The Fifth Risk: Undoing Democracy

Michael Lewis
May 27, 2021
★★★★ (-2.20%) 🛈

Kind of an odd book, but really interesting and entertaining, far beyond the original point.

The book starts out as a condemnation of the Trump administration, on a specific point – they didn’t bother to staff important agencies. Lewis paints a portrait of a man who honestly didn’t think he’d win the election, and who was wild unprepared for it.

He tells the stories of critical government agencies just waiting around for someone from the new administration to come visit them. Along the way he explains some of the intricacies of presidential transition, which is a theory of study all its own.

But then the book morphs into an examination of the sometimes boring and routine things the government does that have huge importance to our lives. Specifically, Lewis discusses the Department of Energy and aspects of the Department of Commerce. He explains, in great detail, how the DOE safeguards nuclear materials and how the National Weather Service and NOAA predict tornadoes and other weather phenomenon.

In the end, the book is kind of a...celebration (?) of government. Lewis makes the case that the federal government does important things that the private sector won’t do (bonus: the private sector then uses the work of the government to make a profit).

Actually, I don’t know if “celebration” is the right word. Lewis seems to simply be rebelling against the idea that the government is wasteful and incompetent. He tells the story of several government employees who are highly skilled at their jobs, and who pursue those jobs with a sense of mission that you just wouldn’t find in the private sector.

(Trump’s name isn’t even mentioned in the second half of the book, I don’t think. By that point, Lewis is just telling Gladwell-esque stories that are really interesting.)

In that sense, it was refreshing.

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