I read The Fifth Risk two consecutive times, it is that good. I couldn’t help it - what I thought I knew about how our government works is well short of what I actually did not know. And current administration poses unique risks to our government that may not be as obvious to most of us. That was certainly true for me.
The title may make it obvious, but this book is about risk. And it starts, oddly enough, with Chris Christie. As Trump became the GOP nominee, Christie winds up getting himself appointed as chairman of Trump’s transition team - the team that is tasked with staffing up the government, making recommendations for appointments and getting briefings on how the government works. And at least in Michael Lewis’ telling, Christie hires a whole team and does a credible job of pulling a lot of this together.* When Trump was elected, however, Christie was fired from his job - the Trump team tossed out all that work and chose to go into governance essentially blind.
The U.S. government has the largest risk portfolio on the planet - managing and trying to mitigate significant risks that people could be harmed by. The first risk mentioned in the book is a nuclear accident. The second is North Korea. The third is Iran, and the fourth is the safety of the electrical grid. The fifth risk is described as “project management”. Lewis encapsulates the fifth risk by saying “The risk we should fear most is not the risk we can easily imagine. It is the risk we don’t.”
Well, what is project management, you may ask? Lewis starts with the Department of Energy - the DOE. Did you know the DOE is responsible for maintaining the U.S. nuclear arsenal and half of its budget goes to that? You know what else the DOE does? It cleans up the nuclear waste that was produced by making all those nuclear weapons; a quarter of the DOE budget goes to that. (The bomb dropped on Nagasaki had 14 pounds of plutonium, but generated hundreds of millions of gallons of radioactive waste. Turns out the U.S. produced at least 444 billion gallons - yes billion - of waste that was put into the ground.) There was no transition team from the Trump administration to learn what the DOE did and managed. None. Except some people asking for a list of employees who had previously worked on climate change. In fact, Rick Perry, who wound up being the head of the DOE, famously said he would eliminate the DOE altogether (of course that was before he became its secretary). You start to realize why Rick Perry as head of the DOE might be a problem. Not just that, but Trump has also proposed cutting funds to cleanup nuclear waste. If you feel like it, search up Hanford, WA, nuclear waste. Project management indeed.
Lewis goes on to describe other functions of government and the risks of not properly understanding (or not caring) what the government does, such as the Department of Agriculture. Agriculture includes the USDA, which inspects all animals for human consumption. The Dept. of Agriculture also fights wildfires, oversees the national park system, manages school nutrition programs and food stamps. There’s a $200 billion bank for rural development, a science lab and a host of other functions.
There’s also the Department of Commerce, and you could be forgiven if you did not know it was responsible for the National Weather Service and NOAA. If you don’t know what NOAA is, look it up the next time a hurricane comes by the United States.
The other aspect about this education I received is an understanding of the incredible trove of data that the U.S. government is sitting on, that could be used for really beneficial purposes. For example, it was Pro Publica accessing patterns of opioid use and deaths that brought the opioid epidemic to the forefront of public discussion. The government has systematically been removing public access to all kinds of data, whether it be related to crime and police patterns, climate data, data on animal abuse just to name a few. Additionally private companies such as AccuWeather, whose CEO Trump nominated to head NOAA (confirmation failed by one vote), continually press the government to limit the public’s access to NWS weather data so that these private companies can charge for it. Michael Lewis succinctly points out that what you don’t know, the things you don’t learn, are the things that can bring the highest risk.
All of this is not to say things are hopeless - Michael Lewis goes out of his way to bring attention to the committed civil servants who are working on behalf of their country, and are doing their best to keep doing their jobs. But what he does say is that elections have consequences, even ones that might not have actually been intended by some folks. We should all read this book to get a better understanding of how our government is actually working, and how we as a citizenry can and should make informed decisions about whom we vote for, because it matters.
*I lived in New Jersey for almost three years. Chris Christie is a no good, dirty, mean politician. But he did understand the levers of government.