'The Fifth Risk' by Michael Lewis

'The Fifth Risk' by Michael Lewis
AP Photo/Evan Vucci

EDITOR’S NOTE: In this RealClearBooks series, RealClear Book of the Week, we highlight recent nonfiction books from across the political spectrum. This week’s book is Michael Lewis’s The Fifth Risk” which is published by W. W. Norton & Company.

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Michael Lewis has earned a reputation for turning what might be dry, boring material in another author’s hands into gripping narrative. In “Moneyball,” the use of advanced statistics to evaluate Major League Baseball players became a underdog story about the small-market Oakland A’s and their wily general manager. In the “Big Short” the complicated financial machinations that brought the country to its knees in 2008 become an underdog story about a group of eccentric savants who saw through the sham and bet against received wisdom.

In the “Fifth Risk,” Lewis takes on a bigger institution — the federal government — and bigger stakes. But the familiar characters are still here: oligarchic power in the form of Donald Trump and the corporate cronies he’s installed in many agencies, and the brainy, good-hearted underdogs — these agencies’ civil servants — whose one advantage is better data. The difference here is that the underdogs seem to be losing.

Lewis details Trump’s botched transition, which left many agencies without staff or direction, and the ways in which Trump officials, through both incompetence and malice, are undermining or threatening to privatize the functions of various agencies. (Lewis focuses especially on the Departments of Energy, Agriculture, and Commerce.) His narrative frame and the book’s brevity necessarily leave the picture incomplete, but he draws valuable attention to an administration hostile to its own commission and a population alienated from its own government.

Alexander Stern is the editor of RealClearPolicy and RealClearBooks.

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