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19 May 2021

Michael Lewis on the arenas of American ambition

The financial journalist's usual subjects are power, competition and system failure. In his new book, the author of The Big Short and Moneyball takes on the pandemic.

By Will Dunn

0n Boxing Day 2014, a Californian public health officer called Charity Dean needed to determine if a young woman who had recently died in Santa Barbara county hospital had tuberculosis in her lungs. The disease, which is spread by coughing, had killed 1.5 million people globally that year. The local sheriff and the coroner were unwilling to help contain what could have been the start of an outbreak, however. They demanded Dean do the autopsy herself, in a car park, assuming she would balk at the task. She didn’t. As Michael Lewis describes in the opening scene of The Premonition, his new book about the Covid pandemic, Dean cut the woman’s chest open with garden shears, placed her lungs in a bucket and drove them to the laboratory.

Last year, Dean returned to that morgue with Lewis. “I don’t feel comfortable writing things unless I can see where they took place,” he explains to me over video call from his home in Berkeley, California. When they arrived, one of the sheriff’s deputies who had been present at the autopsy was there. “He went white,” laughs Lewis. “Like, ‘Oh shit, she’s back.’”

Charity Dean is the kind of person you find in a Michael Lewis book – someone exceptional and unrecognised, whose force of character pits them against a failing system in a crisis. In Dean’s case the collapsing system is American public health. With a team of epidemiologists and technologists – a group that names itself “the Wolverines” – she confronts the intransigence of a government that refused to plan for a pandemic, or to acknowledge it when it arrived.

“The normalisation of deviant practices and behaviour in institutions is what gives rise to my characters. It’s what they’re responding to,” says Lewis. “There’s usually some moral, some emotional centre in these characters, that is just rebelling at what’s going on. And in that rebellion I find gold.”

Lewis, 60, spends “huge gobs of time” with the people in his books. He spoke to Dean almost every day for a year. They drove for ten hours across California so he could see her visit a grave. “It has to be immersive, for a long stretch of time,” he says. “Otherwise, I don’t trust what I think about them.” He asks his subjects to take him to the places they describe and walk him through what happened. For every scene he visits the location, and calls everyone who was in the room.

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This need to experience the story for himself is perhaps a result of Lewis’s own knack for being in the right place at the right time. In 1984, as a student at the London School of Economics, he was invited to a formal dinner. The woman next to him spent much of the evening quizzing him about his life and his career plans. Days later, he was offered an interview at Salomon Brothers, then the world’s most profitable investment bank. As a trainee in New York and then as a bond salesman in London, he had an insider’s view of the rampaging financial markets of the 1980s. On 19 October 1987 – Black Monday – he arrived on the trading floor of Salomon Brothers in New York and watched as the biggest stock market crash since 1929 unfolded around him. The only spare desk was next to John Gutfreund, the bank’s chief executive, so Lewis took a seat beside the “King of Wall Street” and watched American capitalism implode.

On Wall Street Lewis saw first-hand the boom and bust of the Eighties, which he described in his debut, Liar’s Poker (1989), and the securitisation of the US housing market – the business that would eventually lead to the subprime mortgage crisis (which he covered in The Big Short, 2010).

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But Lewis never saw himself as a banker, or for that matter an American. He grew up in New Orleans, which was at that time “like a different country”. Lewis, paraphrasing the mid-century New Yorker journalist AJ Liebling, says he sees his hometown as not “the southernmost city in North America [but] the northernmost city in South America”.

“Mainstream American life, when I collided with it… was a bit alien to me. Especially the emphasis placed on financial ambition, worldly success, fame… I always viewed the rest of American culture with a degree of suspicion, and that has helped.”

Lewis is an anthropologist among his own people – fluent, comfortable, but always with a notebook in hand. “I’m not fully at home in my own culture,” he says. He still has a great affection for Britain: “The best dinner parties in the world are in London. You open up 18 bottles of wine for four people… You feel like shit the next morning, but it was just total pleasure.” But his work has always focused on the fierce competition of American capitalism, sport and government. “Almost all of my stories are set in arenas of American ambition,” he says. “It’s electrifying, what happens here.”

Part of the reason for Lewis’s popularity – his books have sold millions of copies, and three have been made into Hollywood films – is his sense of humour. In person he is charming, with an easy manner and a big laugh, and in his books he doesn’t preach or condemn. “I never really make an argument… It’s a story,” he says. But in The Premonition, unusually, he gets angry.

This anger is not directed at politicians so much as at government, and particularly the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which he says “more than didn’t do its job – it obstructed other people who tried to step in and do its job for it”.

***

When Lewis began to look at writing about the pandemic, he assumed he would focus on the Trump administration, to conduct “a pathology of managerial ineptitude”. But as Lewis began interviewing his subjects, “their interactions with the CDC, even before Trump appears on the scene, [were] so shocking to me that I started to wonder about the institution”. In 2009, when swine flu – which was more lethal to the young than the old – began spreading in the US, the “redneck epidemiologist” Carter Mecher (another of the leading characters in The Premonition) recommended closing schools. The CDC refused, apparently because it did not want to be proved wrong. “They were willing to risk letting kids die in order to turn an outbreak into a science experiment.”

When Charity Dean began her disease outbreak investigations last year, she had to prevent CDC officers from actively obstructing them. Dean told Lewis that her boss, Sonia Angell, banned her from using the word “pandemic” and reprimanded her for writing an email about the virus spreading from Wuhan.

Lewis is scathing, too, about the free market. The need to make money, even in a crisis, is one of the biggest obstructions to saving lives. Joe DeRisi, a biophysicist, invents a device called the ViroChip that identifies diseases by rapidly sequencing their genes. He makes offers to hospitals and health authorities to conduct thousands of fast, free tests per day, but they decline. Incredibly, it transpires that this is because he is offering the service for free; computers in the American healthcare system are not programmed to accept gifts.

“Our health-industrial complex… really doesn’t provide when there isn’t a lot of money to be made,” says Lewis. “Prevention doesn’t pay. But disease pays; when someone gets Covid, or is at risk of getting Covid, there’s all of a sudden money to be made from them. That was the dark incentive in the middle of the whole system.”

This is not to say that Donald Trump – who dismantled America’s pandemic preparedness systems and denied the seriousness of the virus when it appeared in the US in January 2020 – was not culpable. “There is some number of deaths that he’s responsible for,” says Lewis. “Maybe the best way to make the calculation is: take Germany, or some average of G7 countries, and say, ‘Well, at least we’d have done that.’” (Germany’s rate of excess death from Covid-19 is around a third of the US’s, where the official death toll is more than 580,000.)

“But there’s something beyond this, rather than the body count. It’s the attitude towards the body count. It’s amazing to me, the degree of neglect for our fellow citizens that we’ve tolerated. There’s something in the air here. We’re just not taking care of each other, and don’t care as much about it. And I think that transcends whoever happens to be president. It’s a bigger problem.”

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Lewis says he wouldn’t want to write a book about Trump himself – “I don’t like the idea of having to make him more interesting than he actually was, in order to make him live on the page” – but he is fascinated by the effects of Trumpism as a kind of “tracer dye, or gas” that exposed the weaknesses in the system – a barium enema, roughly administered to the American body politic.

“That would still be an interesting book to do – a pathology of Trump. If somehow I find myself in Biden’s company, and he says, ‘What’s on your mind?’ I think I’d say: ‘Would you give me a hall pass… for the entire federal government? Where all these people, who are hidden away in their cubes and told not to talk to reporters, are strongly encouraged to talk to me openly? That would be a cool book.”

In Joe Biden, Lewis says the US has a president who “lowers the temperature in the room”, who doesn’t give the Republicans the opportunity for “persuasive outrage… Obama elicited genuine outrage. They felt an existential threat in the opposite party, so the response was just bizarrely toxic. With Biden, it’s just normally toxic, and he can deal with it.

“I think he’s going to get two faces of a lot of Republican senators, where secretly they’re kind of happy with what he’s doing, whatever they say on Fox News. I think he has a shot at rebuilding the country.”

There’s a memorable scene in The Premonition in which DeRisi is asked to explain his device to a clandestine organisation called “the Jasons” – scientists and senior military and intelligence officers – in an underground room somewhere in Virginia. Everyone in the room wears a badge identifying them simply as “Jason”. Given a similar platform, Lewis says he would talk about “the age distribution in information technology jobs across the federal government”. Like many of his subjects – baseball stats, high-frequency trading, behavioural economics – this seemingly prosaic subject is quickly magnified by his enthusiasm.

“There are six times more people over the age of 60 than under the age of 30 working the computer systems. How many people over the age of 60 do you know who can work a computer?” As we speak on 11 May a cyber-attack has paralysed one of the US’s biggest fuel pipelines. “You want to know why that’s happening? There’s your answer.”

While the epidemiologists in The Premonition are worried about variants and transmission in schools, Lewis himself worries more about the system, the rusty, embattled apparatus of government, and whether it will cope with the next crisis. “The things that are actually going to defend us have not been refreshed,” he says. “Spend less time thinking about the enemy outside, and start thinking about the corrosion within.”

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This article appears in the 19 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, In defence of meritocracy