Amherst College hosts discussion with journalist Michael Lewis on managing the federal government

‘The [federal government] needs to be rejuvenated, and it’s not structured to be rejuvenated…’


(Caroline O'Connor/ Daily Collegian)

By Will Mallas, Assistant News Editor

Over 100 people filled the Johnson Chapel on Monday night as Amherst College hosted best-selling author and journalist Michael Lewis to discuss the management of the federal government under the Trump administration.

The event, titled “An Evening with Michael Lewis,” was moderated by Cullen Murphy, an Amherst College alum of the class of 1974 and the current editor-at-large at Vanity Fair. Much of the discussion between Lewis and Murphy revolved around Lewis’ latest book, “The Fifth Risk,” which provides insight on the transition between the administrations of President Trump and President Obama, as well as how the Trump administration’s handles filling vacant positions in the executive branch.

According to Lewis, when researching for the book, he found that many agencies in the federal government would identify five major risks, with the fifth risk being the risk the agencies were unable to think of. To Lewis, these unidentified risks pose major problems for the government, especially for the current administration.

“I thought of ‘the fifth risk’ as all those risks that we fail to imagine, and because we fail to imagine, we do not attend to them properly, and because we do not attend to them properly, they are the ones we actually have to worry about,” Lewis said. “I thought of the fifth risk as those risks which are being attended to even less than usual because of the nature of this administration.”

Lewis also discussed the transition to the current presidential administration. He noted how Obama had created courses and briefings that members of the incoming administration never received. In addition, according to Lewis, half of the top 700 appointed positions in the Trump administration remain unfilled, and the top 6,000 civil service management positions have been “gutted.”

Later in the event, Lewis reflected on the time he spent with President Obama. He explained that Obama felt that much of the federal government needed major reform, a sentiment that Lewis agreed with.

According to Lewis, there are five times more people over the age of 60 working for the federal government than there are under the age of 30. In addition, the government allocates $70 billion of the $90 billion total spent on technology to maintaining “ancient, decrepit” pieces of technology.

“The [federal government] needs to be rejuvenated, and it’s not structured to be rejuvenated, the archaic pay scales, it’s impossible to hire people and fire people. There is going to be a reckoning, and someone needs to do it,” Lewis said.

Lewis also noted that he plans to help President Obama work on a Netflix show. President Obama signed a deal with Netflix to produce a show earlier this year.

Following the initial discussion, Lewis answered questions from the audience. In response to a question asking what would be the source of the next financial crisis, Lewis claimed that source might be, “[President] Trump announcing that he is not going to pay the Chinese back on the treasury loans they hold.”

“I don’t think this is likely, but it is one of those things, if it happens, I think that you rewind the tape and say ‘oh, we should have seen that coming,’” he added.

David Kates, a resident of Northampton who attended the event, felt the idea of an unknown problem was a crucial aspect of Lewis’ discussion.

When asked about what he felt was the most important takeaway from the event, Kates responded, “This idea that there is something that our government might not be thinking of or we might not be thinking of that should be the thing that really matters.”

Lewis is the best-selling author of various non-fiction books, such as “The Big Short” and “Moneyball,” and has also been a contributor to Vanity Fair since 2009. “The Fifth Risk” was published on Oct. 2. Lewis held a book signing following the conclusion of the discussion.

Michael Gorra, the Mary Augusta Jordan Professor of English Language and Literature at Smith College, particularly enjoyed Lewis’ ability to bring issues to the forefront.

“He’s one of the sharpest journalists I’ve read…[he] manages to find people who make issues come alive, and I think you saw that tonight,” Gorra said.

Will Mallas can be reached at [email protected] and followed on twitter @willmallas.