Real life is no stranger than fiction, but when Michael Lewis tells it, it’s more gripping. Lewis is arguably the best in the world at finding misfits and oddballs and turning their triumphs into intelligent entertainment. Data-driven baseball executive Billy Beane in money ballthe crazy contrarian investors in The great short film – Lewis made them superstars, and their stories made him even richer than his brief stint as a bond dealer at Salomon Brothers. Most of his 18 books are bestsellers.
But are people really listening? When I meet Lewis at breakfast in London’s Covent Garden, he has scrambled eggs – and a few doubts. his latest book the premonition published last year, has uncovered what has really gone wrong in the US response to the coronavirus. It wasn’t Donald Trump (he was just a “comorbidity”). It was the dysfunctional federal agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), that demanded a testing monopoly and then failed to produce a working test. It was also a failure to learn from history, namely the 1918 flu epidemic, which showed that places that adopted social distancing performed better. Today, these nettles are still incredible.
“I’m really surprised,” says Lewis, who is sympathetic even in desperation. “Look at the map of death rates in the United States, it varies so dramatically from place to place. . . Why isn’t the mayor of Miami or the governor of Florida asking about this? You will not be penalized at all. It’s like people think it’s in the hands of the gods.”
The Biden administration, meanwhile, appears to have “no interest in reforming the CDC”; Congress has increased its funding by billions of dollars “which is not what my book suggests you should do.” Lewis suggested that the US should have fewer political appointments and more civil servants so there would be more experience and fewer “joys”. “Nobody seems to have taken it seriously.” Actually, he says, Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm “read it The premonition and [Lewis’s previous book] The fifth risk‘ and wanted a key role in cybersecurity to be made apolitical. But the Senate disagreed, ruling that the role would seem unimportant.
As the pandemic subsides, Lewis worries the experience will be wasted. “There is no learning. And there is certainly no social consensus. . . If we want to lead the life we lead, we just have to become much more sophisticated in how we deal with risks.” He wants to track more diseases, communicate statistics better. He thinks we should play it safe when pathogens emerge: The US should have closed schools while it was investigating swine flu in 2009. In other cases, “gay bar closures” might be the answer, he says, nodding to monkeypox, which has spread widely among gay and bisexual men. “Give yourself a few weeks to figure out what that is or if that’s something.” The “false alarms” would be worth the price.
Lewis now resides in Berkeley, but was born in hurricane-ravaged New Orleans. “When I was growing up, nobody did anything. For real. They boarded up their houses. Now New Orleans hurricane season is a much more sophisticated risk management endeavor. They evacuate the city more often, but in response to much better data. That seems like progress.”
Making political points isn’t really Lewis’s game. Yes, The fifth risk (2018) targeted the Trump administration for being so hostile to the federal government that it didn’t even bother to find out what it was doing. But he insists that he’s no expert and that he prides himself on “not bugging the reader”. He mainly wants his characters from his first book’s Big Swinging Dicks to be heard Liar’s Poker further.
Why do characters open up to him? “First it’s time.” Lewis spent “hundreds of hours” with Charity Dean, a California public health official who is the heroine of The premonition. Second, Lewis’ books are not a one-way street. “I usually figure out how to make myself useful [sources]“. in the money ball, Lewis ended up with Billy Beane, the manager of the Oakland A baseball team, who found that some players were systematically undervalued. In return, “I was able to bring him a lot of information from the dressing room because the players talked to me and didn’t talk to him.”
if The premonition has not pushed any change yet, money ball certainly. Elite sport is permeated by data analysts. Did that improve the sport? “It was really bad for baseball.” The smart way to play baseball is to “minimize movement” so “it becomes a slower, sluggish game.” But in basketball and [American] Football, he says, “the intelligent way of playing it is much freer and more active. The three-point shot wasn’t fully appreciated until 20 years after the three-point line existed, and it was appreciated by analytical people.”
The criticism of Lewis is that he is biased towards his characters. Do the villains even have a right to an answer? “Oh yeah. I just don’t show the work.” He says he confirms what he’s been told: He’s spent so much time with other baseball teams, “Billy Beane didn’t even know I was writing a book about the Oakland A’s “.
But what if the narration is wrong, and Lewis is such a good storyteller that readers swallow it anyway? in the flash boys (2014) he targeted high-frequency trading to manipulate the market, although it arguably reduced costs for many investors. Did he choose the wrong target? “It depends on what you think my goal was. I thought exchange was the goal.” Exchanges make money by selling privileged access to traders. “Exchanges shouldn’t be this profitable. I’m not even sure they should be for-profit companies; they should be mutual companies.”
Traders are a mix: smart ones who take risks and “dumb quick traders who don’t add anything.” [and] just exploit latency issues,” he says. “It bothers me that they’re becoming billionaires and people think they’re making big contributions to society. But they are not the problem. The problem is the system.”
If so, why did regulators look into high-frequency trading and decide not to act? “That’s wrong. Because I spoke to the people who ran the SEC [Securities and Exchange Commission]. They come in and say we’re going to fix this, that’s outrageous. But fixing it is incredibly difficult because the system is so entrenched. . . I’ve had people very high up in the SEC looking for my autograph because flash boys inspired them.” (Some high-frequency traders “loved” the book, he says.)
Chances of another Trump presidency? 18.3 percent
Will Biden run again? Will he be alive? If he’s alive, I assume he’ll walk again.
What do you say to young people who want to go into finance? There are good ways to do it and there are bad ways to do it. Be careful how you do it rather than whether you do it.
Uber or walk? Stroll.
Twitter or Instagram? Twitter as a news feed.
The metaverse in one word? Flat and wrong.
Lewis is leading a multi-million dollar lobbying campaign flash boys. “I have emails between supposedly independent financial experts — the kind of people who appear on CNBC and heads of high-frequency trading firms — where this person says I’m going to discredit them for $50,000 a month flash boys. So this is my next book. I’m not going to let that happen to me.”
Bad regulation helps explain politics, he argues. “What really works for Trump is: the system is rigged. He’s wrong about how rough he is with it and he doesn’t want to fix any of it and he’s friends with all the people who get the money. But he is not mistaken that there is an incredible injustice.”
liar’s poker, his wild description of how he learned to sell bonds shaped our image of Wall Street. did flash boys, contribute to the meme stock craze by claiming the system is rigged? “I don’t think anybody needed me.” He argues that this was fueled by the response to the financial crisis. He has said he finds the meme stick craze funny. “I really don’t see why I should get too upset about this. I don’t think the SEC should get in the way of that. But I hope none of my friends buy GameStop.”
Should the SEC also omit Elon Musk, who misrepresented his Twitter stake in buying the company? “If he does in fact break the security law, which he appears to be doing, no . . . If the fact that Elon Musk did it deters the SEC from enforcing its own law, you must question the value of the law. That seems crazy.”
Lewis studied art history at Princeton. Can he see any value in NFTs that some see as art? “I don’t trust myself on this subject. I can imagine saying something really stupid that I regret five years later. But the answer is no.”
His eldest child wants him to write about climate change, but Lewis is looking for the right character: “Someone who’s already made billions of dollars, operating largely in secret, making bets that have paid off because of this disaster. . . I did a casting search and I don’t believe that person exists.” Does that frustrate him? “That I can’t write about the most important thing? Not too much. Little bit.”
He’s 61 now. Isn’t he worried his best days are behind him? “No, no, I think they’re actually ahead of me. I think I’m getting better.” In that confidence, I recognize the 25-year-old charlatan bond seller that Lewis once was. Still, I leave breakfast feeling like I’d tell him everything if I were a renegade investor cynically making billions off the climate catastrophe.