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The Conscience of a Pragmatist: “The Emperor has No Clothes!”

By J. Edward Nelson


News Junkie Post – Protesters outside of a Whole Foods grocery store angered by John Mackey's op-ed

News Junkie Post – Protesters outside of a Whole Foods grocery store angered by John Mackey's op-ed

In the interests of full disclosure, I must admit that I was inspired to write this particular post after reading “The Conscience of a Capitalist,” an article that details the fallout after an August 2009 op-ed appeared in the Wall Street Journal written by John Mackey, CEO and founder of the popular grocery store chain Whole Foods.

The op-ed was an answer to President Obama’s call for “constructive suggestions” regarding health care reform. It explores alternatives to the requisite federal spending (over $100 billion per year) proposed by Congress and endorsed by the Obama Administration.

Mackey draws upon his experience in the private sector in countering the proposed Congressional reform strategy, at the time H.R. 3200, with detailed suggestions proven to be effective in providing Whole Foods employees affordable health care coverage such as health savings accounts and high deductible, low premium health insurance plans.

He also makes fairly comprehensive but practical suggestions which mainly address systemic problems within the health insurance industry that germinate from existing laws such as:

  • repealing laws which prevent health insurance companies from competing across state lines

  • giving individual health insurance plans the same tax benefits as employer paid health insurance

  • repealing state mandates which determine what insurance companies must cover

  • making the cost of health care treatments transparent so consumers better understand what they pay for

  • enact tort reform to stem the tide of lawsuits forcing doctors to pay high insurance premiums, hundreds of thousands of dollars per year in some instances, which is passed on to consumers in the form of inflated health care costs

It’s interesting to note that none of the various health care reform bills written by Congressional Democrats address these systemic issues.

Many critics of the current health care system, such as economist Peter Schiff, the Cato Institute, and the Commonwealth Fund, agree that instituting the above reforms would drive down the cost of health care coverage and make health insurance accessible to more Americans (supposedly the goal of health care reform) WITHOUT the hefty price tag.

The opposition toward the Congressional reform strategy expressed in Mackey’s op-ed, which I and others consider to be justified, caused some left-leaning Whole Foods customers to boycott the national grocery store chain.

And although opponents of H.R. 3200 – largely advocates of free market solutions to health care reform – trumped the boycott with a “buycott,” discussed in the video below, it’s somewhat surprising that Mackey’s seemingly well intentioned op-ed inspired such a negative reaction.

Particularly when the long time CEO’s suggestions were more practical, battle-tested and fiscally conservative, addressing systemic problems within the health insurance industry in detail, than anything proposed by Congress at the time – or since.

This late summer health care quagmire, in which Mackey became an unlikely target, is reminiscent of Hans Christian Andersen’s 19th century fable, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” This story is the source of the commonly used phrase, “The Emperor has no clothes.”

Andersen’s fable highlights the intellectual vanity of a monarch who is deceived into believing that his wearing clothes made from “invisible” cloth would help him determine which subjects within his royal court were deserving of their station by whether they could see “the Emperor’s new clothes.”

Everyone within the Emperor’s royal court feigns the ability to see his new threads in order to retain their positions. This falsehood, perpetuated by intellectual vanity and the desire of subordinates to keep their jobs, is given a reality check when a child unceremoniously blurts out, “the Emperor wears no clothes at all!”

The actions of this child, in opposition to the highest authority, ie, the central government, is a prime example of what I refer to as “the conscience of a pragmatist.” I define this form of pragmatism as the ethical fortitude necessary to speak a practical truth in opposition to popular sentiment.

Mackey’s August op-ed is a prime example of such ethical fortitude because it points out the obvious flaws of Congressional reform legislation, with Congressional Democrats “feigning” the ability to see this “falsehood” as the solution to the American health care dilemma, as well as the unfortunate consequences which often ensue when a public figure decides to put his or her conscience on display.

The boycott of Whole Foods, a homegrown business that provides jobs and health care for thousands of Americans, by left-wing customers who support the Congressional reform strategy is as misguided an exercise of the First Amendment as the call for conservatives to boycott General Motors for accepting TARP money by right-wing radio talk show hosts.

Boycotting American businesses during a recession is like pouring water into a sinking ship – probably not a good idea.

The fallout caused by Mackey’s op-ed is evidence that no good deed goes unpunished within the politically polarized atmosphere of these United States.


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