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The Banality of Good

Contra Michael Lewis, bureaucracy won't save us

Years ago, when I still labored under the delusion of my own suitability for office employment, I worked at a boring technology company that sold terrorism detection software. One day, my coworkers, having discovered that terrorism detection software is in fact a pretty tough sell, hit on the idea of pitching the Saudi Ministry of Defense for business. To my surprise, I was the only person in the company who thought doing business with a government that stones adulterers and doesn’t—as the Saudis did not at the time—allow women to drive was a bad idea. Over a group email thread, one colleague weighed in with a simple connect-the-dots rejoinder: the Saudis were going after terrorists, so selling them a terrorism detection tool was unequivocally good. “I think it’s extremely cynical to believe the Saudis are not engaged in an earnest attempt to help combat terrorism,” he wrote. “I don’t doubt the earnestness of their attempt to combat terrorism,” I replied. (I did, but that’s another story.) “Nor do I doubt the potential for information leakage into domestic agencies in Saudi Arabia with more nefarious policy priorities. It’s naive to assume we won’t become a tool in the Saudi system of repression.”

My coworker considered this for a while, then returned with a suggestion: we could contractually bind the Saudis to limit their use of the software for terrorism-fighting purposes only. Rules would keep them straight—and bureaucrats being bureaucrats, we could count on the rules being observed. The company’s CEO agreed, brushing my objections aside.

In the end, none of this mattered: the Saudis tested the software and realized it was useless, so the moral dilemma evaporated. But if the events of recent weeks have damaged, perhaps fatally, the myth of the benevolent Saudi reformist, a new book that’s drawn slobbering praise from all corners of the liberalsphere proves that another cherished myth of American politics—the myth of the honorable bureaucrat—continues to brim with life.

Over three decades and sixteen books, Michael Lewis has been a Wall Street satirist (Liar’s Poker), a proto-Nate Silver (Moneyball), a rewriter of financial news (The Big Short, Flash Boys), an early critic on the “Silicon Valley sucks” beat (The New New Thing), a guy who travels to a lot of countries on Vanity Fair’s dime and gets paid ten bucks a word to write about them (Boomerang), and a slightly more bearable version of Malcolm Gladwell (The Undoing Project). In The Fifth Risk, he gives us his up-tempo impersonation of Hannah Arendt, and things go every bit as badly as you might expect. Instead of offering a groundbreaking thesis in the vein of Eichmann in Jerusalem’s banality of evil, Lewis delivers Nobodies in Washington, a report on the banality of good in Trump’s America. (“His most ambitious and important book,” gushes Joe Klein in the New York Times.) What emerges from the exercise is 250 pages of forgettable prose that serve mostly as a reminder of liberals’ unending faith in the power of rules to tame the tyrannical impulses of government. The Fifth Risk is a political book with nothing interesting to say about politics, but what it tells us about the adherence of rueful centrists like Lewis—unheroic late Boomers who see the problems with capitalism but have grown too fat off of it to care—to bureaucratic formalism is revealing.

The myth of the honorable bureaucrat continues to brim with life.

You have to wonder whether a writer best known as a disenchanted insider of the financial industry—as a would-be civilizer of markets, rather than their destroyer—could have anything useful to say at a time when the primacy of the political has reasserted itself. The first blurb on The Fifth Risk’s dust jacket comes from Tom Wolfe, and it’s not promising that Lewis has turned to a dead guy to endorse his analysis of today’s political moment. But he does his best, laying out a series of vignettes around the same canned David-versus-Goliath formula that structures most of his other books. In this case, Goliath is Trump, and the enemy he faces is a million Davids scattered across the federal bureaucracy: Washington’s stout and loyal guardians of technocratic propriety, those noble keepers of the compliance manuals.

Lewis is the kind of bemused rich guy who’s probably a little left-of-center or right-of-center depending on the weather and who can afford to say, as he has in the past, that he doesn’t have politics, preferring to vote “for the man rather than the party.” (Sorry, women.) He is, in other words, a classic Never Trumper, the kind of blip thinking goof who’ll drop a “Drumpf” on you in conversation and think he’s surfing the crest of comedy. The problem with Never Trumpers is that they’re unclear about much beyond their dislike of Trump, and a similar uncertainty permeates The Fifth Risk. Aiming to “humanize” the federal bureaucracy, Lewis presents us with pen portraits of a handful of senior staffers in the Departments of Agriculture, Energy, and Commerce. These agencies, Lewis tells us, are “nice” and “down-to-earth,” and each staffer is sketched in a similar mode: as an inoffensive, nonpartisan, earnest, hard-working embodiment of public service—which, we are made to understand, through extended passages of factual description that have all the urgency and panache of the “about” section on a government agency’s website, is a Good Thing.

The adjective Lewis uses most often to describe his subjects is “mild-mannered.” He goes to their homes (he’s always barging in on someone in their kitchen). He spends the time to understand the work they do. It is important work. We should take it seriously. But you know who doesn’t? DONALD TRUMP, THAT’S WHO. This point has already been made at length by reporters covering the White House—virtually every day brings a fresh entry in the chronicle of Trump’s indifference to the work of government—but Lewis attempts to breathe new life into an old story by focusing on the Trump White House’s transition into power. In scene after scene, we see the dutiful civil servants of Washington, D.C. preparing materials for the incoming members of the Trump administration. January 2017 rolls around. The materials are complete and comprehensive. And then . . . well, then the Trump people don’t show up. Or they do, but they don’t care. Or they don’t even exist. Cue a book deal for Michael Lewis and fire off two hundred thousand copies: ladies and gentlemen, we have a firecracker on our hands.

Trump keeps a sloppy office, and for Lewis, this is the greatest sin of all.

In Lewis’s version of events, what’s bad about Trump and the band of glorified men’s rights activists he’s surrounded himself with is not that they care only about the rich, feel no compunction about putting immigrant children in detention or mocking people with disabilities, don’t recognize anthropogenic climate change, have enabled bigots and Nazis to flourish across the country, think independent hurricane death tolls are a plot cooked up by Democrats to make the White House look bad, hate anyone who’s not white, or don’t believe women. No, the real scandal here, The Fifth Risk would have us believe, is that they didn’t read the onboarding packets the Obama people prepared for them during the transition. How dare they! Lewis spelled this out more explicitly in a recent interview: Trump, he said, is “the single worst business manager that’s ever occupied the office. He’s obsessed only with himself, he doesn’t manage anything.” The president’s real offense is not against morality, policy, or the millions of people whose lives he terrorizes on a daily basis; it’s against efficiency, management science, and best practices. He keeps a sloppy office, and for Lewis, this is the greatest sin of all. If only Trump’s people would install a few working in and out trays, The Fifth Risk implies, everything would be okay.

The choice of Agriculture, Energy, and Commerce as the three virtuous agencies in The Fifth Risk is convenient: How much more interesting would the book have been if Lewis had included ICE or Customs and Border Protection, and thereby supplied a direct illustration of how Trump’s election empowered the bureaucracy’s hordes of crypto-fascists? Lewis works hard to make his subjects sympathetic while avoiding bigger, messier questions about the interests their departments serve. Discussing the work of the Department of Energy, for example, he briefly considers the ethics of nuclear weapons, then skips along, having concluded nothing, to the book’s real business, which is to show how the people who look after these weapons and the waste they produce have nice homes and just want what’s best for the country. Because this material is boring and Lewis himself seems bored by it—when is a caricature ever interesting?—he lightens things up with a few twinkly eyed wisecracks here and there. But even the gags feel forced. At one point, interviewing Kevin Concannon, the USDA’s Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services during the Obama administration, Lewis describes a conversation in—yes—Concannon’s kitchen:

We move back inside, to his kitchen table. He locates a plate of freshly baked banana bread and puts it in front of me. I try not to stare at it. Dry banana bread I find inedible. Moist, sticky banana bread I find hard to resist. His banana bread glistens.

Forget the politics. Is Michael Lewis just hungry?

Details like this can’t lift a limp story, and the whole book feels tossed off, half-hearted, impatient—as if it were composed in the space of an extended sigh. In every lazy descriptor, through every unnecessary aside, in the concocted energy of the book’s many volleys of statistics, you can almost see Lewis in front of his computer, surveying the blank screen as he finds himself compelled to begin yet another parable of the little guy’s attempt to make sense of a confusing world that is sometimes good and sometimes bad: Oh fuck, not this shit again. Even the title is odd. The meaning of the “fifth risk” emerges in the book’s final sentence: “It’s what you fail to imagine that kills you.” After spending 250 pages lecturing the reader that administrations that plan are good and those that don’t are bad, Lewis concludes that the biggest risk facing this country is the one we can’t plan for. What?

Lewis needs the good guys to be good and the bad guys to stay bad.

The problem here is not simply that Lewis is a crappy and overrated writer who traffics in the middle-class comedy of the resistocrat—though it’s also that. What’s most mystifying is Lewis’s faith in managerial rationalism as a guarantor of good government. As I’ve written elsewhere, the liberal and conservative opposition to Trump is mostly about aesthetics; it’s an opposition of form, not substance. The Fifth Risk is animated by a similar impulse: Trump and his people should just grow up and act the part. But let’s not forget: the spirit of managerial efficiency that Lewis finds so laudable gave us Whiz Kids at the Pentagon, Agent Orange, deregulation of the financial system, war in Iraq, and sundry other disasters. Bureaucracy is built to suppress morality. It makes procedure rather than ethics the master of action, reducing normative and prescriptive questions to mere formalism. “What should we do?” becomes a question answered by rules rather than morals—which is why bureaucracy provides such effective cover for the prosecution of wicked ends. This is hardly a novel argument. It’s been a hundred years since Max Weber noted that “the honor of the civil servant is vested in his ability to execute conscientiously the order of superior authorities . . . even if the order seems wrong to him.” Zygmunt Bauman devoted half his career to explaining how the Holocaust would never have happened without the rise of rationalistic modernity and its fleets of “good” bureaucrats. Rules and an adherence to procedure will not train a morally repugnant regime to be good. They’ll only help it be more efficiently evil. The good bureaucratic housekeeping of the Obama administration gave us imperium by drone strike and a record number of immigrant deportations. Is this what Michael Lewis wants?

We can go further. We can argue that over the past two decades, it’s the very things Lewis loves—rule by grown-ups, doing things by the book, the false nirvana of sensible, evidence-based, formally correct government—that have put elites out of touch with the people, crashed the economy, and created a political climate conducive to Trump. It’s possible to imagine a version of The Fifth Risk that comes to the opposite of Lewis’s conclusion: bureaucratic proceduralism is not the thing saving us from the political abyss but a leading cause of our headlong projection toward it. But this is not the kind of writing Lewis produces. He needs the good guys to be good and the bad guys to stay bad. Like many resistocrats, he thinks he has the answers to Trumpism. But he’s not even asking the right questions.