‘The fifth risk’ by Michael Lewis


Tweets, lies, furious outbursts, bragging:

daily fodder for the news coverage that

obscures the real story: the long-term

damage to government departments and


Michael Lewis’s The Fifth Risk vividly

recounts the terrifying story of how willful

‘ignorance of the workings of government’

is undoing the best and most necessary

programs that keep us going as a nation.

It began with the transition team, a

necessity required by law for any new

administration. Trump saw no need

for one. He finally agreed that Chris

Christie raise funds needed to pay staff

to investigate and find candidates to

lead and operate the agencies. He raised

millions for this purpose.

Furious, Trump roared, “Shut it down!

F–k the law. I don’t give a f–k about the

law. I want my f–king money.”

“Chris, you and I are so smart that we can

leave the victory party two hours early

and do the transition ourselves.”

Months later a number of posts were

still vacant, including FEMA (Federal

Emergency Management Agency) and the

Centers for Disease Control.

Finally, Rick Perry was named to the

Department of Energy (DOE). He had

once called for its elimination. Not many

know that it is responsible for guarding

and tracking the nuclear arsenal, keeping

bombs out of the hands of terrorists. DOE

trains all the international nuclear energy

inspectors. It provides low interest loans

to solar energy companies to encourage

investment in alternative energy and

energy efficiency. And so much more.

Regarding Perry, a staffer told Lewis,

“He’s never been briefed on a program,

not a single one.”

“His sporadic communications,” writes

Lewis, “have in them the sense of a shellshocked grandmother trying to preside

over a pleasant family Thanksgiving

dinner while pretending that her blind

drunk husband isn’t standing naked on

the dining room table waving a carving

knife over his head.”

Lewis outlines DOE’s five major risks, the

scariest being ‘ProjectManagement.’ The

5th Risk is that society falls into the habit

of responding to long term risks with

short-term solutions. ”It’s the existential

threat that you never imagine.” One

example: losing track of a nuclear bomb.

Then there’s ARPA-E (Advanced Research

Projects Agency–Energy), which provides

$70 billion in loans to researchers with

“scientifically plausible wild ideas that

might change the world. Pound for pound,

dollar for dollar…it’s hard to find a more

effective thing government has done than

ARPA-E.” Fred Smith, founder of FedEx,

Bill Gates and Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott

agree. Yet Trump’s first budget eliminated

ARPA-E as well as all research on climate

change and cut in half work to secure

the electrical grid from attack or natural


Lewis is a fascinating storyteller. His

material is based on lengthy interviews

with top agency officials.

The USDA (US Department of

Agriculture) prepared elaborate briefings

for its new head, former PepsiCo lobbyist

Joel Leftwich. Three weeks later he

turned up for an hour. After a three-weeks

delay, he spent only an hour in his office.

Top staff included a former truck driver,

a meter reader, and a former Republican

National Committee intern. Required

skills for receiving staff jobs included “a

pleasant demeanor.”

The USDA manages the school lunch

program and other programs to alleviate

hunger, 70% of the agency’s budget. No

one showed up for the briefing on hunger

programs. “They don’t seem to be focused

on nutrition.”

USDA’s labs changed the way we live.

Whereas the average farmer in 1872 fed

four, 255 are fed today. Meat safety is

another priority.

Chief scientist Cathie Woteki was replaced

by Trump campaign co-chair Sam Clovis,

a former right-wing talk show host. One

of Woteki’s focuses was converting plants

into FUEL, in response to climate change,

“which will force changes in the way crops

are grown.” Now that innovative voice is


Then there is the Department Of

Commerce. It is responsible for the census.

New Secretary Wilbur Ross, a 74-year-old

billionaire, met once with his predecessor,

Penny Pritzker. “He came by himself…it

was pretty clear he had no idea what he

was getting into.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric

Administration (NOAA) has data on

climate and weather going back to records

kept by Thomas Jefferson.

Without that data, no plane would fly,

no bridge be built, no war be fought. “If

you don’t believe in climate change, you

at least want to understand the climate,”

said a Bush official. Yet DJ Patil, a data

specialist in the Obama Administration,

“watched with wonder as critical

data disappeared across the federal

government,” writes Lewis.

Data from EPA (Environmental Protection

Agency), Interior, the Consumer Financial

Protection Bureau, FEMA, FBI crime

reports, and much more vanished from

websites. Patil and others created exit

memos that show that “this stuff pays for

itself a thousand times over.”

Throughout the 219 pages of The Fifth

Risk, I found out how little I knew about

just what good this so-called sprawling

bureaucracy does and how little respect

it gets.

The task is now up to us to and our

representatives, backed up by media, to

fight to repair the damage by a reckless,

incredibly ignorant administration.

Molly Rush is a member of the NewPeople editorial collective and a co-founder of the Thomas Merton Center.

(TMC newspaper VOL.48 No.10 December 2018. All rights reserved)

Categories: News

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