Michael Lewis has authored several books that lay out a practical lens of major issues. They include “The Big Short,” “Moneyball,” “Liar’s Poker,” “The Blind Side,” and “The Undoing Project.” His latest book is called “The Fifth Risk,” and it is as much historical as it is alarming of missed risks.
The book is based on his review of largely unread briefing materials that were prepared for the incoming Trump administration by officials describing what the various departments do, their concerns, their successes, etc. Since the president was surprised he won the election and had fired his transition manager, Chris Christie, candidates to take over the various departments were not identified, much less in place. So, materials were not read and meetings went unattended. Lewis even interviewed people that prepared such reports after he read the non-confidential portions of the reports. They were more than happy to share their stories.
The above paragraph is not made to be political, it just presents a fact that the folks who eventually took over these departments missed a huge opportunity to learn how things worked from the people who oversaw the departments. As a result, our country is at risk of things that the leaders of many departments do not fully understand. And, what makes it more concerning, is many never took the time to understand or were even qualified to do so. The DOE was previously run by a nuclear physicist. After the election, until he recently resigned, it was run by a former governor without a science degree.
The book is actually a quick read, much shorter than it could have been. Yet, it is something every legislator should read, as they likely have a poor understanding of the risks at hand and what is not being done.
Lewis summarizes the general concerns of a key contributor from the Department of Energy, who greatly worries about things like exposure risk to radioactive waste product from nuclear energy that still exists and attacks on our energy production and distribution system, by saying:
The fifth risk is “the risk society runs when it falls into the habit of responding to long-term risk with short-term solutions. ‘Program management’ is not just program management. ‘Program management’ is the existential threat that you never really imagine as a risk.”
And, later he identifies the not knowing risk. “Here is where the Trump administration’s willful ignorance plays a role. If your ambition is to maximize short-term gain without the regard to the long-term cost, you are better off not knowing the cost. If you want to preserve your personal immunity to the hard problems, it’s better never to really understand those problems.”
To this point, the DOE contributor said when he saw the budget, “All the risks are science-based. You can’t gut science. If you do, you are hurting the country. If you gut the core competency of the DOE, you gut the country.”
There are so many things that these various departments do that benefit American people and industry that are misunderstood or simply not known. Could they be more efficient? Of course, and that should be the goal of any administration. Yet, these hard working people, scientists, engineers, Ph.Ds, etc. do yeomen’s work, and are ridiculed by some as the “deep state.” After speaking with many of these people, Lewis concludes the deep state are folks that actually know what they are talking about. They do not boast on themselves and get little notoriety.
One example is of a Coast Guard scientist who is the foremost authority on where people who fall over board might drift. He is actually acclaimed in other countries more than he is here, because he did not brag on his efforts. Previous to his efforts, falling over board usually meant the death of the person. Yet, he studied patterns, currents, sizes of people, what were they wearing, and other data points over years, even going on board as part of search and rescue missions. He developed an easier to use software tool that heightened the Coast Guard’s ability to pin point people. And, it is successful, but he is now retired with no obvious successor.
But, let me leave you with a final example, one of many. A business leader in rural America was bragging on getting a loan all on his own. The bank had a press conference where the leader was going to say this is how it should be done, with no government involvement. When someone from the Department of Agriculture introduced herself, he asked “what are you doing here?” She said, “we are the ones who lent you the money you are talking about.” He had no idea. Most Americans don’t, even legislators. After one complained about the Department of Agriculture sucking, she told the state official something he did not know, we invested more than $1 billion in your state last year.
I have written before about “The Invisibles.” These are the folks who show up at work each day and make things run well, without bringing attention to themselves. There are numerous examples in this book. And, when they are not allowed to do the things that are needed, we are the ones who suffer.