THE greatest living Scotsman is Angus Deaton, winner of the Nobel Prize for economics in 2015. He was born in Edinburgh, the son of a civil engineer and grandson of a miner. But he went away as a young man, first to England, to the University of Cambridge, and then to the US where, ever more benign and rotund, he has been a professor at Princeton since 1983.

Yet Deaton has always carried something of his homeland with him. He stands in the national tradition of the lad o’pairts. One reason Princeton proved congenial was that it had been, in 1746, a Presbyterian foundation.

The university’s sixth president was John Witherspoon, a radical minister from Paisley and a signatory to the American Declaration of Independence. In the courses for his students, he introduced to the US the Common Sense philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment.

It is a teaching founded on realism, an outlook that, again, Deaton has consciously adopted in his own career. Although a prize-winner in mathematics too, he has concentrated on actual problems of today’s western societies, especially poverty.

I have just been reading the latest book by Deaton and his American wife Anne Case, also a professor of economics at Princeton. It bears the title of Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism. While it may not sound like a load of laughs, I can warmly recommend it. It is in the first place about conditions in the US, but a comparison with the worst of what we know in Scotland is inescapable.

Although ethnic oppression was built into US history from the beginning, the deaths of despair are something new. They are the deaths of middle-aged white Americans after lifetimes of ill-health and addiction, most visible in “suicides, drug overdoses and alcoholic liver disease”. In recent times, this novel trend has grown so severe as to contribute to a general decline in the nation’s life expectancy, reversing the steady improvement, despite wars and slumps, through the 20th century.

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Black people have always been poorer than whites, and what has happened during this long lapse is that white death rates have caught up with black death rates. It is all at its worst in the broad swathe of the Rust Belt, from Buffalo to Cleveland to Detroit to Chicago. This region has de-industrialised, along with the coal-mining areas in the Appalachian Mountains and even the old textile towns of otherwise prosperous Massachusetts.

Welfare safety nets in the US are weak and, as wages stagnate, so families break down. Case says: “It’s not black culture, it’s not white working-class culture. We really think if you treat people shabbily enough, for long enough, bad things happen to them.”

A republic that has always glorified the common man (the composer Aaron Copland wrote a famous fanfare for him) now degrades the common man.

Both Deaton and Case feel at home in the UK. She recently gave an interview to the Financial Times in which she spoke of our similar but “more muted crisis”. He is heading up a five-year review of social inequality under the auspices of the Institute for Fiscal Studies. One focus is on Scotland. Of course, poor and sick middle-aged Scots have a National Health Service to turn to, whereas poor and sick middle-aged Americans have nothing of the kind.

But this does not always forestall what is in effect self-harm. By comparison, other European countries have managed, to a greater or lesser extent, to set limits to their drugs problem. Yet deaths from drugs and related causes in Scotland have been rising ever since the Trainspotting generation of the last century. Two-thirds of such deaths even now belong to that generation.

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And when I read the current hit novel by Graeme Armstrong, The Young Team, I find it depicts the same toxic tastes among today’s teenagers in Airdrie, signalling another reason why we have in this grisly sense continued to forge ahead of foreign nations to achieve the highest rate of drugs mortality in Europe.

Banned yet not otherwise regulated, the market adapts and expands in a typical capitalist fashion, as with the latest scourge of non-prescribed benzodiazepines, or street valium. It looks as if it has a long way to go. Ominously, according to the Scottish Government’s own website, “life expectancy has stalled in Scotland”.

To a grim social and cultural scene, is there any useful advice an economist can give? Deaton stresses how, on the other hand, the world is getting better. The modern era of globalisation has spread wealth and health. After 1918, life expectancy for males at birth in Scotland was 50. After 1945, it was 65. While it has since improved more slowly, especially compared to other countries, even so it now stands at 77, the highest level ever. From widespread chronic poverty a century ago, we have today the abundance of a consumer society.

This does not mean every single person has benefited, but those who have come to grief are mainly to be found in pockets. It is legitimate, in Deaton’s view, to compare unfavourably the delinquents of inequality, the “winners who pull up the ladders behind them”, cynical politicians, crooked financiers, corporate bloodsuckers. There is work to be done at each end of the spectrum, and on the detail – rather than, say, on having a revolution.

Many workers today feel less privileged than executives and shareholders, as the trade unions’ decline has removed bargaining power over wages. This situation is, however, the outcome of legislation, of a change in the rules of the game, which could be changed back again.

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On the other hand, some conservatives claim the concern with inequality is simply envy, so it would be better for us to understand inequality than to decry this feature of all human societies. Incentives that work for a few may at the same time benefit many, such as the promotion of people who merit it and are recognised by colleagues as meriting it.

Globalisation as such cannot be the big problem, Deaton argues. Our focus should instead be on democratic capitalism, which is not beyond repair or in need of wholesale replacement: “I am a great believer in what capitalism has done, not only to the oft-cited billions who have been pulled out of poverty in the last half-century, but to all the rest of us who have also escaped poverty and deprivation over the last two-and-a-half centuries.”

Democratic capitalism is what provides jobs all the jobs and the endless goods and services we take for granted: “I think that people getting rich is a good thing, especially when it brings prosperity to others. But the other kind of getting rich … enriching the few at the expense of the many, taking the free out of free markets, is making a mockery of democracy. In that world, inequality and misery are intimate companions.”

As Deaton and his wife pursue their projects in the UK, we should invite them to Scotland. They have lessons not only for financiers in London but also for our own government.