Tom MacWright

I read The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis on


I was disappointed by The Fifth Risk. It came highly recommended by folks I respect, and it spent a few months on bestseller lists. I was probably wrong to expect it to start with analysis of systems, of longer-term truths, but with all the hype I expected something deeper than the point it makes.

What the Fifth Risk is: Lewis profiles a number of respected public servants who are being removed or replaced by incompetent flunkies by the 45th President of the US. They share with him how they see the risks of this gutting – things like broken arrows (lost nukes), environmental collapse, financial mismanagement, and so on.

The undercurrent here is that the anti-government streak in this country has many folks painting such people as DC insiders and not appreciating the work that they do for comparatively lower salaries. With the exception of the military, Americans don’t like the people who work for them.

For me, this is preaching to the choir – I spent nearly a decade in Washington, DC and knew many folks who worked for the government, did a tremendous amount of good, and chose that path for that reason. For folks who already dislike the current president but don’t think about rank-and-file government employees, this book might push them one step further, give them another, correct, source of anger.

But there’s a certain lack of substance. The core message is things are going off the rails and these are the good people who usually keep us on the rails. It serves that core message with reams of mini autobiographies, which are a pet peeve of mine. Do folks really want to know the abbreviated life stories of folks? And to inflate them to superhuman status, like how he spins a dubious yarn about DJ Patil’s ‘hack’ of NOAA data?

Where’s the vision of a world before 2012? Or a discussion about how much staffing is or should be discretionary? I think this would have worked about the story of a mismanaged staff transition or it would have worked as an investigation of unknown risks, but it’s an awkward split between the two that doesn’t add much to the conversation: unless you disagree with its premise, in which case you probably won’t read it.