Ideas for an economics in which people matter | Letters

In decrying a universal basic income, Sonia Sodha has set up a straw man argument (Money for nothing is no panacea, 18 December). No serious proponent of UBI that I work with believes it is a silver bullet. Nor do we believe that it will suddenly fix the modern economy. It’s clear to all that the current economic system is broken. Inequality is rising, as are rates of depression, self-harm, isolation and loneliness, and our planet is being ruined by a system that values growth at all costs. We know that radical changes are also needed to our tax system, to employment rights, and to working practices. But UBI is part of changing the agenda. It turns on its head the way we view work and welfare, and it is one response to the important question we should all be asking: who is the economy for?

Business as usual – whether that be the welfare state designed for a different age, or exploitative, endless work – should not be the only option. A basic income would provide everyone with basic security, but also choice. It would give them the freedom to explore life outside of work, taking the strain off both individual workers and our planet. It is a revolutionary idea that would invigorate communities and individual wellbeing.

Jonathan Bartley

Co-leader of the Green party

Monday’s Guardian contained the nice juxtaposition of Sonia Sodha’s critique of universal basic income and an editorial on the scandal of growing wealth inequality. Sodha fails to mention that one major virtue of a universal basic income is that it would reduce wealth inequality in a direct and simple way. The wealthy would pay more in extra taxes than they receive in universal basic income, whereas for the poor the opposite is true.

Peter Nicholas Pusey

Malvern, Worcestershire

Sonia Sodha needs to think again about the potential impact of a basic income on the balance of power in relation to employment. The foundation of power for workers has always been the ability to withdraw labour. A basic income would increase that power immeasurably.

It would no longer to possible for dodgy employers to get away with the kind of practices she mentions – “wrist-based devices measure warehouse workers for speed and efficiency and track them right down to how long they take for toilet breaks”. They wouldn’t get the workers, and there’d be picket lines at the entrances to the workplace. There would no longer be any possibility of starving people back to work.

And yes, without a basic income it would be possible to pay adequate benefits, including for carers, and it would be possible to scrap the sanctions system – but that’s the reverse of what we have seen happen under governments of both flavours. It’s easy enough to pick off selected benefits to people who can be demonised or ignored. But the beauty of a basic income system is that it is universal, and that any cut to it damages everyone. It has the same power as the NHS to get backing from voters across the political spectrum.

Moreover it has the potential to provide a radical and humane solution to issues around immigration, if free movement was available only to countries with an adequate basic income system. That would both remove the pressure that forces workers to emigrate when they would far sooner stay with their families, and it would provide an incentive for governments to introduce a basic income.

No, it’s not a panacea – but it’s a very good idea. Once we’ve got it it will be impossible to understand how we managed without it. Like the NHS, really.

Kevin McGrath

Harlow, Essex

Your economics editor, Larry Elliott (18 December) asserts that economics is a neoliberal cult whose purpose is to ignore reality while concocting mathematical spells to justify markets that impoverish the many for the benefit of the few. That is simply wrong. Not only that, it is dangerous. Such ill-informed expert-bashing is exactly what gives politicians the excuse they need to make policy while ignoring evidence.

Most economists are not astrologers trying to forecast the future, nor priests to the market gods. We analyse vast amounts of data to help design better policy. The study of economics is specifically focused on understanding market imperfections, human behaviour and the role government plays in determining wellbeing and life chances.

Perhaps at the root of Mr Elliott’s distorted view is his misunderstanding of the purpose of economic models. Critics complain that models are not realistic and make absurd assumptions. The London tube map is not realistic and makes absurd assumptions. If it did not it would be illegible and useless. The map is useful precisely because it abstracts from unnecessary details to show you the way. This is what economic models are for – they help us to find our way through complex data in a complex world.

Professor Orazio Attanasio UCL, Professor Oriana Bandiera LSE, Professor Richard Blundell IFS and UCL, Professor Steve Machin LSE, Professor Rachel Griffith University of Manchester and IFS, Professor Imran Rasul UCL

The Women’s Budget Group tells us that economics needs to recognise “the economic importance of unpaid work in families and communities” (Letters, 20 December). The analysis here was done by the Sarkozy commission, which included such luminaries as Amartya Sen and Joe Stiglitz. To call for what economics should do might be fair enough, but it would help if people were aware of what economics has already done when doing so. The answer, by the way, was that such “household labour” in the jargon should be valued at the undifferentiated labour rate, something that normally means minimum wage.

Tim Worstall

Senior fellow, Adam Smith Institute

Calls to inject more common sense into economic teaching and practice are well overdue. However, do we really have to look as far back as the Reformation for inspiration? Surely we need look no further than 1973, and the publication of the book Small is Beautiful. Despite the passage of time, its wry subtitle seems pithily to the point: “A study of economics as if people mattered.”

William Sharp

Chichester, West Sussex