Food for Thought

Progressives finally may be waking from their slumber. The presence in the White House of a supposedly liberal Democrat and comfortable majorities in both houses on Congress seemed to blunt their anger, with only a small minority pushing hard for real reform of our healthcare system.

Enter John Mackey. The Whole Foods CEO ignited a fire under progressive feet with a libertarian op-ed in the Wall Street Journal blasting public involvement in the healthcare system and calling for an expansion of the healthcare market.

That led to a boycott of the natural foods supermarket and protests in many cities.

At first, I thought the protests were unlikely to have much effect, unlikely to shift the debate much. In fact, there was the very real possibility that they could backfire. And they remain small, having little effect on Whole Foods or its CEO.

But Mackey’s comments have energized the left — or at least that portion committed to healthcare reform and the labor movement.

Here is what Mackey had to say in that Wall Street Journal piece:

“Many promoters of health-care reform believe that people have an intrinsic ethical right to health care — to equal access to doctors, medicines and hospitals. While all of us empathize with those who are sick, how can we say that all people have more of an intrinsic right to health care than they have to food or shelter?

“Health care is a service that we all need, but just like food and shelter it is best provided through voluntary and mutually beneficial market exchanges. A careful reading of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution will not reveal any intrinsic right to health care, food or shelter. That’s because there isn’t any. This ‘right’ has never existed in America.”

That’s a terrible misreading of the founding documents that ignores our national history. Rights like free speech, for instance, have evolved over time: The US Supreme Court, for instance, didn’t extend First Amendment protections to include state and local governments until the 20th century and has remained ambivalent about our right to free speech during wartime. The right to privacy also has evolved.

The lack of any reference to health care, food or shelter in the Constitution or Declaration does not mean those rights should not exist.

That’s something that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt understood very well. As World War II was winding down, Franklin Delano Roosevelt unveiled a new “Economic Bill of Rights” that included the rights to work and shelter, enough wages “to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation,” adequate medical care and education.

Roosevelt said “these rights spell security” and would help move the nation toward “new goals of human happiness and well-being.”

Roosevelt, basically, was saying was that there are some things in life that are too important to be left to the market. The markets for food and shelter have massive flaws, with millions left hungry and homeless and food prices outpacing inflation.

The market for health care is equally flawed with profit, and not care, dictating too many decisions.

That’s why I believe we need a single-payer healthcare system, one in which the federal government — or some independent agency created by the feds — acts as funder of all care, with doctors and hospitals remaining independent. Care would be up to medical personnel without interference from insurance companies.

I won’t pretend that such a change won’t have its difficulties — but the reorganization of the system would be an improvement on what we currently deal with. Critics of reform raise the specter of tax hikes and rationing, but we’re already paying through the nose and having our care rationed — but instead of a rationing by triage, with decisions made based on effectiveness and need, the insurance companies base their decisions on profit and profit alone.

That message has not been getting through — or hadn’t, until Mackey wrote his op-ed, which also blamed the victim in our healthcare fiasco. He wrote that “many of our health-care problems are self-inflicted,” blaming the rising costs on obesity and diseases that he says “are mostly preventable through proper diet, exercise, not smoking, minimal alcohol consumption and other healthy lifestyle choices.” Making better lifestyle choices would help stem rising prices, he says.

There is nothing wrong with better choices, but the issue here isn’t McDonald’s hamburgers and Krispy Kreme doughnuts. It’s access and cost and it is offensive to say that the people who are forced to use emergency rooms for primary care have brought it on themselves.

“John Mackey is the Marie Antoinette of our age,” said Laurie Wen, a member of Private Health Insurance Must Go! Coalition that protested at a New York Whole Foods store last month. She was quoted on the Web site for Single Payer Action. “He’s basically saying, ‘No health care. Let them eat organic vegetables.’ It’s scandalous that a rich man with great health care is blaming those who don’t have it. We can’t continue this inequitable system — we need what every other industrialized country in the world has — a national system that guarantees health care to everyone.”

I’m hoping that Mackey’s op-ed is the spark the reform movement needs.

Hank Kalet is an editor with The Princeton Packet newspaper chain. E-mail; blog,

From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2009

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