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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Regulatory Roots of Inequality in America


Why has US income inequality surged to unprecedented heights since the 1970s? The rise in inequality was not simply the natural result of differential rates of return but was powerfully driven by politics and policy. This article explores the underlying mechanisms with a focus on market governance, including corporate governance, financial regulation, labor relations, antitrust, sector-specific regulation, and intellectual property rights. Firms and individuals actively shaped market governance in their own favor and then took advantage of that favorable governance in the marketplace. This “inequality snowball” was particularly pronounced in the United States because firms were more aggressive in their business and political strategies and because the political system delivered more winner-take-all policy outcomes than the more consensual political systems of continental Europe and Japan.

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