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Summary

Penguin presents the audiobook edition of The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis.   

The morning after Trump was elected president, the people who ran the US Department of Energy - an agency that deals with some of the most powerful risks facing humanity - waited to welcome the incoming administration's transition team. Nobody appeared. Across the US government, the same thing happened: nothing.   

People don't notice when stuff goes right. That is the stuff government does. It manages everything that underpins our lives from funding free school meals, to policing rogue nuclear activity, to predicting extreme weather events. It steps in where private investment fears to tread, innovates and creates knowledge, assesses extreme long-term risk.  

And now, government is under attack. By its own leaders.  

In The Fifth Risk, Michael Lewis reveals the combustible cocktail of wilful ignorance and venality that is fuelling the destruction of a country's fabric. All of this, Lewis shows, exposes America and the world to the biggest risk of all. It is what you never learned that might have saved you.

©2018 Michael Lewis (P)2018 Penguin Books Ltd

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A love letter to undemocratic institutions

An emotional, anecdotal love letter to everything the federal government does. It completely lacks the objectivity and journalistic principles of Lewis's previous work and reads simply as an anti-Trump hit job that will get swept away in the fake-news counter attack from Trump supporters.

The book starts with a fascinating account of how disorganised the Trump transition team was (it seems most transition teams are disorganised, but Trump's was especially so). This is the most interesting part of the book and is genuinely entertaining and informative. It shows how much government work is lost in transition.

It then becomes a pornography of pro-government interviews and explorations of the different parts of government, what they do, how under appriciated every aspect of government is, how charitable and public spirited every single government employee is and how the evil idealogues at Heritage (and other right wing think tanks) and trying to destroy the benovlent God of the Federal Government.

The book reamins interesting even during this, because many of the functions of the government are truly opaque and it is fascinating to learn what they do. However, there are some frankly incredible claims made about the government. Such as, without the federal government rural America would not have drinking water. This left me absolutely flabbergasted. As if fresh drinking water can only be provided by the state and isn't availible in every shop or can't be ordered in bulk or bought privately in huge portable water stores, or captured and refined privately by communities.

Another claim was that government research funds lend to people and businesses the private sector would not. But later Lewis claims that JP Morgan would love to have these loans on their books. So the private sector would make these loans.

Lewis's most compelling case for the work of government is around weather and big data. The story around the value of this data that the government has been able to capture and the attempts that Accu Weather have made to undermine people's access to their data (which tax payers have paid for) is thought provoking. But I still find the central claim that only government has the incentive to capture and manage big data ludicrous when we see private giants like Google, Amazon and Facebook doing this every day.

The big weakness of this book is that Lewis absolutely ignores the costs of these institutions (particularly opportunity cost). He writes as if he believes that if the government didn't spend all this money, then they money would just sit there. It wouldn't be utilised by private individuals and organisations to create products and services which improve living standards. He doesn't explore any of the private developments, scientific and economic, that have been blocked or hampered by government or were simply unable to compete with government equivalents that don't have to operate under market conditions. And he does not explore the massive overall tax burden these huge institutions impose on people, making them poorer.

The biggest weakness to his argument that all these institutions are essential is he doesn't explore those countries who are achieving better public outcomes with less government, such as Denmark, Singapore, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, New Zealand Australia etc.

Finally, the subtitle to the book, undoing democracy, is inappropriate. If anything the book demonstrates how undemocratic and arbitrary many of these institutions are. The whole system is so opaque and complex there is little to no democratic accountability and much corruption. While Trump is hardly a champion of transparent government, he certainly isn't responsible for the completely undemocratic condition of these institutions. But, counterintuitively, perhaps his incompetence is finally shining a light on these dark areas of government that are spending billions and opening the debate about what's really important.

Still worth the price of the book despite its weaknesses and the Audio is expertly read.

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Very poor

very poor compared to previous Michael Lewis books. No real thread or conclusion and little related to Trump from halfway onwards

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Not vintage Lewis

The book contains a collection of interesting facts/themes, but not a clear overriding angle, which is so often Lewis’ hallmark.

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Left feeling cheated

I’d read an excerpt from this in the Guardian newspaper which made me think it was another insider’s take on the Trump administration. It isn’t.

There are a few anecdotes but this is no “Fear” or “Fire and Fury” or even “Unhinged” - its considerably shorter than those and if you are expecting something similar you will be disappointed.

It feels like there are a few tales massively padded out with tangents and waffle. Typically it is pages and pages about what a government department does, what the common man would imagine the department does, how this perception differs across state, and then usually “but they heard nothing from Trump when he got into power”

8 people found this helpful

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Light and a little one sided

I like Michael Lewis' books. I had high hope for this one and the topic (administration) it covered. Sadly, I feel like it was a little one-sided and its intentions were clear from the start.

1 person found this helpful

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Insightful!

I was recommended the book as a part of my University course and decided to get it on audible. I definitely found it insightful!
Makes a strong case for good leadership in an uncertain environment and ofcourse building of trust with the stakeholders.

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Meandering

Whilst the overall impact of this audiobook was good, it took a meandering route though lots of stories that in themselves were interesting, but as a whole made me lose interest every so often.

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The incompetence of the Donald's write large!

Confirms how useless and disfunctional the Trump administration is/was from the start. shows how the prejudiced ideas of ideologue political appointees about government and how it works means you get malfunctioning beaurocracy and effectively corruption.

However whilst it is a critic of what is wrong with the American Government's political appointments and the system it inspires it does not offer any solutions. This is not a critisim if you keep in mind this is really a polemic showing just how useless Donald Trump has been at running a government even though he has been brilliant campaigner who captured a significant element of the American zietgist.

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Fascinating

An absolutely fascinating insight to the departments in the US government and the handover process (or lack thereof!), a real great listen.

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Most important book for the now!

brilliantly written and narrated with interesting stories that serve to expose the truth rather than a bias. Worth every penny for the last 1 minute!

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  • Tim
  • 07-07-19

A wonderful love letter to government

If you want a book that will help you appreciate everything government accomplishes, and the inherent risks of handing it over to the ignorant and malicious, this is the book for you.

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  • Prashanth
  • 11-12-18

Good sub-stories but not cohesive

The book starts off well and starts showing how the current leadership is doing things and how it is undermining all the previous doings of past leaderships. The listener gets a sense of things are heading for the worse and a sense of doom.

However after the first couple of chapters the stories are more about how someones capabilities was undermined and how they were mistreated by the current leadership. It doesn't really tie it in to the democracy or how those actions are 'undoing democracy' and only just gives a feeling that a wrong was done.

In all it leaves more questions and concerns than answers and you feel very incomplete after listening to this.

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  • LexiMorph
  • 10-12-18

Ignorance is Bliss, Until...

Superb in every way. The problem is that many of the people who most need to read/listen to this will probably not, for all of the reasons elucidated in this book.