George Will on the Minimum Wage and Commodity Labor

George Will wants to abolish the minimum wage:

But the minimum wage should be the same everywhere: $0. Labor is a commodity; governments make messes when they decree commodities’ prices. Washington, which has its hands full delivering the mail and defending the shores, should let the market do well what Washington does poorly.

If you are offended by the suggestion that people are nothing more than commodities – so is Kevin Drum:

This, in a nutshell, is the core problem with conservative economics: it views workers as commodities. Naturally it follows from this that we should be free to treat workers like commodities, rather than as human beings.

But Will is very wrong on the economics for several reasons. For example, he writes:

The problem is that demand for almost everything is elastic: When the price of something goes up, demand for it goes down.

I guess Will has not reviewed the empirical evidence which seems to suggest that when the real value of the minimum wage is increased by x%, the decline in employment is less than x%. Economists can debate what is driving this evidence – with one possibility being that the assumption that labor markets are perfectly competitive is simply always the case. But there is also something quite amiss about Will assuming workers are nothing more than commodities. In his own words, workers receive different wages from the market place:

Most of the working poor earn more than the minimum wage, and most of the 0.6 percent (479,000 in 2005) of America’s wage workers earning the minimum wage are not poor.

Yes, there are differences among people, which is evident when one looks at the wide variations in wages received. Yet, Will claims the labor market is a commodity market? Incidentally, Mr. Will should check with the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

Of those paid by the hour, 479,000 were reported as earning exactly $5.15, the prevailing Federal minimum wage. Another 1.4 million were reported as earning wages below the minimum

(Hat tip to Duncan Black).