Why isn't the government doing all it can to cut the deficit?

There's a whole class of policies which could cut the deficit in the medium to long term, which the government is ignoring. It's a sign of how weak public debate has become.

"Save Money, Improve Student Learning, and Boost The Economy By Paying Teachers to Quit Their Jobs", writes Slate's Matt Yglesias.

The rationale is simple. Teaching, particularly American teaching, is a profession where pay scales very strongly with experience. Thanks to strong unions and a relatively flat hierarchy, it's common for teachers to receive annual pay increases. As such, a teacher with 25 years experience will end up having a salary significantly higher than a teacher with five years experience.

That's fine if talent also scales with experience; but if it doesn't, it may be the case that it's cheaper to pay veteran teachers off, and hire younger ones. Yglesias writes:

Yet when Maria Fitzpatrick and Michael Lovenheim looked at an early retirement incentive program that Illinois implemented in the mid-1990s they did not find evidence of this adverse impact: "We find the program did not reduce test scores" they write "likely, it increased them, with positive effects most pronounced in lower-SES schools."

That finding probably isn't applicable to the British education system for a number of reasons: our pay agreements are different, our school structures are different, and frankly, the fact that American test results are the determining factor of success in the study does not inspire confidence. But Yglesias' suggestion of how that finding be used is generalisable. He argues:

The federal government could borrow a bunch of money at today's low interest rates and make it available to states and cities that want to pursue cost-saving early retirement incentive programs. The cash up front aspect of the ERI program would goose the economy in all the usual ways. But the long-term savings to state and city governments would improve the long-term fiscal outlook and thus boost "confidence" (or whatever). Kids would be no worse off in school. Districts would have to hire a bunch of new teachers, opening up some job opportunities for young people. And it's all voluntary—veteran teachers who'd rather stay on the job and get paid what they're owed can do so.

There's a gaping disconnect between the number of interventions which we know pretty well can save money in the long term, and the number we actually enact. Whether or not this particular one would work remains to be seen, but in general there are, at any one time, a huge number of things the state could do to lower its spending in the long term.

In the British context, a lot of them fall under the banner of "reversing the cuts"; the false economy by which funding for crucial services like legal aid or preventative healthcare was cut means that, while spending in the first years will be lower, in the long term they won't do anything for the deficit at all. (Or, even worse, a hard limit on all spending might result in the deficit genuinely being reduced, but at the cost of vast reductions in human welfare).

Of course, rhetoric mocking the concept of "borrowing more to borrow less" renders this entire category of valuable policies unsupportable, either by the Government, which would be accused of hypocrisy, or by the Opposition, which appears to have been stung too frequently by the barb to risk giving more ammo. So we're not likely to see deficit funded payoffs of veteran teachers any time soon, and so the government will continue to struggle to keep its borrowing low in the long term.

A teacher, teaching. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.