Michael Lewis’ Premonition: A Cautionary Tale

REVIEW of Michael Lewis, The Premonition: A Pandemic Story W. W. Norton & Company (May 4, 2021).

After retirement I am deeply enjoying reading again at a level that I could not do when I was so busy. I just finished The Premonition: A Pandemic Story by Michael Lewis. Michael Lewis is the best-selling author of Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, The Blind Side, The Big Short, The Undoing Project, and The Fifth Risk.

Rather than an exhaustive overview of the pandemic, Lewis tells us from the viewpoint of individuals—a state public health officer, an epidemiologist, IT entrepreneurs and medical researchers racing to understand what was coming and sounding the alarm amid the complexity and disconnect that is American healthcare and politics.

It is a great read, as all of Michael’s books are, but it is focused on the puzzle of how our society was felled by the virus by our incompetence and inability to move quickly and unified, of deep distrust bred over decades, the politicization of the CDC (for example, it’s director ceased being a civil servant in the Ford, Carter, and Reagan errand instead became a political appointee, thus dooming any independence and functioned less to act and more to discuss and recommend.)

A quote That stood out to me was this one: 

One day some historian will look back and say how remarkable it was that these strange folk who called themselves “Americans” ever governed themselves at all, given how they went about it. Inside the United States government were all these little boxes. The boxes had been created to address specific problems as they arose. “How to ensure our food is safe to eat,” for instance, or “how to avoid a run on the banks,” or “how to prevent another terrorist attack.” Each box was given to people with knowledge and talent and expertise useful to its assigned problem, and, over time, those people created a culture around the problem, distinct from the cultures in the other little boxes. Each box became its own small, frozen world, with little ability to adapt and little interest in whatever might be going on inside the other boxes. People who complained about “government waste” usually fixated on the ways taxpayer money got spent. But here was the real waste. One box might contain the solution to a problem in another box, or the person who might find that solution, and that second box would never know about it. (p. 77)

He tells multiple stories about individuals who saw it coming or had extraordinary insight into how we might act and yet ran into wall after wall when action was of the essence. There really isn’t much about the usual Democrat or Republican politicizing for what followed.  Rather, it was the perfect storm of human inertia, oblivion, and bureaucratic lethargy.  His insight is that some of the problems came about because the solution of some earlier generation became a problem for the next one. 

I have seen this in the institutional church in my life experience. The hardest thing in the world is to kill off something that three people started 70 years ago and only two people are keeping going now. Rather than celebrate what it did and give it a proper burial, we perpetuate something because of our inability to say that it no longer is the best thing we could do. 

Michael Lewis

Perhaps part of the problem is our constant rushing past “endings” in life—to say, “This was a very good thing once, and we honor it.” Our style as humans is generally either to worship the mythical past as perfect or destroy it as the worst that ever was. It may be why we keep trying to turn genuine history into something else—control of the so-called “narrative.” Instead, our best efforts might be letting history speak to us completely rather than only hearing what we want to hear.

Another issue is our inability to think and act on the long view. The first real effort to build a pandemic response plan began not with President Obama but President George W. Bush. The problem, though, is that that it only became an interest during crises and then other issues would push it aside once more. The bureaucratic and political problems of the CDC and other health entities stretch back all the way to the 1970s and Gerald Ford’s administration. In our rush to the future, Lewis warns, we continue to sustain our prior lessons.

Some critics have debated the heroes he chose and that his portrayal of lonely and persistent people against the wave of indifference or hesitance is not fair.  Still, it is easy to see how what he says is true.  I came away with sympathy for all those who were struggling to come to grips with this—even understanding the tendencies of those who hesitated. Nothing is the same in real time. For those of us in leadership of institutions, it is a familiar pressure. It is incredibly difficult under pressure to recognize and galvanize others to respond to a crisis in a timely way. In these kinds of moments, you can never wait for all the information before you can act. That’s what makes these kinds of decisions so much harder than more routine ones.

For me it also brought up the challenge of community building. America has been tearing itself into tribal warfare for a long time, but while pressure is necessary for pushing us into solutions, it ultimately must be turned into actual concrete actions. For that reason, the deepening of genuine citizenship, enlarging our tents, and continuing the good fight to get one another engaged and involved rather than analyzing and posting might be the great challenge of our day.

I love everything Michael Lewis writes, and this is no exception. I would suggest that his prior book, The Fifth Risk is a great companion read with this one. It focuses (and genuinely sets the stage for Premonition) on the disruption of transition from one administration to another, looking at 2016-17 in particular, but more directly on the issue of “competence” as one of the great threats to our current existence. This is a book that takes a complicated story and serves it up well. It’s worth your time to read it, because this will not likely be the last pandemic we face. Will we learn?

We are, I believe, in a crisis, and the needs of this moment are for competence, cooperation, and authentic leadership. This is why authoritarianism is appealing to so many. The great temptation in our anxiety is to turn to the safety of giving responsibility to someone else. Far harder is stepping up to our own part.

Michael Lewis stirs all these thoughts and more. You ought to read this book. It is not so much a comprehensive look at the pandemic as a larger reflection on the costs of inaction and bureaucratic insulation that cripple us when institutional wisdom and clear leadership are needed most.

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Gary Furr

Gary is a musician, writer and Christian minister living in Alabama.

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