I don’t generally run around obsessing over whether everyone I purchase goods or services from agrees with me about everything. But famously-crackpot Whole Foods CEO John Mackey has now made himself sufficiently repellent that I very much doubt I’ll ever feel like spending a dime in one of his stores again. Not content with peddling rich-guy “libertarian” attacks on health-care reform, asserting that climate change is a fraud designed to “raise taxes and increase regulation, and in turn lower our standard of living and lead to an increase in poverty,” comparing unionization to herpes, and getting caught playing sockpuppet games on financial message boards, Mackey is now…charging his employees more for food if they fail to meet his arbitrarily-chosen cholesterol, blood pressure, and body-mass index criteria.
As Paul Campos points out, this isn’t just tinpot CEO paternalism; it’s also junk science:
In terms of BMI, the Whole Foods discounts correlate with increasing mortality risk. The most sophisticated study on this subject, published in 2005 in JAMA by Katherine Flegal et. al., used a BMI of 23-24.9 as its referent category for baseline risk of mortality. (This corresponds with the higher end of the government’s “normal/recommended” weight range of 18.5-24.9. The lower one goes in the “normal” weight range, the greater the mortality risk becomes, so using the top of the “normal” range as the referent category actually minimizes the risks associated with “normal” weight). It found 86,000 excess deaths per year in the United States associated with “normal” weight when compared to the mortality risk among people with BMIs in the 25-29.9 range.It’s entirely arguable that I should have been eschewing Whole Foods already. I buy stuff from other companies whose behavior annoys me, because life is too short to be constantly maintaining a boycott list ten miles long. Moreover, when WF first started opening stores in New York City a few years ago, the grocery scene throughout most of the five boroughs was dire. (For years TNH and I noted that whenever we got to shop in a big, well-appointed suburban grocery, our reactions tended to be much like those of émigrés from the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union: You have such many foods in your United States! And so fresh!) And jokes about “Whole Paycheck” notwithstanding, I’ve never minded paying a premium for groceries that are genuinely fresh, wholesome, and tasty—we find that when we have attractive and interesting supplies at home, we fall prey less to the temptation to eat out or order in. But more recently, high-quality NYC grocery alternatives have multiplied—alternatives run by people who evidently think that good unions make for good business.
You’re reading that right: Whole Foods’ employee discounts based on weight are inversely related to mortality risk. So you have a policy that’s not merely discriminatory on its face, but completely irrational on its own terms.
(2) The highest employee discount has no floor, only a ceiling. In the Flegal study, underweight (BMI < 18.5) was associated with a stratospheric increase in mortality risk. (This remains true even when the data is controlled for smoking and pre-existing disease). But if you’re an underweight college student suffering from an eating disorder and working as a checker at the Boulder Whole Foods (not a hypothetical as anyone who has ever shopped there can attest) you get a 30% discount for maintaining the “healthiest” weight.
Ultimately, as Matthew Yglesias pointed out a while back:
[T]here’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 Buffett 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.