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Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class (Wildavsky Forum Series) [Hardcover]

Robert H Frank

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Book Description

12 Jun 2007 Wildavsky Forum Series (Book 4)
Although middle-income families don't earn much more than they did several decades ago, they are buying bigger cars, houses, and appliances. To pay for them, they spend more than they earn and carry record levels of debt. In a book that explores the very meaning of happiness and prosperity in America today, Robert Frank explains how increased concentrations of income and wealth at the top of the economic pyramid have set off "expenditure cascades" that raise the cost of achieving many basic goals for the middle class. Writing in lively prose for a general audience, Frank employs up-to-date economic data and examples drawn from everyday life to shed light on reigning models of consumer behavior. He also suggests reforms that could mitigate the costs of inequality. "Falling Behind "compels us to rethink how and why we live our economic lives the way we do. "Copub: Russell Sage Foundation "

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About the Author

Robert H. Frank is an economics professor in the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University, Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos: A Network for Ideas and Action, and a columnist for The New York Times. His books include The Winner Take-All Society (with Philip J. Cook), Luxury Fever, Choosing the Right Pond, Passions Within Reason, and Principles of Economics (with Ben S. Bernanke).

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Amazon.com: 3.9 out of 5 stars  14 reviews
42 of 48 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Why a Middle Class? 13 Jun 2007
By Ganeshabod - Published on Amazon.com
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.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Working Harder for Average 27 Jan 2008
By M. Malzone - Published on Amazon.com
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. If one spectator stands up, he/she will get a better view. But if everyone stands, they will all have the same view as before, except they will have given up their comfy seats. The author calls this behavior "smart for one, dumb for all."

Frank outlines what working and middle class families have had to sacrifice to achieve the new average: time, equity, and investment in public works. Workers must live farther from work to afford average, and have longer commutes. They work longer hours, and sleep less. Families don't save as much, and they go into debt. People who feel strapped for cash are less willing to pay the taxes necessary to maintain roads and schools, so these services get cut.

For all that I enjoyed this book, I cannot rate it a 5. While the tone through most of the book was jargon-free and accessible to the non-economist, Frank lapses into dense econo-speak in places (notably chapters 6 and 7). Frank also delves into "Darwinian" hypotheses in chapter 6, which only detracted from his larger point. After all, he had already made the case for the positional judgement of goods. The evo-psych explanation lacks any evidential support, and merely stating that it is the "biological," or, worse yet, "Darwinian" point of view is not sufficient for it to be taken seriously.

The final chapters redeemed this book for me, as the author proposes a novel, progressive tax solution: taxing consumption while exempting savings. A progressive marginal tax rate on consumption would reward those who save rather than spend, limiting the inflation of positional goods as people opt for smaller mansions and more utilitarian vehicles. The tax is not regressive: People earning modest salaries can apply their deduction to their taxable consumption, so that they are not penalized for being unable to save.

If you want to know why the rich get richer, the poor and middle class can't get ahead, and houses and cars seem to have doped up on steroids since 1970, give this book a read.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars who is cool depends on who is cool 27 July 2008
By Alexander Kemestrios Ben - Published on Amazon.com
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. But, remember, since position is relative, we end up in the same spot anyway! Except, we are now skimming on the important, non-positional public goods.

Frank's book is a short, lucid, and compelling account of what is going on with the middle class. I think he gives short shrift to role of the media and corporations, but his theories and ideas do have the benefit of being parsimonious and logical.
Great book.
48 of 67 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Good Old Days 12 Aug 2007
By Fact of the Matter - Published on Amazon.com
Before the advent of neoconservative economic policies beginning with Ronald Reagan, the American middle class arising out of various New Deal reforms enjoyed the longest period of rising prosperity in U.S. history. The laws insuring social security, the right to form unions, the GI bill, certain banking reforms are among several of those adjustments that allowed the middle class of that 40 year span to flourish. Then Reagan ascended to power and immediately began to dismantle the underpinning of the middle class beginning with his union busting in firing the PATCO workers. (It certainly didn't stop there.) Before Reagan, during the 50's and 60's, and 70's, it was possible for a single middle class paycheck to buy a home and a car, food, put two kids through college, and buy a few toys besides, like a TV, a bike for the kids, and a trip to Disneyland. And this in turn gave rise to the economy that would produce those goods, which in turn provided jobs to the very people who were buying the goods. It was a good system, not perfect, but good. This 40 year era, coupled with our ultimate victory in WWII, gave rise to what is nostalgically remembered as the golden age of limitless optimism and rising expectation. We all thought of America as being #1 in everything. So did most of the rest of the world.

An era like this doesn't happen by accident, as I alluded to above. It took a Roosevelt, he didn't run on the New Deal in 1932, to come around and develop the vision necessary to enact specific laws, a change in the rules of the game as it were, so that a middle class could emerge. (FDR wasn't actually the first to envision such a state of affairs...his cousin Teddy thought of it first.) Unions, enabled by law in the 40's, were central to this middle class emergence.

Among the most important economic factors of the era was a marginal tax rate of 90% and the system of tariffs we imposed on imports to keep foreign goods competitive with American equivalents. Remember, these 2 factors were in effect during this period. True, JFK did lower the marginal tax rate to 70%, but it was not the equivalent of today's tax cuts. JFK realized that the wealthiest Americans were not in fact paying 90%, so he cut it to 70% ALONG WITH tax reform that eliminated a lot of rich people tax loopholes.

So along comes Reagan for reasons too numerous and complex to discuss here, and kicks the New Deal in the ass. Those 40 years of middle class emergence and ascendancy were real, and Reagan's embrace of the neocon philosophy of greed took over. Union busting, tariffs all but eliminated, the tax rate drops to 30%, outsourcing, the previously unseen flood of cheap exploitable labor by corporations beginning in the 80's. And on the other side, enabling all the rules necessary for wealth to accrue to the wealthy.

This book is an important exploration of the practical effects of the neocon destruction of the middle class. It should be noted that the author's remedy of reformed taxation, yes, increasing the taxes paid by the wealthy, is not a function of some middle class envy or resentment of the wealthy. It is a function of economic justice---the justice of those who created their wealth using the infrastructure of this country paying their fair share back into that commonwealth. It has nothing to do with "living beyond their means". It has to do with the cultural knowledge that their parents just one generation ago could attain that which the current generation has been cheated out of. A home, a car, one decent job--not 4.

The rules we live by are not ordained by god. They are created, sometimes by hook or crook, by men. The middle class is going to need to fight back.
5.0 out of 5 stars Just what it says' Falling behind" 9 Feb 2014
By kathleen - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This was a great book that I chose for my Microeconomics course. It truly encompassed what we as a Nation are facing.
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