First, from Jon Stewart:
I am rich. I am carried around this building by a team of yakuza. And my feet never touch the ground. So people have yelled at me on the Web, 'How can you criticize Mitt Romney's wealth?' I don't care about wealth. What seems to be upsetting is institutionalizing the advantages that wealth gives you.
Readers will know, from this piece and this one, that I agree. Joe Stiglitz, the Nobel laureate economist and author of the new book "The Price of Inequality," replied with perhaps the most important point in this debate:
It can be changed, because in other countries things are different. These are not the inevitable laws of economics. Other countries have had the same market forces at play, and they've had less inequality and more equality of opportunity. Market forces do not exist in a vacuum. We shape those market forces.
There is an unfortunate tendency for these discussions to become quickly fatalistic. Concerns about inequality get dismissed with a shrug of the shoulders and some gauzy generalities about globalization and "the economics of superstars."
That said, notice what Stiglitz is talking about here: "Market forces" are not the same thing as "government policy." The American conversation over what to do about inequality is heavy with proposals to more effectively or broadly redistribute the gains of a very unequal economy, but very little thinking about the market forces that lead the structure of those gains in the first place. The basic reason for that is that even Democrats are nervous about government mucking around with "the market." But as economist Dean Baker has argued at length, this dichotomy between "the market" and "the government" is not so clean as it looks. Many of these "market forces" are already being shaped by government policies, but they're government policies that are "structuring the market in ways that ensure that income flows upwards."