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Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class (Wildavsky Forum Series) 1st Edition

4.0 out of 5 stars 18 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0520252523
ISBN-10: 0520252527
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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Economist Frank argues that rising economic inequality harms the middle class, and he uses familiar examples to teach us about consumer behavior. One interesting example is the buying of larger and larger houses by those at the top levels of income and wealth, which leads families in the middle to spend a greater percentage of income on housing in order to send their children to a school of average quality. They must then spend less on other important categories while their real purchasing power over decades stagnates. We learn about the role of technology in shaking out industries where a few become big winners and the rest hardly make it, explaining why foreign competition isn't always the reason. Frank's recommendation in favor of a progressive consumption tax is certain to draw controversy. This is an excellent book, written in an easy, understandable manner, alive with important examples of how our society spends its money and who are the winners and losers. Whaley, Mary --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From the Inside Flap

"I've been a skeptic. Bob Frank is persistent. He's beginning to convince me."—Thomas C. Schelling, author of The Strategy of Conflict

"The arguments here are powerful and multidisciplinary. The crux is explaining how rising economic inequality causes harm to the middle class. It also offers a policy reform—a progressive consumption tax—that serves to mitigate this harm. This is a gem of a book."—Lee S. Friedman, Professor of Public Policy, University of California at Berkeley

"In this lively provocative book filled with memorable new examples, Bob Frank goes beyond his previous work (Luxury Fever, Winner-Take-All Society, and Choosing the Right Pond) and clarifies that 'falling behind' is a consequence not of envy but rather of the simple fact that a person's evaluation of his own possessions 'depends always and everywhere on context'—an unconscious comparison with his neighbor's possessions or with his own previous possessions. His illuminating interchange with prominent discussants is a unique contribution of this book."—Laurence Seidman, Chaplin Tyler Professor of Economics, University of Delaware

"You may think that you understand what's in Bob Frank's earlier books, Choosing the Right Pond and Luxury Fever. You may even have read them. Nevertheless, if you pay even passing attention to the big economic policy questions, you should still read his latest contribution, Falling Behind. In this century, distributional concerns will top the policy agenda. This masterful essay will change how you think about them."—Paul Romer, Stanford University

"The most influential ideas often turn out to be those that seem obvious—once someone has had the wit to point them out. Robert Frank's ideas in Falling Behind meet this test. In this short, lucid set of essays he explains exactly how and why an unequal society leaves almost all its members worse-off, including most of those who objectively are doing 'better.' This is a very important application of economic logic to modern America's main domestic problem."—James Fallows, National Correspondent, The Atlantic Monthly

"Robert Frank escapes the fog of economics wars by illuminating the meaning of facts on the ground, not numerical theories in the sky. He sketches a theory of human economic nature and links it responsibly to the rickety choices of policy-makers who have no such theory or, worse, a truly faulty one."—Lionel Tiger, Rutgers University

"Robert Frank is the rare sort of economist whose work disconcerts economists and delights the rest of us. This is not mainly because he mischievously highlights the blind spots of his learned profession, but because his insights reveal fundamental, unnoticed, and yet very important truths about the society in which we live. As inequality has grown in America over the last three decades, Frank shows in this fluent and powerful little book, we have all been led by human nature to act in ways that are bad for virtually everyone. Frank's ideas should play an important and innovative role in the gathering debate about inequality in America."—Robert D. Putnam, Harvard University

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Product Details

  • Series: Wildavsky Forum Series (Book 4)
  • Paperback: 160 pages
  • Publisher: University of California Press; 1 edition (July 9, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0520252527
  • ISBN-13: 978-0520252523
  • Product Dimensions: 8.2 x 6.8 x 0.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #96,444 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Frank is an economist who writes a column for the Wall Street Journal. He has written books that entertain and inform. This book clearly falls in the latter category. It contains a series of thought provoking observations about the present state of the American middle class. He finishes the book with some ideas about what can be done to continue to support it. Those that revolve around restructuring the country's tax system are sure to make some uncomfortable. The book is well worth a read.

The size and health of its middle class used to be a matter of pride for America. If you think the state of the middle class is not important, just compare America to countries that don't have a thriving middle class. There are a lot of them in Africa and Latin America.
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Format: Paperback
The dictum "context is everything" is certainly true when it comes to assessing the value of material goods.

In Falling Behind, economist Robert H. Frank shows that what we consider "average" or "good enough" in a home or car is determined by context: what are others around us driving? where are they living? Is a `79 Chevy Nova is adequate (or even luxuriant)? The answer to this depends on the cars driven by others around us. This context varies between Cuba and the snazzier parts of L.A. Context matters in assessing the value of many things: cars, real estate, appliances, clothing. Not all goods are evaluated in this way: Frank categorizes those that are as positional goods.

Frank lays to rest the notion that wanting what others have is greed or envy, or that we are duped by snazzy advertising. Rather, it is natural to judge one's own assets in terms of local context. Having less than the "norm" has tangible consequences for professionals: Doctors or lawyers who fail to keep up appearances will be judged as incompetent. People who choose to buy smaller homes will end up in poorer neighborhoods, and suffer their attendant problems.

The inflation of positional goods is driven by income inequality. Since the 1970's, the incomes of those at the very top has risen dramatically, while those at the bottom are now earning about the same or less. (If you want clear graphics and elucidated statistics on rising income inequality, look no further than chapter 2.) However, changing standards for what constitutes a luxury home or car have "trickled down" so that middle-income Americans now need to spend more to achieve average.

Frank likens the arms-race style inflation of positional goods to the metaphor of the stadium.
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Format: Paperback
The first college I went to was a small community college out in the middle of nowhere. Most of its residents were extremely poor people fresh from the factory. In such an environment, I felt very wealthy and did not see the need to buy better clothes. I soon transferred to Michigan State University. Talk about a sea-change. Suddenly, I was the odd man out. My clothes were otiose, my habits slovenly and my look unkempt. It was extremely stressful (I am sure my HPA was going nuts pumping cortisol like crazy). I needed a new wardrobe. Not only that, but I need a conspicuously expensive and ridiculous one.

If you take this experience and apply it across the middle class board, you have Mr. Frank's book. You see, all of the middle class is in a positional arms race over goods like cars, houses, clothes, watches, and other oddities, while skimping over public goods, insurance, and saftey.

Frank compares this arms race to animals who constantly get bigger antlers to compete and get females. Soon the antlers are so big and cumbersome that they are a handicap in many ways. Yet, if a mutation 'attempts' to take over the population and make smaller antlers, the bigger antlers will win because animals that possess them can fight better and monopolize the females. Frank calls this the "smart for one, dumb for all" principle. I think the reasons are fairly obvious. Similarly, if we would all agree to limit the size of our house and cars and pay more for roads and parks, we would all benefit. However, there is always going to be that one idiot who gets the bigger house and the SUV. Now he is rolling in attention, going to the best school, and safer than ever in his huge SUV. All it takes is this small spark to ignite an all out war for position.
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The subject of income inequality took center stage in the public mind only in 2010 with the advent of Occupy Wall Street, but the widening gap between the top 1% and the rest of us had been the subject of fierce debate in economic circles for many years previously. Robert H. Frank made a notable — and eminently readable — contribution to the public discussion with his widely read 1995 book, co-authored with Philip J. Cook, The Winner-Take-All Society. A decade later, Frank delivered the Aaron Wildavsky Lecture at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy on the same broad topic. Frank expanded the lecture into a book under the title Falling Behind in 2007, published by UC Berkeley Press. Last year the Press reissued the book with a new preface by the author.

In Falling Behind, Frank goes far beyond the superficial coverage of income inequality in much of the media, which is largely limited to dramatizing just how far and fast the gap has grown between the haves and have-nots. That’s old hat now (though it wasn’t in 2007).

Making use of homey thought experiments and references to behavioral psychology, Frank explains how income inequality forces people of lower or middle income to spend more than they can afford on housing, clothing, and sometimes even food — and how the policies that foster inequality worsen the “tragedy of the commons,” saddling society with inadequate public transportation, polluted air and water, crumbling infrastructure, and other frequently neglected problems.
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