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A collection of short essays by Acton writers, click a link to jump to that article: 

Amazon paying higher wages is smart – forcing everyone to do so is not

Joe Carter, Acton Institute

Amazon recently announced that it will pay all of its U.S. employees a minimum of $15 an hour, more than double the federal minimum wage of $7.25. The decision is a smart move for Amazon. Unfortunately, the megacompany wants to force everyone else to do the same.

“In addition to committing to higher minimum pay, Amazon says it will push Washington, D.C., policymakers for a higher federal minimum wage,” NPR reported.

Amazon can afford higher wages and benefits from pricing out their competition. Their willingness to voluntarily pay higher wages gives them an advantage over other employers.

Conservatives are right when they say government-mandated pay floors kill jobs. Not only will businesses that were willing to pay more than the minimum lose their advantage in hiring, but those not willing to pay more will fire (or not hire) people whose labor is valued at less than $15 an hour. Once minimum wages are raised, turnover rates also increase as people decide to stick with or leave a job based on other factors. And the people who will never be hired (e.g., low-skilled workers, new immigrants) are shut out of the labor market completely.

Amazon is making an intelligent business decision, but it’s only smart because they are free to make that choice for themselves. Mandating the government require a “living wage” is not only economically dumb, it’s counterproductive and harmful to the poor.

When it comes to plastic straw bans, won’t somebody please think of the children?

Joe Carter, Acton Institute

Twenty years ago on The Simpsons, Helen Lovejoy gave us one of the most ubiquitous rallying cries in politics: “Think of the children! Won’t somebody please think of the children?” The attempt to gain support for weak arguments by invoking children has become known as “Lovejoy’s Law.”

Consider, for example, a recent ordinance by the Santa Barbara City Council to effectively ban plastic straws, stirrers, and cutlery in the city. Before council members voted unanimously for the ban, they listened to testimony from children about how straws were destroying our oceans. (Note: Straws are not destroying our oceans.)

“[We had] nine-year-old kids all asking to help pass these policies to protect our oceans and our waterways,” said one environmental activist after the council meeting. “The children are going to have to bear the external costs of this pollution we’re producing,” said another supporter of the ordinance.

The rule of law and the common good is undermined when draconian punishments are imposed for regulatory “crimes” likes this straw ban. Restaurant employees in Santa Barbara can be punished with up to six months of jail time or a $1,000 fine after a second offense of giving plastic straws to their customers.

Most theories of punishment are based on the idea that the punishments for crimes should either equal the harm done (retribution theory) or be just great enough to deter potential criminals (deterrence theory). When the law is too severe, society loses faith in the ability of the government to be fair and render justice. “[I]f a community does not believe its criminal justice system is fair, then it is far less likely to cooperate with that system,” said Senator Mike Lee of Utah. “And when a community does not cooperate with law enforcement, crime goes up.”

Santa Barbara and other local governments that impose such penalties are communicating to their citizens that the laws imposed on them are absurd and unjust. Is this really the message we want to be sending our children? Do we want them believing many laws are arbitrary and unenforceable?

When it comes to defending the rule of law, won’t somebody please think of the children?

D.C. restaurant workers fight against $15-an-hour wage, and win

Joseph Sunde, Acton Institute

Last June, Washington, D.C. residents voted to pass Initiative 77, a ballot measure that raised the minimum wage for all restaurant workers to at least $15 an hour. Yet many of the very workers whom the law sought to rescue fought vociferously to have it repealed. On October 2, after significant pushback, their wishes were granted.

“On an 8-to-5 vote – the first of two necessary votes – the D.C. Council approved legislation repealing Initiative 77,” wrote Fenit Nirappil in The Washington Post. (All but one of the eight councilmembers are Democrats; the other is an independent.) Worried about declines in tipping and cuts in staff, restaurant servers, saw through the claims of “economic justice.”

“Though it was served up as a progressive plan to hike wages, Initiative 77 would have actually cost many workers money,” Eric Boehm summarized at Reason. “The proposal abolished the so-called ‘tipped minimum wage’ of $3.50 cents per hour, replacing it with a $15 minimum wage for all food service workers in the city. But workers that I (and other reporters) talked to before the vote told me that they often make far more than $15 an hour, thanks to tips.”

The workers were close enough to the economic signals to understand that prices are not play things. Now, thanks to their efforts, the District’s restaurant industry can continue growing as industries typically do: not through artificial scheming, but through trial and error based on price information tied to authentic, personal decisions.

Whatever qualms we may have with the “fairness” of this or that employer’s particular wage rates, to subvert these signals is likely to lead to more hardship. Market signals serve a central purpose in guiding our activity toward actual human needs.

With Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United) already achieving similar “One Fair Wage” laws in seven other states – including California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Nevada, Montana, and Minnesota – there are plenty of victims and casualties. But the example of D.C.’s restaurant-worker resistance shows us that economic laws can only be ignored and subverted so far – and that it is possible for business owners to collaborate with their employees in the fight for true economic justice.

Cuba’s doctor rebellion

Joseph Sunde, Acton Institute

“You are trained in Cuba and our education is free. Health care is free, but at what price? You wind up paying for it your whole life.” –Dr. Yaili Jiménez Gutierrez

In 2013, the World Health Organization brokered a deal through which Cuba would export doctors to Brazil to serve in its poorest and most remote areas. Yet as Brazil began to reap the benefits of improved care and decreased mortality rates, the Cuban doctors began to see their home’s regime in a new light.

“When you leave Cuba for the first time, you discover many things that you had been blind to, ” says Yaili Jiménez Gutierrez, one of the program’s doctors, in a New York Times profile. “There comes a time when you get tired of being a slave.”

The Cuban doctors began noticing the disparity in their government’s “take” from the Brazilian government — nearly four times their own salary — as well as the higher wages and greater freedoms enjoyed by their fellow “export doctors” from other participating countries.

“We began to see that the conditions for the other doctors were totally different”, Jiménez explains. “They could be with their family, bring their kids. The salaries were much higher.”

In response, more than 150 Cuban doctors have now filed lawsuits in Brazilian courts, claiming equality protections under Brazil’s Constitution, and requesting that they remain in the country as independent contractors with the ability to earn a full salary.

The New York Times summarizes the situation as follows:

Anis Deli Grana de Carvalho, a doctor from Cuba, was coming to the end of her three year medical assignment. But having married a Brazilian man, she wanted to stay and keep working. [Her] pastor was outraged to learn that, under the terms of their employment, Cuban doctors earn only about a quarter of the amount the Brazilian government pays Cuba for their services. … In late September of last year, she sued in federal court to work as an independent contractor. Within weeks, scores of other Cuban doctors followed Dr. Grana’s lead and filed suits in Brazilian courts.

As for how the Cuban government has responded thus far, some have been allowed to keep their jobs or return home, while others were fired and face exile. “One federal judge in the capital denounced the Cuban contracts as a ‘form of slave labor’ that could not be tolerated,” the Times reports. But other judges found that “allowing Cuban doctors to walk away from their contracts posed ‘undue risks in the political and diplomatic spheres.’”

The costs have been high for those who left family behind in order to pursue a better livelihood or improve their prospects upon returning home. But for many, the risks have been well worth it.

“It’s sad to leave your family and friends, and your homeland, ” says Maireilys Álvarez Rodríguez, a doctor who sued the government, but managed to keep her job and bring her children to Brazil. “But here we’re in a country where you’re free, where no one asks you where you’re going or tells you what you have to do. In Cuba, your life is dictated by the government.”

We routinely hear critics of capitalism decry the supposed injustices of free wages set by free markets, driven by the actions of free people. Yet note how doctors from Cuba, a land which supposedly places priority on “equality, ” run to Brazil for equality protections. The irony is painful and shows the illusory nature of an equality based only on material output.

A pizzeria in Rome highlights the gift of Down Syndrome

Joseph Sunde, Acton Institute

In 2000, two parents founded a pizzeria in Rome with the goal of employing people with Down syndrome. Inspired by their son, who had the condition, they named it La Locanda dei Girasoli (“The Sunflower Inn”).

Today, the restaurant employs five people with Down syndrome, three people with other conditions – and boasts 4.5-stars on TripAdvisor.

According to their website, the restaurant’s goal is to “promote the employment of people with Down syndrome, ennobling and giving dignity to the individual through a path to training and work placement.”

With the abortion rate of those with Down syndrome now edging 90 percent, modern society’s distorted view sees these people as somehow lacking dignity and value. This robs the world of beautiful people and their joyful, creative contributions.

Customers not only “see that our workers are great at getting the job done”, explains Ugo Menghini, one of the restaurant’s managers, but “they see a human side to the restaurant.”

It’s a beautiful display of the transformative power of business and the abundance bound up in the hearts and hands of all people.

Business owners would do well to heed these stories and challenge preconceptions that impose limited notions of “value” on those around us. What we label as a “disability” may very well be the exact opposite.

Opportunities abound for creative contributions by all people. We should aim for an economic environment where they are encouraged, celebrated, and embraced.

In socialist Venezuela, emerging Capitalists meet community needs

Joseph Sunde, Acton Institute

The Venezuelan people continue to struggle and suffer the effects of socialist policies – poverty and hunger, swelling suicide rates, and widespread social unrest, which the government blames on “global capitalism.” Meanwhile, Venezuela’s local capitalism is beginning to emerge as the solution to the woes caused by socialism.

“Hyperinflation and scarcity have the Bolivarian revolution’s socialist heart pulsing with entrepreneurship,” writes Patricia Laya at Bloomberg. “Desperate citizens are eking out a living with ventures such as digging home water wells, bartering bananas for haircuts, and transporting commuters in animal- cargo trucks. The economy’s erosion has created markets and market players where none existed.”

For Yessica Vaamonde and her husband, Jose Ramirez, an opportunity was found in repairing damaged light bulbs. Vaamonde now spends her days walking through the slums of Caracas, collecting bulbs and bringing them back to her husband, who repairs up to 50 a day and sells them for a profit.

“I had to improvise in this crisis,” says Ramirez. “Many people today have to pick food over buying things like lightbulbs. I do things well, and I help them afford a good product that will last.”

For Yhoan Guerrero, the economic collapse meant leaving his job as a paramedic to repair tires, which paid much better. “Often people will come in begging for a cheap fix,” Laya writes.

“We save people around here,” Guerrero says. “With the country being how it is, no one can afford a new tire.” Guerrero says he “gets them moving again.”

Far from being crushed by the decades-long abuses of an oppressive socialist regime, Venezuela’s emerging entrepreneurs are demonstrating the real solution to economic scarcity and social desperation: human ingenuity and creativity freely expressed in the service of others.

“We’re seeing a new phenomenon under the worst of circumstances,” says historian Tomas Straka, a professor at Andres Bello Catholic University in Caracas.

These entrepreneurs remind us, yet again, of the inherent, God-given dignity and creative capacity of the human person. These are features that exist and endure, not fading or deteriorating according to the economic, social, or political dysfunction that surrounds us.

No matter how much our governments and economic institutions may fail, those basic human attributes and gifts remain, and the human calling to create and serve will eventually reawaken and renew.