At the end of 2017, my two home countries of the USA and Scotland are going in different directions in terms of tax reform.
While the Scottish government is introducing more progressive taxes, the US is in the process of passing a controversial bill which cuts tax bigly for the rich.
Tax rises for higher-earning Scots are modest – and there are also benefits such as free prescriptions, an NHS which is performing better than down south, free university education. Other progressive changes such as more rights for renters are also being introduced.
Scotland faces real economic challenges, low growth, the threats of Brexit and an ageing population. But the tax changes send a powerful message about inclusion and values. Scotland is arguably now a better place to live than England. It is the creative centre of the UK, a friend tells me. Anecdotally, I hear of people moving north from London as First Minister Nicola Sturgeon urged. Earlier in the year in a blogpost “Politics on the Hill”, I wrote about Edinburgh’s growth as a European capital.
Scotland’s digital media, beyond the paywalls which fence off almost all quality media in the US, is lively. (I write for some of them): Sceptical Scot, the Scottish Review, the Ferret, Bella Caledonia, individual journalists’ websites. Music, theatre, art seem vibrant. Perhaps some of the engagement that was engendered by the “Yes” movement is being channelled into everyday life, as in Alasdair Gray’s exhortation which it took to heart: “work as if you live in the early days of a better nation”.
The US appears economically more buoyant than Scotland but it is doing badly on other metrics – at the end of 2017 it was announced that life expectancy has fallen for the second year in a row, largely due to the impact of the opioid epidemic.
In the year of #Me Too, it seems it is young men in the US who are facing a crisis – in the main they are the ones who are dying of drug overdoses and dropping out of the workforce due to addiction. The opioid epidemic here was started by doctors who handed out powerful drugs like smarties in a health system that seems better at keeping people sick for a profit than making them well. Maternal death and infant mortality rates are also shocking.
The US tax cut is only going to increase the polarising of wealth which exacerbates so many social problems here. I touched on some of these issues in my bogpost about a Boston violin maker, who voiced a quiet anger about the social inequality which allows a hugely rich fellow citizen to disrupt his life.
But the picture is not all negative – the US system has checks and balances on the president’s power. The recent election of a progressive Democrat in the state of Alabama was encouraging. There are mid-term elections coming up.
Beneath the negativity of much of the political news, the US is also full of challenging, creative and resilient people. There are two tribes here – each of whom believes it is defending its vision of America from the other. Much of their disagreement is not economic but social, around “ gays, guns and God”. But the tax bill may have the effect of focusing minds on the economic realities of life for the vast majority of citizens.