THE FIFTH RISK
by Michael Lewis. Norton. 221 pp. $26.95
Michael Lewis’s “The Fifth Risk” looks like a book — it has hard covers, chapters, acknowledgments and the rest — but it reads like a love letter. It is a love letter to underappreciated people and old-fashioned notions, and to underappreciated people holding fast to old-fashioned notions. With Trump-era politics turning Washington into Crazytown, Lewis has written a countercultural, almost subversive, book: one that praises the intellectual curiosity, dedication, foresight and sense of mission he finds among America’s federal workers.
“We don’t really celebrate the accomplishments of government employees,” he writes. “They exist in our society to take the blame.” Lewis wants to give them the credit.
The impetus for the book was the disastrous transition period between the 2016 election and President Trump’s inauguration. As required by law, every outgoing administration helps the new crew prepare to take over the countless departments, agencies and functions of government. So Obama officials spent much of 2016 preparing detailed briefing books and presentations for their successors, whomever they would turn out to be. After the election, they were ready for members of the Trump transition operation to come by.
But Trump hadn’t cared to spend much time or money on preparing to serve as president. As a candidate, he was irate when he learned that his transition planners were raising funds to pay for staff, according to Lewis. “You’re stealing my money! You’re stealing my f---ing money!” Trump screamed. (He considered any money donated to the campaign or transition to be, in effect, his own, Lewis writes.) Moreover, he didn’t seem to think such planning was even necessary. “You and I are so smart we can leave the victory party two hours early and do the transition ourselves,” he told former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who was in charge of the nominal transition effort. Maybe Christie should have taken that offer, because he was fired shortly after the election.
So what about all that work by Obama officials hoping to brief the Trump team? “We had tried desperately to prepare them,” a former top official in the Energy Department told Lewis. “But that required them to show up. And bring qualified people. But they didn’t.”
Even when they did show up, they were often late, unprepared, uninterested. Some of the Trump officials who arrived at the State Department, for instance, did not have the security clearances necessary to hear the briefings. U.S. Department of Agriculture staffers had prepared 2,300 pages of materials, but the Trump transition members didn’t arrive until a month after the election, and at first it was just one guy. Trump’s “landing teams” were often more focused on ideology and politics — asking the Energy Department for lists of staffers who had worked on climate change, or instructing the USDA to stop using the term “climate change” altogether — than on learning the basics of what various agencies did, and why or how they did it.
So Lewis took it upon himself to do what so many Trump transition officials hadn’t: He interviewed former Obama officials who served in the Departments of Commerce, Energy and Agriculture, and asked what they would have told their successors if they’d had the chance.
John MacWilliams, who served as the Energy Department’s first-ever chief risk officer, tallies the top five worries that kept him up at night. First, he tells Lewis, was a nuclear-weapons accident (a reminder that the department’s most essential mandate is safeguarding the U.S. nuclear arsenal). Second, a potential conflict with North Korea. (“It wouldn’t necessarily be a nuclear weapon they might deliver” with a missile, MacWilliams explains. “It could be sarin gas.”) Third up was Iran, followed by an attack on the U.S. electrical grid. The fifth risk, which provides not just the title but the theme of Lewis’s book, at first sounds entirely anodyne. “Project management,” MacWilliams says.
Included in that most bureaucratic of categories are all those threats that may not seem especially threatening. “Some of the things any incoming president should worry about are fast-moving: pandemics, hurricanes, terrorist attacks,” Lewis explains. “But most are not. Most are like bombs with very long fuses that, in the distant future, when the fuse reaches the bomb, might or might not explode.” Lousy project management could be as specific as delaying repairs to a tunnel filled with chemical waste, only to have the tunnel collapse, or as broad as falling behind other nations in scientific and technological research. Or as Lewis puts it, “It is what you never learned that might have saved you.”
Lewis’s interviewees thought a lot about such risks when they worked in the government. He talks to Kevin Concannon, a former USDA official overseeing all manner of hunger-alleviation programs. In college, Concannon read Michael Harrington’s “The Other America” and was inspired by President John Kennedy’s call to public service; now, he worries that nutritional standards for school-lunch programs will falter under new management. Lewis also spends time with D.J. Patil, the mathematician who served as the Obama White House’s first-ever chief data scientist, and who looked on with concern as once-publicly-available data from the Environmental Protection Agency, the USDA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency began disappearing from government websites after Trump took office. And Lewis profiles Kathy Sullivan, a geologist and astronaut (the first American woman to walk in space) who ran the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Sullivan’s efforts included repairing NOAA’s polar-satellites program as well as studying how people can better respond to weather emergency notifications — thus boosting their chances of survival.
Lewis contrasts such work with the “willful ignorance” he sees in the Trump administration. “If you want to preserve your personal immunity to the hard problems, it’s better never to really understand those problems,” he writes. “There is an upside to ignorance, and a downside to knowledge. Knowledge makes life messier.”
He also sees nefarious motives in the administration’s efforts to reduce access to government data. “Under each act of data suppression usually lay a narrow commercial motive: a gun lobbyist, a coal company, a poultry company,” he writes. “There was a rift in American life that was now coursing through American government. . . . It was between the people who were in it for the mission, and the people who were in it for the money.”
He lingers on Barry Myers, the AccuWeather executive Trump selected to run NOAA one year ago but who has yet to be confirmed because of conflict-of-interest concerns. Lewis details Myers’s prior attempts to restrict public access to National Weather Service data — to the benefit of his own company — and calls him a “deeply inappropriate” choice.
“The Fifth Risk” is not some “deep state” manifesto; Lewis does not lionize efforts to secretly undercut Trump administration policy from within, and none of his heroes seem like types who would write anonymous op-eds proclaiming their resistance. Still, Lewis’s sketches and interviews do make one long for more adults in the room, or at least on contract. Instead, the Trump administration seems eager not only to curtail the scope of government but to permanently diminish its capabilities and expertise. You could call this book “The Undoing Project” had Lewis not already used that title.
There are some glimpses of an elusive, alternate reality, flashes of competence foregone. Under Christie’s aborted transition plan, Michael Flynn, who stepped down as Trump’s national security adviser after less than four weeks and has since pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, would not have been considered for the post. Nor would fast-food executive Andrew Pudzer have been nominated for labor secretary, a pick that was withdrawn amid revelations of tax improprieties. (It’s an odd feeling to pine for the even-keeled management of Chris Christie.)
At times, Lewis seems too starry-eyed about his subject. In explaining the rationale for his book, he writes that “there might be no time in the history of the country when it was so interesting to know what was going on inside these bland federal office buildings — because there has been no time when those things might be done ineptly, or not done at all.”
Of course, government employees have never been immune to ineptitude. And yes, Lewis’s insanely accomplished, motivated and public-spirited civil servants may not always prove representative of the whole. But that’s the point. “The Fifth Risk” challenges us to expect and appreciate those qualities at the highest levels of our federal workforce. Better yet, to demand them.