Whole Foods CEO says he's solved health care crisis

Reading the Wall Street Journal opinion piece written by Whole Foods (WFMI) CEO John Mackey, one might be inclined to believe that the health care crisis could be solved by simply working at Whole Foods. After all, as Mackey writes, the employees at his company have the brilliant solutions he's developed, and are deliriously healthy.

"Doc" Mackey insists that the answer is not government health care "entitlements" (he points out that there is no unalienable right to health care in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution) but is, instead, a simple matter of high deductible insurance plans, balanced tax treatment of healthcare spending, and unfettered competition across state lines, along with tort reform.

Finally, Mackey offers this prescription: "revise tax forms to make it easier for individuals to make a voluntary, tax-deductible donation to help the millions of people who have no insurance and aren't covered by Medicare, Medicaid or the State Children's Health Insurance Program." He goes on to note that health care, while nice to have, is "best provided through voluntary and mutually beneficial market exchanges." Bartering for health care? Get me one of those Whole Foods job applications, stat!

Sadly, health care is not that simple, and many of the proposals that Mackey makes would have little, if any, impact on the overall costs of the health system. Take tort reform: it is hardly the massive problem that so many politicians have painted. The entire malpractice insurance industry -- lawyers, punitive awards and all -- only accounts for about 2% of the spending on health care in the U.S. Tort reform couldn't reduce that by any amount significant enough to allow the 40-50 million Americans currently without health insurance to suddenly afford it. Similarly, tax credits for health care spending are nonsense if one does not have money to spend on health care to begin with. To put it another way, can I get a tax break on "I can't afford to pay for my children's vaccinations"?

As for the free market argument, it makes little sense because consumers don't get to decide whether or not to "purchase" health care. By and large, it's not voluntary. While a consumer can walk away from the cable company if he or she can't afford cable, it is impossible to walk away from pneumonia, cancer, or any of a host of illnesses that are currently undertreated in America because consumers don't have insurance.

Finally, there is a matter of healthy food. Here Mackey and I (at some level) agree: eating whole foods (by which I do not necessarily mean Whole Foods) is a great way to save future money on health care. I fully support government subsidies for healthy food, just like Mackey... oh wait.

It turns out that there are no subsidies for healthy food. In fact, quite the opposite: as one commenter to Mackey's piece points out at eloquent length, the only crop subsidies in the U.S. ($25 billion worth) are for corn, one of the most nutritionally-bereft crops in existence. "Corn is a horrible crop for healthy living. Compared to grain crop like oats, barley or rye (no subsidy money for any of them), corn has a terrible nutrient content, fat and sugars being present in a higher percentage than other crops... Corn was never cultivated in large quantities by Great Plains natives because of its poor nutritional value," he writes.

Voluntary donations are a lovely idea, but Americans haven't exactly shown themselves to be quite charitable enough to deal with other crises of poverty. People are still hungry, despite can drives and postal service employees picking up donations. People are still homeless. Making it easy to donate doesn't mean we'll do it.

Mackey's rationale makes great sense ... or, it would if everyone could work for Mackey. Sadly, there's just not enough Whole Food to go around.
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