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.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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