Lewis’s book, looking at the inner workings of US government bureaucracy, could have been painfully dry – instead, it’s astonishingly, heart-poundingly readable. Of all the US political books I’ve read this year, this is the one I’ve bought for friends the most. Lewis began with an idea for a Vanity Fair story, looking at the department of energy, and the Trump administration’s plan for how to run it. He was so aghast at what he found – essentially, that there was no real plan – that the article grew into a whole book... Those who had previously run the show were unceremoniously dumped; their offers of advice and a handover ignored. They were simply allowed to walk out the building, taking their years of knowledge with them.
At a time when experts are reviled and under attack, along comes Michael Lewis with a vivid tale about scientists, researchers and programme chiefs who make small corners of the American government work better... Now Lewis has produced a surprisingly readable and compelling love letter to bureaucracy and the unglamorous but vital things that the US federal government — and by extension all competent technocrats — spend their days doing... Part of the book’s power lies in the sense that all of this good work is under threat from forces in Donald Trump’s administration that are at best indifferent and in some cases actively hostile to the work Lewis’s subjects are conducting... In other words, America will suffer if it stops caring about the unsung but vital programmes that decontaminate billions of tonnes of nuclear waste, fund basic scientific research and gather weather data... That trap, he makes clear with instance after instance of the Trump administration failing to heed or even meet with his heroic bureaucrats, is what America is falling into now.
Lewis, whose previous books The Big Short and Moneyball were both turned into Oscar-nominated films, tells the story of the Trump team’s transition to power with cinematic brilliance. The characters are riveting, and the drama intense. It’s a story so jaw-dropping that at times it’s hard to believe it was not invented for film... Lewis doesn’t pull his punches, and it is an incredibly hard-hitting, stridently anti-Trump book. It paints a picture of America being not just pulled apart at the political seams, but in the very fabric of the government itself. It’s hard to argue with. The insight from the career professionals who have left in droves is shocking – of all the Trump critiques to come out so far, this is by far the most damning. If Lewis intended The Fifth Risk to be a page turner, he has amply succeeded. And if he wanted to keep people awake at night? Well, he’s done a pretty good job there too.
I don’t object to Lewis giving the Donald yet another kicking. He appears to deserve it and the picture painted, albeit briefly, of the Trump transition is hair-raising. But if you’re going to write about Americans and government, you have to tell a bigger story. I propose a sixth risk: that, post-Trump, nothing changes.
The fish might rot from the head down, but Lewis has immersed himself in the gills and guts of government, meeting diligent civil servants and establishing what it is that giant, nebulous departments such as commerce, energy or agriculture actually do, from feeding the hungry to tracking tornadoes. The level of neglect he documents is stunning.
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Lewis does little to disguise his partisan leanings. Although his prose is, as ever, lucid and sparky, the storytelling becomes a tad formulaic and this is clearly a long article stretched into a short book. But his message is powerful, and it goes beyond left and right. It’s about faith in government as a place where mostly well-meaning people do the dull but imperative work of protecting us all from total chaos.
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The risks being taken now might haunt America for decades. But one benefit of this disruptive presidency will be books such as this, which reminds us why good institutions matter, why skilled public servants are critical and what our government is actually for.
Michael Lewis has spent his career excavating subjects that seem, at first glance, almost aggressively boring: esoteric areas like sabermetrics, heuristics, mortgage-backed securities and credit-default swaps, algorithmic trading based on high-frequency financial data, sovereign debt. No matter how arcane the material, he invariably finds some fascinating narrative thread to suck readers in. His latest work, about government bureaucracy, is no exception.