Book note: The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis

When Donald Trump was elected President in 2016, he and his team declined to be briefed on the work of the government they were now in charge of.  This was unprecedented.

His appointees were also contemptuous and willfully ignorant of the work they supposedly supervised.

Michael Lewis, a well-known non-fiction author, took it on himself to get the briefings that Trump declined.  The result is his 2018 book, THE FIFTH RISK.

He showed the harm that Trump administration is doing.  We Americans are at risk of a hollowing out of governmental capability equivalent to the past few decades of hollowing out of manufacturing capability.

But the real interest in the book is his report of work and accomplishments of American public servants.  He shows what we are in danger of losing.  It is a shame, but not unusual, to not value what you have until you are in danger of losing it.

Lewis wrote chapters about the Departments of Energy, Agriculture and Commerce, all of which have priorities different from what I thought.

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The Department of Energy, for example, is not devoted to energy in general.  It devotes about half of its $30 billion annual budget goes to maintaining the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal.  About $2 billion of that goes to tracking down the world’s missing weapons-grade uranium and plutonium before it falls into the wrong hands.

Another one-fourth of the DoE budget goes to cleaning up nuclear sites, including $3 billion a year for the ongoing mess at Hanford, Washington, where the plutonium bomb was developed during World War Two.  The DoE runs 17 national physics research laboratories, such as Brookhaven, Fermi and Oak Ridge and also sponsors research on renewable energy.

Lewis asked John MacWillaims, the former “chief risk officer” for the DoE, to list the five top risks he worried about  The top risk was an accident with nuclear weapons.  Other risks involved North Korean nuclear weapons, the possibility of Iranian nuclear weapons and accidents to the electrical grid.

The fifth risk, MacWilliams said, is what he called “program management”—or what former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would have called “unknown unknowns.”  These are the risks you don’t know about because you never bothered to find out.

Donald Trump’s first budget eliminated the Department of Energy’s research program on renewable energy, and the largely successful $70 billion loan program for renewable energy startup companies.  It eliminated research on climate change.  It cut funding to national research laboratories so much that they had to lay off thousands of people.  It halved funding on work to protect the national electrical grid from sabotage or natural disaster.

“If your ambition is to maximize short-term gain without regard to the long-term cost, you are better off not knowing the cost,” Lewis wrote. “There is an upside to ignorance and a downside to knowledge.  Knowledge makes life messier.”

§§§

Only a small part of the Department of Agriculture’s budget is actually spent on farmers, Lewis noted.  About 70 percent is spent on nutrition programs—food stamps (about 5 percent of the total), the school lunch program, a program that ensures pregnant woman, new mothers and young children receive proper nutrition, and a dozen or so similar programs.

Lewis interviewed a man named Kevin Concannon, who was tasked by the Obama administration to improve the quality and participation rate in nutrition programs.  He wrote the guidelines for federal subsidies that required schools to behave like responsible parents—more whole grains, more fruits and vegetables, no artificially sweetened whole milk and so on.  He expanded breakfast programs for children who didn’t get fed at home.

The first action of Sonny Perdue, the new Secretary of Agriculture, was to announce cutbacks in food aid programs and in nutrition standards.  “This may sound trivial, but the stakes are huge,” Lewis wrote.  “This is a matter not just of what kind of milk America’s school children will drink, but also of the process by which we as a society decide which milk they drink: Will it be driven by the dairy industry and the snack-food industry, or by nutritionists.”

Other important USDA activities are meat inspection, scientific research and “rural development,” which is loans and grants to rural communities.

§§§

The Department of Commerce is not about helping out business, Lewis wrote.  It is about gathering information that is useful to business, as well as everybody else.  The Patent and Trademark Office keeps track of the nation’s inventions.  The National Institute of Standards and Technology does everything from setting standards for construction materials to making an exact definition of an “inch” or “second.”

Michael Lewis

But more than half its budget goes to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, which is mainly devoted to forecasting the weather.  Lewis said the NOAA collects twice as much data every day as in contained in the entire book collection of the U.S. Library of Congress.

Thanks to the information collected by means of weather stations, ocean buoys, weather balloons and satellite observation, it is actually possible to predict the weather four of five days out with a reasonable degree of accuracy  (including the degree of uncertainty, as when the forecast is “a 10 percent chance of rain”)

Under the Trump administration, Barry Lynn, the CEO of Accu-Weather, was named head of the NOAA.   His goal, according to Lewis, was to prevent the National Weather Service from providing any information from the public that they could get from private services such as Accu-Weather or The Weather Channel.

Lynn even questioned efforts to improve the effectiveness of tornado warning services on the grounds that it was a former of marketing.

The problem with all this is that the private weather forecasting services depend on information that they get free from the government.  So American taxpayers would be expected to pay for it twice—first to pay for the gathering of information in the first place, and then access to it through private businesses.

§§§

Michael Lewis uses the careers of remarkable individuals as narrative threads to tell the stories.  You can read the stories of some of them in the links below.

 I’ll just mention one—Art Allen, an oceanographer for the Coast Guard, who spent 35 years working on better ways for search-and-rescue teams to find people lost at sea.  Lewis said the Coast Guard rescues an average of 10 people from the sea every day, and another three die before they’re found.

His job was to find better ways to measure ocean currents and winds.  But he came to realize that different things behave differently under the same conditions..  An overturned sailboat will be different from an overturned motorboat.  Someone in scuba gear will be different from someone in a life jacket.

Allen devoted years to throwing different kinds of things into Long Island Sound and observing their “leeway”—meaning how much a drifting object may deviate from the direction of wind and ocean current—and to gathering information on leeway.

He compiled the “leeway” of 95 different things—among them, a Delta Air Lines evacuation slide/raft, a 65-foot sailboat, a sea kayak, a Korean fishing vessel, a Cuban refugee raft and a 100-gallon ice chest.

The result of his work was a 351-page book entitled Review of Leeway.  If you knew the ocean current and wind direction, and what you were looking for, you could use that book to narrow down the area you needed to search.

Later he joined with computer scientists to develop a computer algorithm coming Allen’s leeway data with real-time reports from NOAA and the Navy on current,wind and ocean temperature.  Rescuers could plug in this information and have a reasonable good idea of where to search.

Allen was greatly respected in the international search-and-rescue community, was virtually unknown to anybody else and earned a pittance.  There’s no way a private business could have afforded to pay him to do what he did.

§§§

Disparagement of government workers goes back a long way.  It did not begin with Donald Trump.  Remember Ronald Reagan, and his quip that one of the most ominous things you could hear, is, “I’m from the government and I’m hear to help.”  (I don’t think that would be the reaction, for example, of people in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.)

There’s a whole economic theory about this called “public choice.”  The idea is that, in the long run, government workers will work to serve their own interests rather than the public’s, unless there is a firm system of rewards and punishments in place to force them to do otherwise.

I remember seeing a video clip of James Buchanan, an economist who is a proponent of this theory.  A questioner said something about people who are devoted to the public interest.  Buchanan was incredulous and contemptuous of the “theory” behind the question.  In his view, anyone who believed in the possibility of altruism is a naive fool or, more likely, a hypocrite with a hidden agenda.

The question is: Why wouldn’t Buchanan be right?  There’s nothing in the structure of government to prevent employees from being lazy and self-serving.

I think the answer lies in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s musings about the relative importance of the structure of society and its moral foundations.

There is a great deal of corruption in American society, but it’s mostly at the top and in certain segments of American life that I don’t normally come in contact with.

In my life experience, public servants, small-business operators and self-employed craftsmen are almost all been honest, helpful and capable.  I think it is because this is expected, and because these qualities are not penalized.

It is like the early days of the Roman Empire, when government administration mostly worked all right whether Ceasar was Augustus, Tiberius or Caligula.

I have to say that, whatever you may say about Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, they deserve credit for recognizing the importance of good governmental administration and for appointing well-qualified people to top posts.  With George W. Bush, not so much.  With Donald Trump, actual destructiveness.

LINKS

‘This guy doesn’t know anything’: the inside story of Trump’s shambolic transition team by Michael Lewis for The Guardian.

Why the Scariest Nuclear Threat May Be Coming From Inside the White House by Michael Lewis for Vanity Fair.

Inside the Cruel Campaign Against the U.S.D.A.’s Scientists by Michael Lewis for Vanity Fair.

Portrait of an Inessential Government Worker by Michael Lewis for Bloomberg Opinion.

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