If you remember nothing else from Becky Pettit’s Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration And the Myth of Black Progress, remember this — March 15, 2014

If you remember nothing else from Becky Pettit’s Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration And the Myth of Black Progress, remember this

Silhouettes and shadows of an array of people

You should remember that most U.S. economic statistics are based on people living in a household, and that more and more people are not attached to households because they’re imprisoned. As a result, statistics which purport to show a decrease in the income gap between black people and white people are usually far too optimistic. If we add prisoners back to the data, we add a group of people who are largely poor, largely high-school dropouts, and largely black. Prisons have become a black hole into which we toss our problems. Even that wouldn’t be so terrible, if the imprisoned population hadn’t nearly quadrupled between 1980 and 2012. The magnitude of the mismeasurement therefore grows over time. Our social problems therefore remain beyond the reach of official statistics. Official statistics are, over time, increasingly mismeasuring the lives of marginalized populations and overstating the gains that we’ve made as a society over the last half-century. If the statistics were more accurate, and were more careful about including the imprisoned population, we would have to face up to our failure as a society.

These statistical problems span many different areas, which Pettit quickly touches on. Rates of poor people’s diseases such as tuberculosis are far higher among prisoners, for instance. Among the most striking observations is on the voting rate, which again is often measured relative to households, or measured by surveying those within households (ignoring prisoners altogether). Black voters were supposed to have come out in shocking numbers for President Obama in 2008. That’s probably still true, but consider how much the number changes when you consider that such a large fraction of black people (particularly black youth) is imprisoned.

Pettit’s main value in this book, I believe, is that she inserts a wedge into all your subsequent reading: you’ll now notice when statistics read that they apply to the “civilian non-institutionalized population”. Or when you read about progress in some field, maybe you’ll take a few more seconds to consider whether the numbers on which this claim is based are faulty, and whether those numbers exclude our more marginalized populations.

I can’t say that the book as a whole is worth reading. For 90% of readers, it should have been condensed to a series of blog posts or a Kindle Single. The charts and graphs are interesting, and Pettit’s data analysis is invaluable: she does the hard work of re-analyzing all measures of social progress by reincorporating prison data with household-based American Community Survey data. The legwork Pettit performs, that is, is immensely useful. And the collection of citations to others in the field is useful if you find yourself wanting to re-run her analyses. But most readers will just want to see the results, and will flip quickly past the standard academic “I will now argue; [argument]; I have just argued” structure.

This reminds me, I’m sad to say, that most books are not actually all that good as books; the blog era is teaching us this. You don’t need to read most books. Of the books that you do read, you can skim most. Novelists are better than nonfiction authors at preparing sumptuous feasts which require you to savor each word (I’m not skimming Tolstoy). I’m looking through the list of books I’ve read from 2001 or so until now, and I’m finding few nonfiction works that really need to be consumed in their entirety. Some nonfiction authors are very good indeed at putting together a full work that spins out the consequences of a few principles, requiring you to consume the whole thing to see the vast expanse of the plan; Daniel Dennett is one such author. Dennett is also rare in being an exceptional writer (or at least a writer with a good editor); you really don’t want to skip any of his words. Same with Judge Richard Posner. It’s the rare nonfiction author who covers a vast scope, whose writing is free of slack and therefore forbids skimming, and who is a master stylist. To pick a few authors out of the air: Richard Posner, Daniel Dennett, and Joan Didion fit the bill. Maybe Krugman on a good day. Oh, and I’ve heard that the new Thomas Piketty joint is epic, which is what you’d expect if you know anything about Piketty and Saez.

So don’t worry if you feel like you ought to like nonfiction more than you do. Most of it isn’t very good.