In this thought-provoking read, Harper's contributor Nathanael Johnson weaves stories of his patchouli upbringing with trenchant interrogations of both "natural" and "technological" solutions to everything from pig farming to child rearing. For example, he cites studies showing that laboring mothers died at a higher rate in the mid-aughts than they did in the late 1990s as a symptom of how hospitals overtreat us—in this case with unnecessary C-sections that raise women's mortality risk. On the flip side, Johnson recounts his own home birth in Berkeley, where his hippie mother was bleeding uncontrollably by the time her midwife called in a doctor.
If you shop at Whole Foods, you've probably seen the ads at the cash register for Conscious Capitalism. Cowritten by the store's founder, John Mackey, and Raj Sisodia, chairman of a nonprofit called Conscious Capitalism Inc., the book bills itself as a tale of "Mackey's own awakenings as a capitalist." While Mackey serves up plenty of cheerful exhortations and pithy self-help tips, however, the only "awakening" that you're likely to get from reading this 313-page apologia for libertarianism is a sense that he ought to stick to selling groceries. (Read my interview with Mackey here.)
To give Mackey his due, he proved that many shoppers are willing to pay a premium for foods that are healthy, sustainably produced, and sold by workers who earn decent wages and health benefits. His book strives to show CEOs in other industries that they can follow his lead. "We need a richer and more ethically compelling narrative to demonstrate to a skeptical world the truth, beauty, goodness, and heroism of free-enterprise capitalism," he writes. "Otherwise we risk the continued growth of increasingly coercive governments, the corruption of enterprises through crony capitalism, and the consequential loss of both our freedom and our prosperity."
In 1978, John Mackey and his girlfriend used $45,000 in seed money to start "Safer Way," a natural-foods store in Austin, Texas, that was supposed to offer shoppers an alternative to "evil" profit-seeking corporations. But soon the long-haired 25-year-old found himself lumped in with the people he was supposed to be fighting. His customers complained that his prices were too high. His workers thought they weren't being paid enough. Austin nonprofits said he should give them more money. And government regulators were slapping him with fees, fines, and taxes. He lost more than half of his investment before renaming the store Whole Foods and reconsidering his take on corporate America. "My worldview underwent a massive shift," he writes in Conscious Capitalism, a new book about his business philosophy that Mackey coauthored with Raj Sisodia, cofounder of the nonprofit Conscious Capitalism, Inc. "I had become a businessperson and a capitalist, and I had discovered that business and capitalism, while not perfect, were both fundamentally good and ethical." (A book review is forthcoming.)
Mackey responded via email to my questions, dishing on Obamacare, the relevance of labor unions, and the overheated rhetoric concerning climate change—which is, after all "perfectly natural."
"I reject the premise that liberal and libertarian values are necessarily in conflict. The truth is that I don't fit into a simple ideological box."
Mother Jones: You run Whole Foods Market as a liberal might—with generous wages and worker benefits and progressive environmental policies. Yet when it comes to politics, you are essentially a libertarian.
John Mackey: I reject the premise that liberal and libertarian values are necessarily in conflict. In fact, I often self-identify as a "classical liberal." I am pro-choice, favor legalizing gay marriages, protecting our environment, enforcing strict animal welfare protection laws (I've been an ethical vegan for 10 years), marijuana legalization, having a welfare safety net for our poorest or disabled citizens, and a radically reduced defense budget and military presence around the world. However, I'm also a conscious capitalist—I believe economic freedom and entrepreneurship are the best ways to end poverty, increase prosperity, and evolve humanity upward. I believe that all forms of socialism have been proven over time to result in a loss of both economic and civil liberties, with increasing poverty. The truth is that I don't fit into a simple ideological box. I read widely on issues, try to think carefully about them, and then I make up my own mind.
The NRA may or may not be a gun club for whiners, but it does have a wine club. The NRA Wine Club, as it is known, offers "limited collector's editions NRA wines." If you sign up, you'll also get a "Custom NRA Engraved Wine Box."
Sadly, the NRA does not offer a domestic-beer club. Yet in one sense, marketing alcohol of any kind to hard-core gun owners is a stroke of brilliance: According to a 1997 study in the American Journal of Public Health, owners of semi-automatic weapons are more likely than other gun owners to report binge drinking.
Now if only the NRA could start a tobacco club, it would be primed for a raid by the "jack-booted thugs" in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.
Whenever the National Rifle Association is accused of extremism, it trots out the claim that it represents a large chunk of America's gun owners. Last week, it said it has 4.2 million members and counting. Though the group doesn't publish its membership rolls and didn't respond to questions about its size, there's a lot of anecdotal evidence that it is making itself out to be bigger than it truly is.
Estimates of the size of the its membership have varied widely over the past 20 years. At different times in 2008, for example, it pegged its membership at 3 million and 4.3 million—a difference of more than 40 percent. A 2012 document for prospective sponsors of the NRA's annual meeting (PDF), found by Bloomberg News, said the group had 4 million members, of which 2 million were the "most active and interested."
During the early 1990s, the NRA's membership peaked at around 3.7 million before plunging to 2.6 million in 1998, according to newspaper stories at the time. The shrinkage coincided with criticism of the group's extremist rhetoric around the time of the Oklahoma City bombing. If the NRA is to be believed, it quickly began replacing those lost members. But did it? After the late '90s, reports of its size start to spread out like buckshot from a sawed-off bird gun.
In March 2001, the Denver Post pegged the NRA's membership at 2 million. A few months later, an NRA spokesman put the number at 4.5 million; the Columbus Dispatch and Colorado Springs Gazette put it at 3 million. What was going on here? One possible explanation comes from Richard Feldman, a former NRA lobbyist who wrote the 2007 book, Ricochet: Confessions of a Gun Lobbyist. After George W. Bush was elected, Feldman recently told Bloomberg, "there was no perceived national threat to gun ownership. The NRA's membership dropped to under two-and-a-half million, although they never admitted it."
Writing in 2000, when the NRA claimed to have 3.6 million members, journalist Osha Gray Davidson speculated on some of the group's strategies for fluffing itself up:
Two years ago, David Gross, then an NRA board member, confided to me that a substantial number of the group's 1 million Life Members are, well, dead. "There just isn't that much incentive to go find out when someone passes away," Gross explained. "Not when the cost of maintaining (a dead member) is minimal and when they add to your membership list."
Who else is included in that figure of 3.6 million? I may be—although I haven't been a member for years. Not long ago, I received an NRA form letter stating that in recognition of my previous commitment to the Second Amendment, the gun group had granted me an honorary membership. The mailing even included an NRA membership card embossed with my name.
It's all part of the NRA's campaign of smoke and mirrors to make itself appear more formidable in Washington, where appearance often trumps reality. The NRA leadership must offer a silent prayer of thanks to the gods of journalistic sloth and credulity every time a reporter repeats that figure of 3.6 million members and the words "record high."
An ad for a Taurus pistol in the NRA's American Rifleman
magazine offers free membership in the group. American
The NRA has boosted its membership numbers in other ways. A 2008 issue of the NRA Recruiter, a newsletter aimed at the association's evangelists, proudly noted that weapons makers and outfitters such as Browning, Beretta, Taurus, Tactical Rifles, and Wilson Combat were offering free NRA memberships to anyone purchasing their products. The newsletter also talked up the benefits of "Join NRA, Get in Free" promotions at gun shows. "This is, by far, the most effective way to substantially increase your numbers," it said. "…[A]ll you have to do is 'sell the sizzle.' People are always looking for a bargain."
In 2008, Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the pro-gun control Violence Policy Center, came across more evidence of the NRA's fuzzy math. He pointed to a piece of junk mail that the NRA's treasurer had sent to members peddling a specialized insurance plan aimed at gun owners. The pitch stated that "with about 3 million NRA Members 'on our side of the table,' we negotiated a bargain price." Sugarmann has an intriguing theory why this number may be more credible than the one that the NRA routinely gives the press: The underwriter for the insurance plan was in California, where making "untrue, deceptive, or misleading" statements in insurance materials is outlawed.
Last week, the NRA claimed that it had added 100,000 new members in the weeks following he Sandy Hook massacre. "Our goal is to get to 5 million before this debate is over," a representative of the group told Politico. If all of the NRA's numbers are to be believed, it will hit its target by this fall.
UPDATE: A source writes in with another strong indication that the NRA's true size is closer to 3 million. The NRA gives members a free subscription to one of four magazines: American Rifleman, American Hunter, America's 1st Freedom, or NRA InSights. The first three magazines are audited by the Alliance for Audited Media, which as of July gave them a combined paid circulation (including newsstand sales) of 3.1 million. NRA InSights is an online-only magazine for kids, with a circulation of 25,000. Though some NRA members may opt out of a free magazine, it's likely that others pay to subscribe to more than one of them. Add in the fact that non-NRA members can pick up the magazines on the newsstand, and the 3.1 million figure is almost certainly an upper-bound for the NRA's true size.