gaby's Reviews > Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class

Falling Behind by Robert H. Frank
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's review
May 13, 2008

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bookshelves: nonfiction
Read in April, 2008

I almost didn't review this book. I could tell pretty early on that I wasn't going to have much to say about it, despite having had an extensive conversation about its substantive points well in advance of having actually read it. So I thought perhaps it might be best to forgo the sort of acerbic, non-plussed review I expected from myself. But when have I been known to leave well enough alone? So here we are.

I live in a bit of a self-chosen world of intellectual binaries. The things about which I spend almost all of my time thinking (music/fiction and The Law) are extremely dissimilar. Music and fiction set up little worlds, but they are worlds in which no answers are expected or even possible. The Law also provides an identifiable framework but supplies, in surprising measure, many answers (which I am expected, in surprising measure, to find).

There is a whole universe of murky area in between these two polar extremes - the seedy side of the Social Sciences. Disciplines that set up frameworks and provide the pretense of answers, but really they're just contextual minefields. And, while I don't claim to know much of anything about economics, I had always supposed that it was more in the Real Science camp than the Social Science camp. Maybe this is a misconception on my part - maybe my general Fear of Math has led me to overstate the objectivity of disciplines in which it is integral. In any case, Falling Behind seemed to me much more an exercise in subjective posturing than in Real Science Rooted in Numbers. The book is largely told in anecdote form - literally, Frank illustrates a cornerstone of his thesis by recounting the time his two sons, ages 7 and 10, fought over who had more orange juice in their glasses. Frank extrapolates from this anecdote a whole series of serious 'truths' about human nature and American economics, sprinkling his personal experiences with 'Darwinian' theory in what comes across as an attempt to siphon off some scientific legitimacy.

At another touching juncture, Frank recounts the cruel impact that 'going part-time' wrought on the psyche of his divorced male colleague at Cornell, who found that "instantly, women no longer wanted to date him". In a happy turn, Frank concludes that the negative social connotation associated with working part-time did not impact the quality of assignments he was given at work. This touched a particular nerve to me, since I've seen how 'going part-time' impacts professional women, and stunts the quality of their work assignments. Frank may have been trying to prove some deep economic theory, but this anecdote, along with many others, rang hollow, out of touch, and provided an extremely narrow account of a really huge issue.

In short, I expected a whole lot more facts and figures to back up the trends Frank purports to be tracking. His general theses make a certain amount of sense, but don't seem adequately rooted in proof. I'm not a Cornell professor to be sure, but I certainly wouldn't have dared turn in a paper with that few citations in law school.

A quick glance on goodreads shows that no one that has read this book has given it less than 4 stars. I can totally accept that I just didn't "get it". And now I'm going back to fiction.
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