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Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class
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Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class

3.72  ·  Rating details ·  195 Ratings  ·  28 Reviews
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 w ...more
Paperback, 160 pages
Published July 9th 2007 by University of California Press (first published June 9th 2007)
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Aug 05, 2007 rated it really liked it
I was initially skeptical that this book wouldn't be more than a polemic about the rich simply having too much, I was pleasantly surprised that it makes a lot of sense. An economist at Cornell, Robert Frank delivers a taught book (123 pages) that's all meat and no fluff, but with plenty of everyday examples to illustrate the ideas behind his economic arguments.

Everyone standing up from their seats at a concert to get a better view leaves no one better off than before (and now everyone has to st
Apr 22, 2008 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
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
Apr 03, 2015 rated it really liked it
Robert Frank has a strong message, which is we are spending too much of our money in keeping up with our peers and the rich. We do this in order to live in a better neighborhood, and send the kids to a better school, and it sends prices up. The sizes of people’s houses has been increasing as well. When you compare your house to large oversized house suddenly it looks small. But comparing to another poorer country it may seem large. There’s relatively in play.

Frank uses an example of replacing h
Jun 24, 2008 rated it really liked it
Excellent book. An economist goes into the problems of our current economic outlook on America's 'wealth' to wit while we are all doing better than in years past, the large income disparity between the very rich and middle class has a startling effect of raising the basic standards of living to a point where in order to maintain the things most people desire, the middle class has to pay disportionately more than in years past.

I'm not an economist and it's difficult for me to explain the whole t
Nov 26, 2007 rated it liked it
Shelves: money
This was an interesting book to read right next to The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America. Both deal with the shrinking of the middle class, and the rise in costs of housing, education, and healthcare, among other things. It's short, but dense in information, disspiriting as that info may be.
Sam Brunson
Apr 20, 2012 rated it really liked it
An interesting look at inequality and its consequences through the window of behavioral economics.
Apr 10, 2018 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2018, non-fiction, society
2.5 Stars
Sep 05, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: policy
very good. I appreciated reading this directly after Perfectly Legal - they complement each other well.

Perfectly Legal makes the argument that in recent American history (since Reagan at least) our taxes have been structured so that wealth trickles up. (cue: our political processes assure that the wealthiest of our society have disproportionate access to policy makers via political fundraisers and campaign contributions, thus their concerns are heard most often.)
Falling Behind ties in a lot of
Dec 30, 2008 rated it liked it
An interesting study of how the middle class can either put themselves at financial risk by trying to keep up appearances or maintain middle class life styles when prices go up, or be squeezed out of the consumer market by the bloating of prices caused by the rich trying to out-do each other. It was a little soft on providing anything more than a quick fly-by of these concepts. The main goal of the book seems to emerge near the end when the author begins his spin for tax reform (apparently the f ...more
Mal Warwick
Jan 15, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
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 Wi ...more
Daniel Frank
Feb 18, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I've read every Robert Frank book and this is my favourite. Falling Behind is a succinct summary of the revolutionary ideas Robert Frank has published throughout his career (with the exception of luck-randomness, which he started writing about after this was published), in one quick, easy to digest place.

I strongly disagree with the prescriptions of this book (expansive progressive consumption taxation), but the ideas presented are strong enough to change the world, and I wish they would.
Stephen Wong
Aug 10, 2011 rated it really liked it
Work more, buy more, borrow more, keep up, work more to keep up, buy more to keep up, borrow more to keep up, keep up more to keep up.

Whether on one or two incomes, the middle class family apparently relentlessly pursues aspirational and positional goods in what the author refers to as "smart for one, dumb for all" stratagems of escalation. The eccentric might survive being eaten up in the game by getting off the hedonic treadmill, not by playing at it better nor by gaming the rules.

The book's
Mar 10, 2011 rated it it was amazing

This slim volume, based on lectures that economist Frank delivered at Berkeley, concisely sums up what has happened to the middle of the middle class as the rich have gotten richer, particularly over the last 15 years.

Frank is an expert on how our spending is influenced by those who are around us, and how the greatly increased consumption at the upper end of the income scale has filtered down to affect everything from the size of our houses to what makes for an acceptable car, TV or school distr
A nice little summation of the problem of relative inequality. Some might be bothered by the fact that it is drawing upon some psychological concepts, but it is important that we recognize the role which our minds play in our economic decisions; we as humans tend not to be particularly rational (or, as the title says in the rather popular book, we are "predictably irrational"). Frank makes a very sensible case that relative inequality leads to a consumption "arms race," which takes resources awa ...more
Jan 25, 2013 rated it really liked it
Less broad than the title suggests, this short work specifically explores how inequality and "status anxiety" negatively impact the purchasing habits of the lower and middle classes and even the very wealthy. Frank shows that "keeping up with the Joneses" actually makes all worse off by further distorting the imperfect information which consumers use to make purchasing decisions. The rich purchase even larger houses, bigger boats, etc. to keep up with their slightly wealthier counterparts, and e ...more
Margaret Sankey
Aug 24, 2011 rated it liked it
This is another strangely named book, since it is a defense of the Duesenberry effect, "demonstration effect" or "relative dissatisfaction" and promotion of its inclusion in understanding the financial meltdown. Middle class people who see the Kardashian wedding or Bill Gates' house are not directly envious of them, but the inflation of expectation of wedding or house or child's lavish birthday party bumps down the social scale until people work longer hours, commute huge distances and borrow mo ...more
Aug 21, 2011 rated it liked it
An interesting analysis of how context affects what people choose to spend time and money on. It's about half economic and half sociological. I thought the idea that expectations trickle down was interesting and makes sense. Basically, he says that people try to stand out from their peers, but then the rest catch up, so the bar is constantly rising. Increases in house sizes among the rich can affect what the near-rich see as normal, which can affect what those in the next-lowest income bracket t ...more
May 21, 2008 rated it liked it
Recommended to Gloria by: NYTimes Sunday Book Review
A short, concise book; I found it helpful in terms of learning some of the terminology that economists employ (e.g. positional versus non positional). Highly accessible in general.

I thought it was interesting that he believed (and I think he is right if he is speaking of rapid adjustments) that the voluntary simplicity movement will only go so far (and generally addresses a specific economic class that has the "luxury" of simplicity---note that those are my words, not his); and disappointed (but
Jan 25, 2008 rated it really liked it
Very interesting and highly persuasive. His comments about classic economic models ignoring contaxt completely staggered me and the early part of his theory appeared to me so obviously right that it's a wonder that its in dispute. It makes you wonder what else our economic models are missing. His theory becomes a little extruded by the end as if he's putting too much weight behind his earlier ideas that they cant really bear.
Aug 03, 2008 rated it it was amazing
frank cleanly lays out his reasons why 30-years of marked increases in income inequality harm the middle class. a brief, but well-reasoned and well-documented argument that points primarily to factors not addressed by the mass of the neoclassical economics community - chiefly, the consequences of consumption behavior being driven by the relative ranking of goods as opposed to their absolute value. an important set of observations with significant explanatory force.
Nov 12, 2015 rated it it was amazing
This short, easy to read book provides a highly compelling argument for why income inequality is harmful to society. It quite simply is the best piece of writing on income inequality I've seen. It is targeted to an audience with some basic understanding of economics, but can be easily read even if you do not have any economic background.
This was a short summary of some of the author's economic research combining income inequality, relational goods, and "winner take all" markets. It is very accessible, compared with the Econ journal articles and suggestive of some important policy areas where markets have not worked efficiently in recent years. It is very useful for policy discussions, such as on debt reduction policies.
Mar 13, 2012 rated it liked it
i couldn't really finish this because it's all stuff i've seen updated on blogs and national newspaper sites lately. glad he laid the foundation here (or you know, in semi-popular press), but it seemed superfluous reading.
Aug 31, 2016 rated it really liked it
Reading this book, I realised how much I had absorbed on 'The Spirit Level', of which this reads like a simpler, US-centric version. I think we are doomed: the things we need to change for more equal societies are so broad, it'll never happen. People are selfish.
Aug 14, 2007 rated it liked it
An average read. The ideas of a consumption tax, as presented, are quite interesting. Will definitely give me something to think about.
Steve Stegman
Nov 17, 2012 rated it did not like it
interesting concept. But could it be written any more dryly? I feel as if I reading a peer reviewed journal with the footnotes.
Nov 24, 2015 rated it liked it
A well made, and well written argument for taking proactive action against gross income inequality. Not easy to make such a subject interesting!
Kaya Fletcher
Dec 11, 2015 rated it it was amazing
AN excellent commentary on the spending in America.
rated it really liked it
Nov 21, 2014
rated it it was amazing
Jan 09, 2011
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Robert H. Frank is the Henrietta Johnson Louis Professor of Management and a Professor of Economics at Cornell University's S.C. Johnson Graduate School of Management. He contributes to the "Economic View" column, which appears every fifth Sunday in The New York Times.
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