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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Debunking Boris Johnson's claim that energy bills will be lower if we leave the EU

Why the Brexiteers' energy policy is less power to the people and more electric shock.

Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have promised that they will end VAT on domestic energy bills if the country votes to leave in the EU referendum. This would save Britain £2bn, or "over £60" per household, they claimed in The Sun this morning.

They are right that this is not something that could be done without leaving the Union. But is such a promise responsible? Might Brexit in fact cost us much more in increased energy bills than an end to VAT could ever hope to save? Quite probably.

Let’s do the maths...

In 2014, the latest year for which figures are available, the UK imported 46 per cent of our total energy supply. Over 20 other countries helped us keep our lights on, from Russian coal to Norwegian gas. And according to Energy Secretary Amber Rudd, this trend is only set to continue (regardless of the potential for domestic fracking), thanks to our declining reserves of North Sea gas and oil.


Click to enlarge.

The reliance on imports makes the UK highly vulnerable to fluctuations in the value of the pound: the lower its value, the more we have to pay for anything we import. This is a situation that could spell disaster in the case of a Brexit, with the Treasury estimating that a vote to leave could cause the pound to fall by 12 per cent.

So what does this mean for our energy bills? According to December’s figures from the Office of National Statistics, the average UK household spends £25.80 a week on gas, electricity and other fuels, which adds up to £35.7bn a year across the UK. And if roughly 45 per cent (£16.4bn) of that amount is based on imports, then a devaluation of the pound could cause their cost to rise 12 per cent – to £18.4bn.

This would represent a 5.6 per cent increase in our total spending on domestic energy, bringing the annual cost up to £37.7bn, and resulting in a £75 a year rise per average household. That’s £11 more than the Brexiteers have promised removing VAT would reduce bills by. 

This is a rough estimate – and adjustments would have to be made to account for the varying exchange rates of the countries we trade with, as well as the proportion of the energy imports that are allocated to domestic use – but it makes a start at holding Johnson and Gove’s latest figures to account.

Here are five other ways in which leaving the EU could risk soaring energy prices:

We would have less control over EU energy policy

A new report from Chatham House argues that the deeply integrated nature of the UK’s energy system means that we couldn’t simply switch-off the  relationship with the EU. “It would be neither possible nor desirable to ‘unplug’ the UK from Europe’s energy networks,” they argue. “A degree of continued adherence to EU market, environmental and governance rules would be inevitable.”

Exclusion from Europe’s Internal Energy Market could have a long-term negative impact

Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Amber Rudd said that a Brexit was likely to produce an “electric shock” for UK energy customers – with costs spiralling upwards “by at least half a billion pounds a year”. This claim was based on Vivid Economic’s report for the National Grid, which warned that if Britain was excluded from the IEM, the potential impact “could be up to £500m per year by the early 2020s”.

Brexit could make our energy supply less secure

Rudd has also stressed  the risks to energy security that a vote to Leave could entail. In a speech made last Thursday, she pointed her finger particularly in the direction of Vladamir Putin and his ability to bloc gas supplies to the UK: “As a bloc of 500 million people we have the power to force Putin’s hand. We can coordinate our response to a crisis.”

It could also choke investment into British energy infrastructure

£45bn was invested in Britain’s energy system from elsewhere in the EU in 2014. But the German industrial conglomerate Siemens, who makes hundreds of the turbines used the UK’s offshore windfarms, has warned that Brexit “could make the UK a less attractive place to do business”.

Petrol costs would also rise

The AA has warned that leaving the EU could cause petrol prices to rise by as much 19p a litre. That’s an extra £10 every time you fill up the family car. More cautious estimates, such as that from the RAC, still see pump prices rising by £2 per tank.

The EU is an invaluable ally in the fight against Climate Change

At a speech at a solar farm in Lincolnshire last Friday, Jeremy Corbyn argued that the need for co-orinated energy policy is now greater than ever “Climate change is one of the greatest fights of our generation and, at a time when the Government has scrapped funding for green projects, it is vital that we remain in the EU so we can keep accessing valuable funding streams to protect our environment.”

Corbyn’s statement builds upon those made by Green Party MEP, Keith Taylor, whose consultations with research groups have stressed the importance of maintaining the EU’s energy efficiency directive: “Outside the EU, the government’s zeal for deregulation will put a kibosh on the progress made on energy efficiency in Britain.”

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.