We Americans live more easily with vast differences in wealth and income than any other people in the West. We do so for two reasons, first because our culture continues to nurture belief in political and social equality: The rich are not allowed to indulge the belief that they are in some sense morally superior or that they have a right to demand signs of deference. In fact it is one of the characteristics of the American rich to pretend, even as they descend from large, shiny and conspicuously expensive cars under the canopies of conspicuously expensive hotels that they are just good ol' boys who like lite beer no less than Dick Butkus and Bubba Smith who by now, one imagines, must be pretty well off themselves.

The second reason we live fairly comfortably with large and manifest inequalities of wealth and economic power is a twinned belief in the possibility of social mobility and, consequently, in a connection between economic success and merit or, if not merit, at least luck, other than the luck of having been born rich, although even in that case, it is presumed that this generation's wealth is justified by the skill and hard work of its predecessors.

There are those who argue that social mobility is largely a myth sustained by cheap novels, expensive movies, a handful of anecdotes and a desperate desire to believe. . . . I suppose there is some truth to that charge. The achievements of our families do give us handicaps or advantages in the race of life. Nevertheless it is not hard to be impressed by the evidence of social mobility over generations.