Michael Lewis began work on his new book the way he usually does: By asking questions about a topic he didn’t understand.
That book, The Fifth Risk, published by Norton this month, is about the federal government. Speaking to a capacity crowd of some 400 people in Johnson Chapel on Tuesday night, Lewis talked about how curiosity has led him to write about such unlikely topics as the way markets work (The Big Short, 2010), a little-understood but incredibly valuable position in football (The Blind Side, 2006) and the behind-the-scenes world of baseball (Moneyball, 2003).
What he was looking for, Lewis told moderator Cullen Murphy ’74, former chair of the Amherst College Board of Trustees and editor-at-large of The Atlantic, were stories that would speak to a larger theme. In the case of Moneyball, for example, it was the universality of people being undervalued in their jobs.
“What attracts me to the sports is that it’s a really interesting way to get at big issues beyond the sport,” he said. “If you find an idea that’s interesting, you can attract people you might not otherwise.”
In a laid-back discussion that touched on topics including governmental chaos, presidential profiles, Tom Wolfe, sports in society and even Lewis’ own rejection from Amherst as a high school student (“You finally let me in!” Lewis joked), the best-selling author explained how he came to write this latest book about the inner workings of three federal government departments: agriculture, energy and commerce.
Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, Lewis started to call around to various sources, asking questions about the federal government. He learned that President Obama’s staff had prepared an extensive series of briefings for the Trump transition team, what Lewis described as “the best course ever created on how the government worked,” but—despite plates of finger sandwiches and parking spaces ready for hundreds of visitors—no one from the president elect’s staff ever showed up to hear them.
“These briefings that had been prepared were never given,” Lewis said. “I thought it would be interesting to go and get the briefings, so that’s what I did.”
From there, Lewis said he “started to think of the federal government as, among other things, a manager of risk. Its basic function is to keep us safe.” While he learned how experts had been strategizing solutions to four known risks—pandemics, hurricanes, terrorist attacks and earthquakes—Lewis began to think of a fifth risk, encompassing “all of those risks we fail to imagine.”
“I go in looking for information, and what I find are wonderful characters,” Lewis said. “I assume I’m going to find a lot of bitter, demoralized people, but I find people who are absolutely inspiring and doing their best to work within a bad system.”
Lewis outlined systemic problems he learned about in his research: an aging and severely understaffed federal workforce, for example, departments with crucial missions that were virtually ignored and a fundamental misunderstanding by the public about what the federal government actually does.
In fact, Lewis said, the disconnect between the government and the public is so vast that he doesn’t think his book goes far enough. Together with Barack and Michelle Obama, Lewis has plans to work on a Netflix series where popular comedians will explain the inner workings of various federal departments.
“We have this narrative in the country that the government is the problem, not the solution,” Lewis said. But in fact, he argued, government is “the only tool that might solve the biggest problems.”
When moderator Murphy interjected that people in the audience should also remember to buy The Fifth Risk, Lewis stopped him.
“I’m not here to sell this book,” Lewis said. “I’m here, really, because I want to feel like I got into Amherst. Mission accomplished.”