The team is defeated by bureaucracy, indecision, complacency and malaise

Monday, July 5th, 2021

As you might expect from Michael Lewis, his Premonition is terribly well done, Alex Tabarrok says, if formulaic and over-the-top:

But Lewis has a bigger problem than over-the-top writing.

The heroes were defeated. Lewis likes to tell stories of brilliant mavericks like Billy Beane and Michael Burry who go against the grain but eventually, against all odds, emerge victorious. But six hundred thousand people are dead in the United States and whatever victory we have won was ugly and slow. Indeed, Lewis assembles his mighty team but then The Premonition trails off as the team is defeated by bureaucracy, indecision, complacency and malaise before they even have a chance to enter the real battle against the virus.


If there is one central villain in The Premonition, it’s the CDC. Lewis acknowledges that his perspective has changed. In The Fifth Risk, the system (the “deep state” used non-pejoratively if you will) is full of wisdom and power but it’s under threat from Trump. In The Premonition, Trump is an after-thought, at best a trigger or aggravating factor.


Lewis’s most sustained analysis comes in a few pages near the end of The Premonition where he argues that the CDC became politicized after it lost credibility due to the 1976 Swine Flu episode. In 1976 a novel influenza strain looked like it might be a repeat of 1918. Encouraged by CDC head David Sencer, President Ford launched a mass vaccination campaign that vaccinated 45 million people. The swine flu, however, petered out and the campaign was widely considered a “debacle” and a “fiasco” that illustrated the danger of ceding control to unelected experts instead of the democratic process. The CDC lost authority and under Reagan the director became a political appointee rather than a career civil servant. Thus, rather than being unprecedented, Trump’s politicization of the CDC had deep roots.

Today the 1976 vaccination campaign looks like a competent response to a real risk that failed to materialize, rather than a failure. So what lessons should we take from this? Lewis doesn’t say but my colleague Garett Jones argues for more independent agencies in his excellent book 10% Less Democracy. The problem with the CDC was that after 1976 it was too responsive to political pressures, i.e. too democratic. What are the alternatives?

The Federal Reserve is governed by a seven-member board each of whom is appointed to a single 14-year term, making it rare for a President to be able to appoint a majority of the board. Moreover, since members cannot be reappointed there is less incentive to curry political favor. The Chairperson is appointed by the President to a four-year term and must also be approved by the Senate. These checks and balances make the Federal Reserve a relatively independent agency with the power to reject democratic pressures for inflationary stimulus. Although independent central banks can be a thorn in the side of politicians who want their aid in juicing the economy as elections approach, the evidence is that independent central banks reduce inflation without reducing economic growth. A multi-member governing board with long and overlapping appointments could also make the CDC more independent from democratic politics which is what you want when a once in 100 year pandemic hits and the organization needs to make unpopular decisions before most people see the danger.


  1. Altitude Zero says:

    Yeah, it’s all Reagan’s fault, and the Federal Reserve is such a non-political exemplar of success.

    Michael Lewis keeps up his record of never having written a decent book. Even Moneyball, the closest he’s come, was filled with large swaths of BS.

  2. Marc says:

    Michael Lewis has for a while now becone as sensationalist as mainstream media. He poses as some sort of people’s hero as an author, as if doing the agnostic investigative journalism no longer done by MSM, but truth is he has become a clever profiteur, milking on his reputation for some good books written long ago in the right spirit. Unfortunately now he’s just as sleazy as the sleazy people he portrays in his books, except he’s more clever because he can disguise his sleaziness by pointing his rhetorical finger at others. Just adds misery to the sad state of affairs in media and journalism today.

  3. Gavin Longmuir says:

    “These checks and balances make the Federal Reserve a relatively independent agency with the power to reject democratic pressures for inflationary stimulus.”

    What? Is this satire? Is this the same Federal Reserve that is functionally buying up about 100% of the debt FedGov has to issue to support its excessive spending? The same Federal Reserve that explicitly targets destroying the dollar as a store of value by engineering inflation?

    Is Michael Lewis laughing at the peons who take him seriously? Or is he so politicized that he is now lying to himself?

  4. VXXC says:

    Independent of…? Well the Executive, Congress, Elections, The Courts and frankly everyone else, with an automatic budget. Above all the great unwashed.

    The CIA, The Fed, NRLB, FCC are all “Independent”. They are also “extra-constitutional”…but, of course, that’s all of them now.

    If you go back and look the FDA has been lobbying for years to become an Independent Agency, as late as 2018 there was “controversy”. Strangely the FDA dragged their feet during COVID. That’s just bureaucratic hardball.

    Independent Agencies: Independent of…EVERYONE ELSE. Yes, most adolescents have power fantasies too…that’s why Transformers were a business. Independent Agencies are of course no fantasy.

    Tell ya what: How about an “Independent” DOD? Why shouldn’t the military be “Independent” just like the Federal Reserve and the CIA? We’re at least as essential, and so prone to those grubby Congress Critters using us as the spoils system. Also we have to fight for every penny of our budget. Every penny. Why? Most of the government is automatically budgeted and at in increase!

    Make The Department of Defense “Independent” and you can have the CDC! Now that’s an Independence I can get behind! Besides you’re all going to need us, what with the CDC springing Gain of Function Viruses on us, we’re the only government department that actually can function at scale. And we have Bio Warfare suits. And guns, let’s not forget.

  5. VXXC says:

    Time for an Independent DOD [Military]. If the money, CIA and FCC [Communications] can be Independent so should DOD.

  6. VXXC says:


    “the team is defeated by bureaucracy, indecision, complacency and malaise before they even have a chance to enter the real battle against the virus.”

    No, it was defeated politically because stopping the virus cannot be a goal when the system is threatened — by Trump, but more importantly, his voters.

    Government can move at a speed that would stun business when it wants to, or it can “staff” things, and they never happen, until they want them to.

    Does one consider the Boston Big Dig or the Montreal Olympic Stadium “Bureaucratic Failures”?

    “Never mind that every single one of the fifty-seven Americans in quarantine wanted to be tested: the CDC forbade it. And [James] Lawler [US Naval Commander and national security coordinator on pandemic response] never understood the real reason for the CDC’s objections.”

    Oh, let me help Commander LOLZ. Commander Lawler apparently never got off the boat in Iraq or Afghanistan, or even Baltimore I suppose.

    Politics is Power, not “helping people”. You punish your enemies [MAGA, Trump] and reward your friends [Gates, Fauci, Blackrock, Amazon, Boeing, etc].

    Now I should add by putting those two books together in the same post Isegoria gets it…I’m just saying it aloud.

    They didn’t FAIL. They succeeded wildly beyond anyone’s dreams. 2020 was the Dems annus mirablis. That’s like saying the Dems “failed“ to safeguard election integrity. ROFL.

  7. VXXC says:

    Why, I think Independent Government agencies are a marvelous idea and want it for my own. I have suggested the same on Mr. Cowen’s blog. Thank you, Isegoria!


    Vetrani Sui Sunt Circuli 2021-07-05 18:07:25

    Mr. Cowen et al,

    As a soldier this stimulates my mind: What do you think of an Independent DOD? Dept of Defense, ie. the Military.

    We can certainly once Independent promise much more efficient budgeting and accountability, just as the other Independent Agencies such as the CIA, FCC, NRLB and Federal Reserve have- but far more importantly we’ll beginning winning wars again.

    Frankly for DOD to not be Independent when created at the same historical moment as the CIA and same government that created the FCC and NRLB smacks of well, discrimination against the military.

    Not to mention we haven’t really won a war since.

    Clearly DOD as the last dinosaur of the major functions of government needs to be Independent. Like the other agencies is can be overseen by a board of Governors so as not to be politically tainted.

    If money, Intelligence, Communications, Labor Relations and now you suggest the CDC must be free of politics so should our poor beleaguered military. The current arrangement can be to no ones liking, and yes I am a Veteran of Wars as well as a soldier.

    I am very interested in the readerships thoughts.

  8. Altitude Zero says:

    One of the funniest things about Lewis is the fact that his books rarely stand up to the test of time. For example, his “best” book, Moneyball, supposedly demonstrated the superiority of Sabermetric analysis to old-time scouting, but in the years since, it’s become clear that the “moneyball” draft picks that Lewis cites almost without fail did not have remotely successful careers, while many of the picks chosen by “old-time” methods went on to become stars. This of course doesn’t mean that Sabermetrics is worthless, but it certainly isn’t the magic key to baseball championships that Lewis makes it out to be. In the 23 years Beane has been GM of the “A”‘s he’s won seven divisional championships, and never made it to a World Series, let alone won one, with a total record over his tenure of about .530. Don’t get me wrong, that ain’t bad, but it’s not what one would have expected from reading Lewis’s book. But of course by the time this became clear, he was off on something else…

  9. Sam J. says:

    As if any structure of government we have now has any meaning.

  10. VXXC says:

    Sam J.: “As if any structure of government we have now has any meaning.”

    It means POWER, and the loot therein, and that’s all. It has no Constitutional legitimacy and doesn’t care. This is actual normal human politics returning, the Enlightenment is now truly dead — and good riddance. Firing people up over abstractions and utopias has killed hundreds of millions, in the end it’s all just another ruse for the rubes. The good thing is the rubes now know. It’s best they don’t care, their sufferings will in the aggregate be lessened.

    I should mention I love the rubes, and am from the commons, but these power struggles with ideas as banners have dramatically increased the suffering. Good bye Enlightenment and good riddance.

  11. Bill Jones says:

    The rot at the heart of the CDC lies in the Bayh-Dole act of 1980, so during the era of peanut farming, not the Reagan Regime. This established the right of Government employees to own patents in their own name and had the obvious result of turning the CDC into a fully owned marketing organization of big Pharma.

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