The Fifth Risk - Education Made Alarming

The Fifth Risk


written by michael lewis

4 out of 5 stars....and stripes

‘With that, [chris] Christie went back to preparing for a Trump administration.  He tried to stay out of the news, but that proved difficult. From time to time, Trump would see something in the paper about Christie’s fund-raising and become upset all over again.  The money people donated to his campaign Trump considered, effectively, his own. He thought planning and foresight pointless. At one point he turned to Christie and said, “Chris, you and I are so smart we can leave the victory party two hours early and do the transition ourselves.”’  

Trump’s, umm, prescience and seatofthepants campaign strategy foreshadow a bytheveryhems presidential transition.  The assuming of the throne has never happened with such seeming indifference. The fifth risk details what really goes on in a federal power transfer, exposing some of what makes up an ‘administration,’ and reading it is frightening and fulfilling in the same way a political ethics class might be.  But it’s not an academic exercise; it’s a sobering look at a special kind of problem---what happens when you don’t care to find out how much you don’t know.

If I were a different sort of reviewer, I’d say that this book is a behindthescenes look at three government departments, but I’m not so I won’t.  It does, however, drag a lot of background to center stage as it travels through the departments of energy, agriculture, and commerce. Lewis attempts to frame trump’s brand of (non)governance by educating us on what it is these departments actually do.  In a sense, the federal government is an eye trying to see itself. ‘After the inauguration, a lot of deeply knowledgeable people will scatter to the four winds, and be forbidden, by federal laws, from initiating contact with their replacements. The period between the election and the inauguration has the feel of an AP chemistry class to which half the class have turned up late and are forced to scramble to grab the notes taken by the other half before the final.’  Given the scope, it’s incredible that these transitions happen at all, to say nothing of any problems in fact solved on the way. Politics notwithstanding, the bush administration went to great effort to help obama’s people learn the job, who in turn tried to do the same for trump’s posse.

Some facts, for context.  

The department of energy (read: dept of tech, especially nuclear) controls $30 billion and is responsible for: reducing the world’s supply of nuclear weapons, hammering out terms with countries like iran and north korea to keep them from weaponizing their reactors, maintaining and guarding our own nuclear arsenal, training every international atomic energy inspector, supplying equipment to other countries so they can detect nuclear bomb material coming across their borders, handing out low interest loans to private companies that would otherwise not get funding to encourage scientific development and innovation (this is how elon’s tesla and got its start), and cleaning up all the nuclear waste we’ve accumulated since the manhattan project.

The department of agriculture (read: dept of food, land, and animals) employs 100,000 people and is responsible for: inspecting virtually all the food we eat, regulating food growth and transportation, policing animal abusers, maintaining the u.s. forest service and our 193 million acres of forests and grasslands, funding and staffing the environmental protection agency, keeping up school free-lunch programs and setting health guidelines for said programs, and making sure foodstamps are alive and well.

The department of commerce (read: dept of science and data and not commerce) is responsible for: collecting data on virtually everything, especially the weather, keeping up the national oceanic and atmospheric administration (noaa), ditto the national weather service, providing weather data and storm warnings to all weather forecasters (i.e. every weather app and service is using the exact same data, gathered at cost by the national weather service.  Who knew?), and developing new technology to examine and protect data.

When they’re spelled out, all these duties are immediately, obviously important.  Someone should be looking into dirty bombs and bird flu, after all. But the average citizen (me) never stops to think how all this stuff actually gets handled, day to day.  Seen in aggregate, the landscape is sprawling, bewildering. Our government doesn’t simply govern. And maybe I just didn’t pay enough attention in school, but this is the first time someone’s ever drawn a picture of what comprises an administration.

Unfortunately, this is where lewis reveals one (of two) of the book’s messages: the eponymous fifth risk is ‘project management,’ and it’s a bitch.  The title takes inspiration from lewis’ interview with john macwilliams (dept of energy guru). As a goof, lewis and mac pretended lewis was some scowling trump loyalist come for his official briefing on taking over mac’s job in the d. of e., said briefing having gone unheard and unwanted by trump’s people (it includes mac’s top five risks to the country, I should mention).  One of the largest endeavors under energy’s umbrella is the $3 billion/year project hanford---cleaning up all the nuclear waste left in hanford, WA, after the town’s stint as the numero uno producer of plutonium. The job is, umm, tricky. Fraught. ‘There are Fukushima-level events that could happen at any moment.’  It’s the sort of undertaking that requires money, foresight, and cooperation, since nuclear waste likes to loiter for a few thousand years. And just about every task these departments go after is similar to hanford. Willful ignorance, above all, is the enemy---’the risk a society runs when it falls into the habit of responding to longterm risks with shortterm is the innovation that never occurs, and the knowledge that is never created, because you have ceased to lay the groundwork for it.  It is what you never learned that might have saved you.’

Judging by lewis’ account, most presidents have been understandably hesitant to overthrow transitional precedent.  Bucking the work of hundreds of thousands of people, all of them better informed than you, would be idiotic. And to be so appallingly selfcentered to believe you’re better off not knowing is the exactly the sort of prideful delusion that used to get you cast out of paradise.  It’s such an empty lacuna that it collapses in on itself to form a cronyism singularity.

Lewis highlights an overlooked danger of the current administration by demonstrating these departments’ longstanding grit in the face of huge, just-about-tractable problems.  The head may have changed in the previous elections, but the body remained relatively intact. Now, though, that trump’s unquenchable id is loose in the swamp, it’s not draining so much as slash-and-burning.  Trump’s people were caught so flatfooted by the election that they’d never prepared any kind of list of possibles to take over these positions. No one knew what to do. And it eventually became apparent that no one cared to even learn what to do.  Job assignments were apparently based on loyalty, not qualifications, and changed wantonly (poor chris christie may have appeared in our opening paragraph, but he was out on his ass by inauguration time). The bull, insultingly, doesn’t care to know what sort of china shop he’s in.  All of these government departments are the worse for it. As are we.

Deep breath.

Lewis’ real talent, though, is in describing people, not institutions.  His vivid descriptions in liar’s poker of fatcat financial managers in suspenders and cigars prowling the aisles of salomon brothers with actual baseball bats first sparked my interest in wall st.  His encounters with ambulatorily aggressive icelandic males on the sidewalks of reykjavik drew me into boomerang and the international fallout of the 2008 flop.  Billy beane’s monkish, fevered workouts during A’s games made me wonder if baseball was worth watching. In the fifth risk he introduces us to our civil servants, no less intriguing than any of his other characters.  DJ patil, the juvenile delinquent turned mathematician who stole weather data, helped pioneer a technique called ensemble forecasting, and became the first chief data scientist of the united states.  Kathy sullivan, the oceanographer then astronaut then first woman to walk in space---in the process, educating nasa’s engineers on a mission’s tampon supplies (‘would one hundred be the right number?’ they asked)---and took up as second in command of noaa.  John macwilliams, aforementioned, a lawyer who quit a cushy goldman sachs job to write novels (‘john, you have to have talent to write a book’) and befriended a nuclear physicist who peer pressured him onto a nuclear power task force.

These are not politicians, clearly.  And as we meet them, we get the book’s other message: we the people.  The citizenry and the government are not separate, not really. This is news.  Perhaps I soaked up some totalitarian tendencies, but ‘government’ and ‘people’ have always been, mentally, two tribes shouting at each other across a chasm.  Lewis’ projection is more like one big tribe scattered all around, pushing and shoving, but still trying to find a way over the drop.

When once ‘government’ was dangerously synonymous with ‘kickbacks/pork/corruption/ineptitude,’ the fifth risk has reassured me that there are in fact good, smart, nonpartisan, hardworking people concerned with the safety, integrity, and health of all of us.  It stirred up some faint impulses to the ol’ patriotism muscle, long atrophied from lack of use. Maybe the united states does stand for something beyond the selfinterest of the privileged or the holy edict of cutthroat capitalism.  Maybe we really are, in some elusive but crucial way, a beacon on the global hill. Maybe all that melting pot propaganda did overlap the truth, a little. Maybe it’s okay to shut the door on jingoism while opening the window to something akin to patriotism. Maybe the existence of all these people---unsung---toiling steadily toward a better, healthier country is proof that somewhere between 1776 and now we got something right.   Maybe when our newsfeed fills up with racism and sexism and wealth gaps and discrimination and violence and hatred it’s not just evidence of a broken social contract, but also evidence of a nation, of you and me and us, making enough progress on massive, sprawling, culturally and infrastructurally thorny problems that we have enough resources left over to fight those other demons. Maybe faith in ourselves isn’t misplaced.

Depends how you look at it.

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