Bad Takes: Former Whole Foods CEO's libertarian bloviation shows lack of understanding and empathy

In a recent interview, Texas businessman John Mackey dropped a steaming pile of COVID misinformation while unleashing his inner Joe McCarthy.

click to enlarge Turns out we can thank John Mackey's retirement for his recent courage in Red-baiting. - Wikimedia Commons / Mike Gifford
Wikimedia Commons / Mike Gifford
Turns out we can thank John Mackey's retirement for his recent courage in Red-baiting.

Editor's Note: Bad Takes is a column of opinion and analysis.

If you run a Libertarian media outlet, you'll need to pucker up and kiss the hairy asses of multimillionaires from time to time.

A few weeks ago, then-Whole Foods CEO John Mackey — he retired Sept. 1 — had his turn when the Houston native and Trinity University alum "sat down with" Reason Magazine Editor Nick Gillespie. Minutes passed before Mackey dropped a steaming pile of COVID misinformation, most of which Gillespie let pass without comment or correction. 

"I believe history will show that the lockdowns was [sic] probably the stupidest thing that the government will have done in the 21st century, unless they get into a nuclear war," Mackey predicted. 

A University of Michigan-led study found that such measures saved between 866,350 and 1,711,150 lives. Weighed next to the civilian-massacring toll of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the civilization-threatening repercussions of ignoring climate breakdown, does saving hundreds of thousands of people from dying of COVID leap out as the dumbest thing government has done?

Consider the consequences of inaction. The state of Texas alone — population 29 million — negligently allowed more COVID deaths than South Korea, New Zealand, Australia, Norway, Finland and Japan combined. And those countries boast a combined population of 219 million. The Lone Star State's death toll is in no small part because Gov. Greg Abbott tied the hands of public health officials and municipal leaders to issue mask ordinances and other safety mandates. 

Unevenly enforced though they were, so-called "lockdowns" bought us time to equip nurses and doctors with protective gear, refine treatment protocols and beef up hospital capacity — not to mention develop monoclonal antibodies, anti-viral medicines and approved vaccines.

During the Reason interview, Gillespie ever-so-gently asked Mackey, "You're not sold on the mRNA vaccines?"

"No," came Mackey's stark reply. "I mean, it was experimental, and they didn't deliver as were promised. You know, when I get a polio vaccination, I expect I'm never going to get polio — not that in six months I got to get a polio booster."

In fact, the polio vaccine is a four-dose series that only provides around 90% protection after the first two shots. That's in the same ballpark as how effective COVID vaccines originally were against the wild-type strain. The crucial difference is the polio virus has stayed relatively stable — knock on wood —whereas the SARS2 virus continues to mutate rapidly, evolving immunity-eluding variants including Delta, Omicron and Centaurus. 

That by no means justifies disparaging vaccines as inadvisable or "experimental."

Yet Mackey kept digging the hole. "You know, 80% of the COVID deaths in the U.S. were to people that were obese," he continued.

That's false. Not even half were obese. And as Dr. Keith Roach, who writes the To Your Good Health column for the Express-News, noted this past winter, bogus statistics like Mackey's "blame the victims of this terrible pandemic" and "falsely reassure people of normal weight that they have little to fear from COVID-19."

Presaging the youth-bashing that ratcheted up with President Joe Biden's modest student debt relief, Mackey went on to gripe about unemployment compensation in the COVID stimulus.

"A lot of people concluded, 'We're making as much money or more money not working at all,'" he said. "And so, guess what? They chose not to work. And they've been reluctant to come back to work. They got used to it."

This stereotype of the lazy freeloader veers from lived reality. Not only do workers in the United States already put in longer hours than most working classes on the planet — and without the vacations and family leave all other developed nations mandate by law — the COVID stimulus also empowered substantially more of us to start our own enterprises. 

"In 2020, Americans applied for more than 4.3 million employer identification numbers — a first step to launching a new business," Jorge Guzman of Columbia Business School wrote in The Financial Times. "That is a 24% increase from 2019, with the largest increases in Black communities."

There also was scant evidence that Republican governors who callously cut off unemployment checks during a national emergency accomplished much. Last September, according to the Marxists over at The Wall Street Journal, "States that ended enhanced federal unemployment benefits early have so far seen about the same job growth as states that continued offering the pandemic-related extra aid."

A hippie-turned-Reaganite who longs for "a wave of deregulation" to excise voters and their elected representatives out of any meaningful role in the decisions that affect us, Mackey likes to style himself as an advocate for "conscious capitalism."

How "conscious" can his capitalism be if people's health and lives are sacrificed at the altar of the economy? With all the "free" market's supposed "innovation," is it still necessary to crack the threat of deprivation like a whip to motivate the workforce? And why should nutritious food be a luxury reserved for those who can afford to shop at Whole Paycheck?

"We know how to cure obesity and yet we're not doing it," Mackey told Reason. "You could argue there's not any money in it. There's a lot more money made in selling drugs to people."

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders couldn't have said it better himself. But then why lionize and romanticize an economic system that by design puts money ahead of people's wellbeing?

"My concern is I feel like socialists are taking over," Mackey said, at last unleashing his inner Joe McCarthy. "They're marching through the institutions. They're taking everything over. They've taken over education. They've taken over a lot of the corporations. They've taken over the military."

This brand of clownish Invasion of the Body Snatchers-conspiracism would have pleased the John Birch Society, past members of which were positive President Dwight D. Eisenhower was a Soviet spy. To proclaim that socialists run the armed forces, your neighborhood school and much of Big Business, one must rely on an exceedingly loose definition of socialism bordering on incoherence.

Turns out we can thank Mackey's upcoming retirement for his recent courage in Red-baiting. Ever since comparing the Affordable Care Act to "fascism" in 2009, he's said he felt "muzzled" by Whole Foods' corporate brass. "My board basically shut me down, and I was intimidated enough to shut up," he told Reason.

If only he were a member of a labor union that protects workers from reprisal for freely expressing their political beliefs, as democratic socialists continue to passionately agitate for. Regrettably, Amazon — the monopoly Whole Foods sold out to in 2017 — has innovated union-busting into a science.

"It was amazing too that for all the discussion of essential or frontline workers, there was not a lot of empathy for grocery workers," Reason's Gillespie observed at one point.

To which Mackey, operator of an organic grocery store chain for four decades, appeared downright stumped: "I'm not sure what you mean by empathy."

We know, John. And it shows.

Stay on top of San Antonio news and views. Sign up for our Weekly Headlines Newsletter.

Join SA Current Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.