The fifth risk

Michael Lewis

Book - 2018

Presents a narrative account of the post-2016 election chaos that took over Washington to reveal how a small number of uninformed Trump appointees are triggering devastating world consequences.

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New York : W.W. Norton & Company [2018]
Main Author
Michael Lewis (author)
First edition
Physical Description
221 pages ; 25 cm
Contents unavailable.
Review by New York Times Review

MICHAEL LEWIS is the poet laureate of computer-driven data analysis. He has written a series of wildly successful and eminently readable books about the Information Age revolutions in two fields of American obsession, finance and sports (with clever side-trips into behavioral psychology and economics). He has done this in a breezy, pellucid manner, with a rare talent for explaining abstruse concepts - say, collateralized debt obligations - so that even I can understand them. His technique is deceptively simple: The stories are told through sketches of brilliant, eccentric people, experts in their fields, who tend to speak in the same effervescent, colloquial way that Lewis writes. You can't help liking them. Now, though, Lewis has taken on his most difficult challenge: He has chosen to apotheosize three obscure government agencies - the Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Commerce. In "The Fifth Risk," his heroes are federal bureaucrats. Why these departments? Well, they are enormous data collection and analysis factories. And Donald Trump either doesn't care about them or understand what they do, or doesn't like what he imagines he understands, and has sent minions intent on crippling their work. Lewis believes that essential government functions like protecting nuclear waste (Department of Energy), food safety and feeding the poor (Agriculture) and predicting the weather (Commerce) are under threat. Early on, he introduces us to John MacWilliams - a classic Lewis character - a former investment banker with expertise in the energy sector who is cajoled by Barack Obama's splendid energy secretary Ernest Moniz to go to work for the government. "Everything was acronyms," MacWilliams recalls. "I understood 20 to 30 percent of what people were talking about." But the people were impressive. "There were physicists everywhere. Guys whose ties don't match their suits. Passive nerds. Guys who build bridges." And they certainly weren't in it for the money. MacWilliams's job at the D.O.E. was risk assessment. Lewis is a risk assessment junkie - whether it's the risk of investing in ballplayers ("Moneyball") or mortgagebacked securities ("The Big Short"). At the D.O.E., the risks are potentially cataclysmic - preventing dirty bombs from exploding at the Super Bowl, tracking nuclear weapons so they don't get lost or damaged (they're called "Broken Arrows"), preventing plutonium waste at the government's facility in Hanford, Wash., from leaking into the Columbia River. Lewis asks MacWilliams to list the top five risks. The first four are predictable: Broken Arrows. North Korea. Iran (that is, maintaining the agreement that prevents Iran from building a nuclear bomb). Protecting the electric grid from cyberterrorism. But the fifth, most important risk is a stunner: "program management." Hence, the title of this book. Lewis defines it this way: "The risk a society runs when it falls into the habit of responding to long-term risks with shortterm solutions.... 'Program management' is the existential threat that you never really even imagine as a risk_It is the innovation that never occurs and the knowledge that is never created, because you have ceased to lay the groundwork for it. It is what you never learned that might have saved you." It is myopia. It is the absence of leadership. It is democracy without citizenship. Enter Donald Trump. It should be said that government has never been all that good at seeing around corners, and there are vast stretches of the federal bureaucracy that are not populated by geniuses. Lewis does not defend the Post Office or the Department of Veterans Affairs (although there are brilliant practitioners doing innovative work for veterans amid the fatty mass of unmotivated bureaucrats). But penicillin was discovered by the Department of Agriculture (and fracking, by the way, in large part by the Department of Energy). The incredible advances in data collection by the National Weather Service have made it possible for us to know ahead of time, with a fair amount of certainty, where hurricanes like Florence are going and at what strength. Thousands of lives have been saved over the years. There are government programs like food stamps - Lewis profiles the director of the program and his obsession with fraud - that have pretty much abolished hunger in the United States. And D. J. Patii, President Obama's chief data scientist, observes that it was data compiled by the Department of Health and Human Services that enabled journalists at ProPublica to discover the spike in opioid prescriptions that presaged the current addiction crisis. These are details of implementation that tend not to concern the current administration. ACTUALLY, IT'S WORSE than that. Donald Trump appointed the former Texas governor Rick Perry as energy secretary. Perry, who once said he wanted to abolish the department (he also wanted to abolish Commerce and Education), is a figurehead, his role "ceremonial and bizarre." According to Lewis, Perry didn't ask for a briefing on any D.O.E. program when he arrived. The real work of sorting out the department was given to Thomas Pyle, a lobbyist funded by the carbon-addled Koch Industries and ExxonMobil. Trump's goal was to rid the place of Obama supporters and climate change analysts, and to aggrandize the oil and coal sectors. Pyle was followed by a group of young ideologues called the "Beachhead Team." Lewis quotes Tarak Shah, chief of staff for the department's $6 billion basic-science program: "We had tried desperately to prepare them ... but that required them to show up. And bring qualified people. But they didn't. They didn't ask for even an introductory briefing. Like, 'What do you do?' " This is an enormity in Lewis's algorithmic world: "After Trump took office, D. J. Patii watched with wonder as the data disappeared across the federal government." The disappearing data concerned phenomena that the Trumpers opposed, like climate change or food safety regulations, or that they didn't care about, like poverty, or stuff that they assumed were government boondoggles, which was most everything not involving the Pentagon. They cut funding for data collection across the board. Lewis has spent his career writing from an ironic middle distance. He is deft, not didactic. He doesn't proselytize or offer solutions to fix our ailing democracy, which makes "The Fifth Risk" all the more effective as a call to arms - especially to his natural audience of (mostly) guys who like sports and moneymaking. At a moment when the president of the United States is under frontal assault, Lewis takes a more oblique route. He doesn't bother with Trump's flagrant character deficiencies; he is horrified by the practical effects of the president's ignorance. And so he deploys his skills to make the history of the National Weather Service's ability to predict hurricanes - and its difficulty in predicting tornadoes - into a page-turner. "If a hurricane is another night in a bad marriage," he writes, "a tornado is a blind date." A metaphor lurks here: Donald Trump is a tornado, witlessly devastating the world that Michael Lewis has come to love and chronicle. But there is more than lost data at stake. "The Fifth Risk" raises the most important question of the moment: Have we grown too lazy and silly and poorly educated to sustain a working democracy? We live in a moment when tribal bumper stickers - both left and right-pass for politics, when ignorance and grievance drive policy. The federal government exists at a level of complexity most people just can't be bothered to understand. We have little idea what it does, only the vague sense that it doesn't do anything very well. Michael Lewis has taken on the task of rectifying that misconception, and he has done so with refreshing clarity - and a measured sense of outrage - which makes this his most ambitious and important book. JOE KLEIN'S books include "Primary Colors," "Woody Guthrie" and, most recently, "Charlie Mike: A True Story of Heroes Who Brought Their Mission Home." Lewis highlights obscure officials who metke life-and-death decisions that protect etil of us.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [August 23, 2019]
Review by Booklist Review

*Starred Review* If Bob Woodward's best-selling Fear pulled back the curtain on the willful ignorance and toxic politics behind the Trump administration's brand of federal governance, Lewis reveals the frightening effects such governance could have on the massive and critically important agencies under its purview, including the Department of Energy (think nuclear), the USDA (food security), and NOAA (natural disasters). These agencies aren't abstracts, or deadweight, but are instead as Lewis lays out with characteristic detail, clarity, and pertinence essential in maintaining a safe, fully functioning civil society. As the DOE's John MacWilliams tells him, there are five major risks to the U.S.: a domestic accident with nuclear weapons, North Korea, Iran, an attack on the electrical grid, and the fifth risk failures in project management. Such failures could easily stem from an administration Lewis says has, from the outset, shown little interest in the actual workings of its federal agencies. And so, for example, former Texas governor Rick Perry, who couldn't remember the agency he wanted to abolish, the DOE, now leads it. And the newly appointed Department of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who, when informed his department, which includes the National Weather Service and the Census Bureau, is a science and technology mission, allegedly replied, Yeah, I don't think I want to be focusing on that. As Lewis concludes ominously, It's what you fail to imagine that kills you. --Alan Moores Copyright 2018 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Lewis (The Big Short) exposes a less sensational but significant danger posed by the Trump administration's approach to governance. As he recounts in an ambiguously sourced prologue, Trump's transition team actively refused to learn about much of what the federal government does, and made ill-considered leadership and budget choices regarding three obscure, but vital, agencies: the Departments of Energy, Agriculture, and Commerce. Members of each department in the Obama administration prepared detailed briefing materials to educate incoming appointees about the agencies' missions and responsibilities, only to have their work ignored or discounted; for example, when Trump's commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, was told that the department's mission was mainly science and technology, Ross responded, "Yeah, I don't think I want to be focusing on that." Lewis accessibly explains the important things that Energy, Agriculture, and Commerce actually do, including "reducing the world's supply of weapons of mass destruction," safely disposing of nuclear waste, administering nutritional assistance programs, and collecting data to improve weather forecasting. He also persuasively documents the dangers that result from placing people without the necessary skills in charge of these departments and from cutting funding. This is an illuminating primer on some of the government projects most crucial to the well-being of the populace, and its relevance to readers won't end with the Trump era. (Oct.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Review by Kirkus Book Review

Lewis (The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed Our Minds, 2016, etc.) turns timely political reporting he published in Vanity Fair into a book about federal government bureaucracies during the first year of the Donald Trump presidency.At first, the author's curiosity about the relationship between individual citizens and massive federal agencies supported by taxpayer dollars did not lead him to believe the book would become a searing indictment of Trump. However, Lewis wisely allowed the evidence to dictate the narrative, resulting in a book-length indictment of Trump's disastrous administration. The leading charge of the indictment is what Lewis terms "willful ignorance." Neither Trump nor his appointees to head government agencies have demonstrated even the slightest curiosity about how those agencies actually function. After Trump's election in November 2016, nobody from his soon-to-be-inaugurated administration visited federal agencies despite thorough preparation within those agencies to assist in a traditionally nonpartisan transition. Lewis primarily focuses on the Energy Department, the Agriculture Department, and the Commerce Department. To provide context, he contrasts the competent transition teams assembled after the previous elections of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Displaying his usual meticulous research and fluid prose, the author makes the federal bureaucracy come alive by focusing on a few individuals within each agency with fascinatingand sometimes heartwarmingbackstories. In addition, Lewis explains why each of those individuals is important to the citizenry due to their sometimes-arcane but always crucial roles within the government. Throughout the book, unforgettable tidbits emerge, such as the disclosure by a Forbes magazine compiler of the world's wealthiest individuals list that only three tycoons have intentionally misled the list's compilersone of the three is Trump, and another is Wilbur Ross, appointed by Trump as Commerce Secretary.As with nearly all of Lewis' books, this one succeeds on so many levels, including as a well-written primer on how the government serves citizens in underappreciated ways. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.