown and raised. The company buys local. The store near me is hosting a local tasting event for its regional vendors. Last I saw, the company’s lowest wage earners make $13.15 per hour. They also get to vote on what type of health insurance they want. And they all get health insurance. The company is also constantly raising money for various philanthropic causes. When I was there today, they were taking donations for a school lunch program. In short, Whole Foods is everything leftists talk about when they talk about “corporate responsibility.”
And yet lefties want to boycott the company because CEO John Mackey wrote an op-ed that suggests alternatives to single payer health care? It wasn’t even a nasty or mean-spirited op-ed. Mackey didn’t spread misinformation about death panels, call anyone names, or use ad hominem attacks. He put forth actual ideas and policy proposals, many of them tested and proven during his own experience running a large company. Is this really the state of debate on the left, now? “Agree with us, or we’ll crush you?”
Here’s why boycotts don’t work: the vast majority of customers don’t care. And yes, that includes the vast majority of Whole Foods customers, a surprising number of whom drive SUVs and even–I swear!–occasionally vote Republican. Now consider the demographic that cares enough about health care to actually boycott a company over it. Most of them are a) wonks or b) political activists. The latter group is disproportionately young and does not spend a great deal of money on groceries. The former group is tiny.
You may get a large number of people who say they’ll boycott Whole Foods. But then when they’re out of extra-virgin olive oil and the Safeway doesn’t have organic, and the nearest Trader Joes is a twenty-five minute drive away through traffic–they’ll shop at Whole Foods. Three weeks later, they’ll have managed to forget that they ever intended to stop shopping at Whole Foods. The stores are successful because they dominate their market niche, putting together a collection of things in one store that you would ordinarily have to go to several stores for. Shopping in mulitple places is a big pain in the butt.
Remember the boycott of the French? Lasted about four weeks, until everyone figured out that this meant foregoing Dannon yogurt and Mephisto sandals, and spending hours looking for a decent American brie. Effect on French foreign policy: dubious. Perhaps negative.
Here’s how it breaks down: Mackey has the right to express his opinion on health care. You have the right to boycott his company because you don’t like that opinion. And I have the right to say you’re a moron for doing so.
You’re saying, “These opinions are so horrifyingly offensive, they outweigh all the good your company does, and therefore, I’m going to punish you, your employees, and all of your suppliers.” See, I find that offensive. And yes, that’s in part because I happen to agree with most of Mackey’s recommendations.
I say in part because I also think the general premise is ridiculous. I shop at Costco. A lot. If the CEO of Costco wrote an op-ed calling for a single payer health care system, I’d shrug, maybe write a blog post about why I think he’s wrong, and then I’d probably go to Costco this weekend to buy some dog food, some meat, and to try to eat my membership dues in free samples. Now, if the CEO of Costco wrote an op-ed calling for genocide against redheads, then yeah, I’d stop shopping there. But calling for a boycott of a conscientious company over its CEO endorsing proven ideas like HSAs and mainstream policies like tort reform is an attempt to push good ideas you disagree with to the fringe. It’s a way of zoning your opponents best arguments out of the realm of civilized debate. In other words, it’s a way to marginalize your opponents without actually having to debate them.
Freddie at The League on Dreher:
Here’s a little counterfactual for you. Suppose the CEO of a retail chain that is predominantly patronized by cultural conservatives published an op/ed in which he announced his support for abortion rights. Then suppose some of the customers of his chain decided to boycott because they were opposed to abortion. Would Rod Dreher write a post like this?
Well, of course not. Part of that is because Rod is himself opposed to abortion. But another part, the bigger part, is because it’s liberals complaining and getting political, and not conservatives, and to many conservatives, cultural liberals getting political is inherently malign and distasteful. The issue here isn’t just that Rod disagrees with them. The issue is that he writes as if there is something wrong with them expressing their democratic rights at all. Look, this is difficult to talk about independent of ones own ideological biases, but I get this attitude all the time, that when conservatives act up politically, a la the town hall protests, it’s invigorating, principled and right, but when liberals do the same, it demonstrates how distasteful and annoying they are. I see it all the time.
I guess it just goes to show once again that believing in tropes that are disrespectful to conservatives is elitist, crude and bigoted, but believing in tropes that are disrespectful to liberals is gravy. It’s wrong to mock the crude rubes, it’s duty to mock the faggy coastals, and the time for cultural war is always.
I’m completely on Balko’s side here: of course people have the right to boycott anything for any reason, but that doesn’t mean the boycott is justified, or intelligent. I could be wrong, but I presume Whole Foods CEO John Mackey supports abortion rights. He could write an op-ed backing it, and I would be displeased with that, but I wouldn’t take my business elsewhere. I admire a lot of what Whole Foods does, and stands for, and Mackey would have to go pretty far to lose my business.
I felt the same way about the idiotic conservative boycott of French wine in 2002, in the march-up to the Gulf War, though you might say that one was different because the kind of conservative who would quit drinking French wine because he disagreed with the French government’s stance on the Iraq War is not likely to be the kind of conservative who found much to admire in France in the first place (this, as opposed to left-liberal Whole Foods shoppers, and their relationship to the organic supermarket). Perhaps a better analogy from the right is the conservative boycott of the Dixie Chicks for Natalie Maines’ anti-Bush remarks years ago. I never defended that boycott, on grounds that if I quit listening to music of artists whose political opinions offended me, I’d have very little on my CD shelf, but I regret in retrospect not defending the Dixie Chicks from the boycotters. As I recall, at the time (2003?) I said the performers were dumb to risk their careers to offer a political opinion guaranteed to rile their fan base. That was awfully weak, and I wish I had been more robust in their defense. But I would have no doubt spoken out more strongly for the Dixie Chicks had I had any interest in their music, as I spoke out against the boycott of French wine, because I know something about France, and like and admire the country and its culture, regardless of what its government does.
We just went to Whole Foods to get our favorite bread — “Seeduction” — and picked up a few other things — for $80+. Not making a political statement. Just doing what we would have done anyway. And, of course, the place was packed as usual — here in lefty Madison. It occurred to me that the boycott will not only fail, it will backfire. Whole Foods shoppers won’t give up their pleasure easily. If they are pushed to boycott, they will want to read the Mackey op-ed, and if they do that, they will see it is a brilliant and specific analysis that is stunningly better thought-out than what we are hearing from Obama and the Democrats. Moreover, once they do that, they should be outraged — or at least annoyed — by those who called for a boycott, who sought to enforce such strict obedience to the particular of legislation that the Democrats in Congress have been trying to ram through. Maybe some of the people who want to support Obama and the Democrats will stop and think for themselves about what health care reform should be.
After all, if you don’t want to buy products that are sold by businesses whose owners and managers are conservatives, you would basically have to stop buying everything. Corporate managers are more right-wing than the country as a whole, owners of stock are more right-wing than the country as a whole, and owners of small businesses are much more right-wing than the country as a whole. Democrats are backed by the exciting categories of unskilled workers, professionals, routine white collar workers, and people with part time jobs.
That said, there’s asking a CEO to pander to your prejudices, and there’s pressuring a CEO not to go out of his way to offend your prejudices. Corporate executives have a lot of social and political power in the United States, in a way that goes above and beyond the social and political power that stems directly from their wealth. The opinions of businessmen on political issues are taken very seriously by the press and by politicians on both sides of the aisle. Once upon a time perhaps union leaders exercised the same kind of sway, but these days all Republicans, most of the media, and some Democrats feel comfortable writing labor off as just an “interest group” while Warren Buffet and Bill Gates and Jack Welch are treated as all-purpose sages. One could easily imagine a world in which CEOs were reluctant to play the role of freelance political pundit out of fear of alienating their customer base. And it seems to me that that might very well be a nice world to live in.
At any rate, very few businesses go as far as Whole Foods in marketing their products specifically as part of a quasi-politicized left-wing lifestyle and few CEOs go as far as Mackey in public advocacy of political views that are only tangentially related to his business. If Whole Foods shareholders were to start to wonder whether having their corporate brand dragged into the health care debate is really a smart use of their assets, I would call that a good thing.
UPDATE: Robert Wright and Ann Althouse at Bloggingheads
UPDATE #2: Julian Sanchez