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The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Michael Lewis’ The Fifth Risk is marketed as a Trump presidency book.

The Fifth Risk
The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis mass paperback cover.

The Donald

The Fifth Risk starts off by telling the story of Chris Christie. How he helped the future Trump administration organise a government in waiting. Christie and the team are let go. Trump was worried about spending money.

Given the revelations about Donald Trump’s finances in the New York Times; I can understand his desire to control cash flow. This goes some way to explaining the problems filling senior government places.

A second thing comes out in the first part of the book; Trump’s instinct to value personal loyalty. Which is fine; but doesn’t scale that well. That meant that people were often unsuitable for the jobs that they were given.

A final trait that came through was a massive root-and-branch concern against climate change.

So Lewis doesn’t say that much about the Trump administration that we didn’t already know. But that is only 30 percent of the book.

What the government does

The remaining 70 percent of the book tells the stories of different departments of the US government. The vital, complex roles that they play. He peels back the complex relationships between the federal government and the states. That interface builds in a lot of waste and inefficiency – to meet state political goals.

Lewis gets experts to explain how welfare payments work and why they’re needed. Or how departments like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Department of Energy benefit the country.

Lewis also covers what motivated some of the government service. TL;DR – from the new deal to the Kennedy administration young Americans felt that they could make a real difference. They felt inspired in a way that probably only clergy or military service personnel feel now.

Finally, touches on risks. The fifth risk that the Department of Energy expert talked about was programme management. This is where the name of the book comes from. How is programme management a risk?

  • If a department is managed by someone who doesn’t understand the area involved.
  • Realpolitik – NASA was for years a victim of pork barrel politics and the o-ring failure that happened on the Challenger disaster was a function of it
  • If an administration takes a short terms, or small government world view.

In praise of Keynesian economics

The examples in the book tear away at the popular narrative around big government. Of inefficiencies and long queues of rapacious welfare queens.

It shows all the things that the government does for the collective good. Things that the market wouldn’t be able to address. It also shows the hucksters involved in the markets. In particular calling out Accuweather’s founders Barry and Joel Myers. That Lewis hasn’t been sued by Myers adds to the veracity of his claims.

This is essentially a criticism of the economic orthodoxy that has governed both of America’s political parties for the past 40 years, since the Carter administration. In this respect, the educated reader would appreciate that it fires a shot across the bow of all parties. From Sanders and Biden to Trump.

Style

I was introduced to Michael Lewis as a writer, when I read Liar’s Poker in college. It is a deeply personal book, full of humour and self examination. In it, he provides the ley reader an insight into the financial services system. Unfortunately, that didn’t seem to have much impact as the financial recessions following the dot com boom and the housing crisis proved.

He then wrote a slew of books that owe a good deal to the new journalism style of Tom Wolfe. His writing covered sports, financial crises and politics. Some of the books were very of their time, such as The Future Just Happened, Boomerang and Panic!. Others like Liars Poker, are ageless. A couple of his books were made into films of the same name: Moneyball and The Big Short.

The Fifth Risk still feels like the classic Michael Lewis new journalism style. But it also feels like it has an eye on a documentary adaptation. In this respect he reminds me a lot of Ben Mezrich in term of his cinematic approach to writing.

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Cobblers

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Much of the work in the developing world relies on self employment. Be it farming, fisheries, a small retail operation or repairing products like cobblers or seamstresses. In South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, self employment accounts for over 70 per cent of the workforce *.

my tie-dye Toms are here! I LOVE THEM. thank you @annzas!!!!!!!
A pair of tie-dyed Toms shows by Rachel

Let’s use the brand TOMS for a thought experiment about self employed cobblers.

TOMS brand purpose came from supplying shoes to the poor. The brand story was that the founder met a lady in Argentina who was providing shoes to shoeless children. The iconic TOMS shoe is actually an alpargata. This is a style popular in Argentina. Blake Mycoskie came up with the TOMS name from ‘tomorrow’. The business promised to donate a pair of shoes for everyone bought.

You could argue that those people who get the shoes, would likely be unable to buy their own. That it isn’t disrupting delicate market economies and the livelihood of some people in the developing world. But if you could afford to buy local shoes and chose to wear a donated pair – it would be rational decision to make. That would then disrupt the delicate market for cobblers.

Globalisation

Back when cobblers and boot makers started to disappear from the high street in the UK, the work started to disappear gradually. There was also a long process of industrialisation to make up for the jobs being lost. There was a process of creation and disruption in the job market. Cobblers business of shoe repairs and boot making bifurcated:

  • The Timpson type model that can repair some issues with modern formal shoes. The heels can be repaired on women’s shoes if they snap off. They cut keys, change watch straps, fit watch batteries and do engravings to keep the business ticking over
  • The Jermyn Street model where one buys a pair of shoes at a premium. They are made on a last with your name on; and repaired and resoled as necessary

A lot of people now wear sneakers and casual shoes for most of the time. The way that they’re manufactured means that there is little that can be done to repair them.

So going to a cobbler is no longer a mainstream regular activity for much of UK society. I very rarely wear formal shoes. I have a pair of black leather loafers by Churchs. I used to get them repaired by and old Irish gentleman called Mr Cavanagh. He eventually closed his shop when the business rates meant it was no longer viable. But until he closed I would bring shoes home to be repaired by him, as my Mam and Dad had also done.

Getting back to our developing world cobblers. The problem in a lot of developing world countries is that there isn’t a similar employment substitution happening for local cobblers. Donated shoes come on top of deindustrialisation. TOMS does try to negate this impact and currently manufactures shoes in Kenya, India, Ethiopia and Haiti.

But most manufacturing has been centralised in South and East Asia.

Brand purpose and unintended consequences

Mark Ritson discussed how brand purpose shouldn’t boost profit, but should become before profit **. When Uncle Ben’s changes its name to Ben’s *** and Aunt Jemima **** because of racial overtones, that isn’t brand purpose (or putting purpose into a brand).

When an FMCG company stops using palm oil in their food products, that isn’t brand purpose. Brand purpose would be putting money into ways to support farmers so that they didn’t resort to slash and burn palm oil plantations.

More marketing related content here.

IZA World of Labor – Self-employment and poverty in developing countries *

Marketing Week – A true brand purpose doesn’t boost profit, it sacrifices it**

Marketing Week – Mars put purpose into Uncle Ben’s rebrand ***

Business Insider – 15 racist brands, mascots, and logos that were considered just another part of American life ****

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