In ‘The Fifth Risk,’ He’s Smarter Than You, Again
Whether or not you like Michael Lewis‘ new book The Fifth Risk will heavily depend on your view of the United States government. If you believe that the government exists to product its citizens and has their best interests in mind, then you’ll find the book alarming but ultimately hopeful. If, on the other hand, you think that the government is a malevolent force out to control your life, The Fifth Risk also provides fuel for that thesis.
“The Fifth Risk” refers to the government’s hidden hand in preventing unforeseen disasters. These include, but aren’t limited to: toxic spillage, crop failure, mass starvation, and massive deaths from tornadoes. Lewis argues that Barack Obama cared about these things, or at least realized they were possible, whereas Donald Trump and his crew don’t give a shit unless it makes them money. As I read the book, it occurred to me that we’ve basically been operating without a government for the last two years. And our current government “shutdown” is actually the most extreme manifestation of life under The Trump Administration. It’s not some sort of aberration. Again, whether or not you think that’s good depends on your view of government.
Lewis makes it clear in The Fifth Risk that he likes government, or at least appreciates its subtler functions. He features as his heroes various scientists and economists who could have gotten rich in the private sector, though maybe not as rich as him. Instead, they chose a lifetime of public service, saving the world in various arcane bureaucratic ways. Here lies the book’s central problem. Though Lewis comes to some interesting and clever conclusions, his characters are quite boring, sympathetic but dry. His Trump Administration villains, who should make ideal mustache-twirling monsters, largely remain offscreen. So at times the book reads like a committee report, or something dutiful that Vanity Fair puts in the middle pages to compensate for the Margot Robbie profile.
Still, it feels like a Michael Lewis book. And since I’m not in the mood to argue whether or not we need a Department Of Commerce that doesn’t actually handle issues relating to commerce, I’ll ask a shallower question. How the hell does Michael Lewis do it?
The Smartest Guy In The Room
Few would say The Fifth Risk marks Lewis’ finest work. But it’s still of a piece with some of the greatest nonfiction ever produced by an American. Moneyball, The Big Short, Liar’s Poker, The Blind Side: any nonfiction writer would kill to have written any one of these. And Lewis wrote those, plus about 10 others. He just keeps going.
Unlike, say, Malcolm Gladwell, Lewis doesn’t come up with a clever premise and uses his reporting to support that premise. Hollywood may have turned The Blind Side into a sentimental white-savior-lady movie. But at its core, it’s a book about reimagining offensive football philosophy. Moneyball tells a great story, but it also highlights a generational change in how to think about baseball team construction. The Big Short doesn’t just narrate the crash of 2008. It explains why that crash happened. Unlike these books, the Fifth Risk offers up an ideologically debatable thesis. But it never fails to make its case.
While this may just seem like insider Moneyball, I want to know how Lewis pulls it all together. Lewis has a gift, shared by few others, of making it seem like he always captures everything. He knows the right people, and talks to them about the right things at the perfect time. Few other nonfiction writers can claim that. I have a hard time getting people to call me back when I just want to check the spellings of their names.
Great magazine writers find great stories and follow them through, but very few nail that of-the-moment quality. Lawrence Wright is a wizard of “I visited Jamal Khashoggi at his office in 2015.” Christopher Hitchens often seemed to lunch with spymasters. Lewis doesn’t court danger in the same way, but he always seems to find the man or woman who got rich doing something clever, and gets them to talk.
Lewis’ work has its own blind side. Specifically, I find his conception of money weird. He talks about how a character isn’t rich because he has “just” a few hundred thousand dollars in the bank. He seems to think people are heroic because they chose to be simply upper-middle-class instead of upper class. It’s like he doesn’t know anyone who makes less than $200,000 a year. He represents the rich liberal point of view, as do many successful writers, but he appears somewhat unaware. He’s the patron saint of the cleverati.
Regardless, he Fifth Risk follows his formula perfectly. Maybe someday I’ll get a chance to ask Lewis how he really does it. Unless we all die of salmonella poisoning first. Apparently, according to Lewis, the government no longer really thinks it’s important to inspect our food. Thanks for letting us know, Scoop.