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
Show Hide image

The big problem for the NHS? Local government cuts

Even a U-Turn on planned cuts to the service itself will still leave the NHS under heavy pressure. 

38Degrees has uncovered a series of grisly plans for the NHS over the coming years. Among the highlights: severe cuts to frontline services at the Midland Metropolitan Hospital, including but limited to the closure of its Accident and Emergency department. Elsewhere, one of three hospitals in Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland are to be shuttered, while there will be cuts to acute services in Suffolk and North East Essex.

These cuts come despite an additional £8bn annual cash injection into the NHS, characterised as the bare minimum needed by Simon Stevens, the head of NHS England.

The cuts are outlined in draft sustainability and transformation plans (STP) that will be approved in October before kicking off a period of wider consultation.

The problem for the NHS is twofold: although its funding remains ringfenced, healthcare inflation means that in reality, the health service requires above-inflation increases to stand still. But the second, bigger problem aren’t cuts to the NHS but to the rest of government spending, particularly local government cuts.

That has seen more pressure on hospital beds as outpatients who require further non-emergency care have nowhere to go, increasing lifestyle problems as cash-strapped councils either close or increase prices at subsidised local authority gyms, build on green space to make the best out of Britain’s booming property market, and cut other corners to manage the growing backlog of devolved cuts.

All of which means even a bigger supply of cash for the NHS than the £8bn promised at the last election – even the bonanza pledged by Vote Leave in the referendum, in fact – will still find itself disappearing down the cracks left by cuts elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.