2018, Books, Non-Fiction

The Fifth Risk (2018) by Michael Lewis

This is the first Michael Lewis book I’ve read. Admittedly, that’s pretty weird. I’ve listened to his podcast but somehow never read one of his books until now. And the reason I read this one first is because someone gave it to me, and I haven’t got his more famous ones from the library yet. It’s a weird one to start with, I know.

Lewis is concerned with what the federal government does for people and the fact that many people do not understand what their government does for them. I do think this is a fact and I think it’s true in many countries, not just the US. (Though it is far, far more true in the US than it is in any other rich, developed country, I think it’s safe to say.) The book does a good job of highlighting three areas of the US federal government where good things are done every day to help Americans and the threat to these institutions posed by someone like Donald Trump, who doesn’t read, who doesn’t care about most things, and who doesn’t care about most people (and certainly doesn’t understand the idea of “public service” or “public good”). Lewis’ strength is telling the stories of some of the people recently in charge of or involved in these institutions and why they think it is. As a relatively brief book of these types of stories, I think it’s pretty good.

But the book has a major omission or even blindspot. For decades now, Americans have felt even more strongly that their government and their elites are not serving them. They’ve always felt this way, sure, but both the ever increasing income gap and the internet have enforced this feeling in new ways. I think you can at least partially blame politicians and the people they appoint for this problem. (In the US, more than in any other country that of its ilk that I am aware of, those appointed by politicians are partisans rather than professionals, which is a massive problem.) It’s these people who are the reason Americans continue to hate their government. (Well, and others, too, sure.) And yes, you can blame the people for electing the wrong people to power, and you can blame Americans for being ignorant about how their country works.

But the point is that Lewis is barely interested in this. He acknowledges it maybe twice in the entire book. And for me this is a crucial part of the story. Yes, there are all sorts of things that the federal government does well and does to actually help Americans. And yes, there are great people in the federal government. But Americans’ animus towards the federal government isn’t entirely on Americans. It’s at least a little bit on said federal government. A really great book would be one that more deeply looks into why Americans hate the federal government even when it does things for them. Lewis gets into this only a little bit as when, for instance, he covers how nobody knows what the federal Weather Service actually does, or that it is the source of private weather companies’ information.

For me, there’s just not enough of an investigation there. It’s like he’s telling only one side of the story. Yes, people who hate government shouldn’t be in power in government if we want government to function. But it’s important to know why those people were elected/appointed in the first place, instead of just focusing on some examples of good people trying to help. The US federal government is gigantic after all, and cherry-picking really compelling stories feels like what it is, cherry-picking really compelling stories.


PS The other thing that’s missing from this book, due to when it was published, is “Was the Trump administration really as destructive as people like Michael Lewis imagined it would be?” I don’t actually know the answer to that question, because I try not to pay attention to US politics as much as possible.


It has come to my attention that a lot of what passes for “reporting” in Michael Lewis’ books is not accurate. I was vaguely aware of this with Moneyball but, because I enjoyed the movie, I chose to ignore it. There is credible evidence with Moneyball that he is a bit of a fabulist. Now there is information out there about how he depicted the central figure of The Blind Side. And, of course, he has now written a hagiography about one of the United States’ greatest conmen. I have no idea if he invented some of what is in this book, but I have reason to suspect he did. So take the above with a huge grain of salt.

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