What are the consequences if the people given control over our government have no idea how it works?
"The election happened," remembers Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, then deputy secretary of the Department of Energy. "And then there was radio silence." Across all departments, similar stories were playing out: Trump appointees were few and far between; those that did show up were shockingly uninformed about the functions of their new workplace. Some even threw away the briefing books that had been prepared for them.
Michael Lewis’s brilliant narrative takes us into the engine rooms of a government under attack by its own leaders. In Agriculture the funding of vital programs like food stamps and school lunches is being slashed. The Commerce Department may not have enough staff to conduct the 2020 Census properly. Over at Energy, where international nuclear risk is managed, it’s not clear there will be enough inspectors to track and locate black market uranium before terrorists do.
Willful ignorance plays a role in these looming disasters. If your ambition is to maximize short-term gains without regard to the long-term cost, you are better off not knowing those costs. If you want to preserve your personal immunity to the hard problems, it’s better never to really understand those problems. There is upside to ignorance, and downside to knowledge. Knowledge makes life messier. It makes it a bit more difficult for a person who wishes to shrink the world to a worldview.
If there are dangerous fools in this book, there are also heroes, unsung, of course. They are the linchpins of the system—those public servants whose knowledge, dedication, and proactivity keep the machinery running. Michael Lewis finds them, and he asks them what keeps them up at night.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
If you’ve been confounded by the information streaming out of Washington, DC, on the daily, prepare to be totally flabbergasted. Michael Lewis—author of such brilliant nonfiction as Moneyball and The Big Short—details the Trump administration’s half-hearted approach to staffing and operating crucial sections of the federal government, most notably the cabinet-level departments of State and Energy. The Fifth Risk reveals jaw-dropping instances of vitally important posts left unfilled while other high-level positions are handed over to unqualified individuals. Readers on both sides of the aisle may find much to enlighten and alarm them here.
Lewis (The Big Short) exposes a less sensational but significant danger posed by the Trump administration's approach to governance. As he recounts in an ambiguously sourced prologue, Trump's transition team actively refused to learn about much of what the federal government does, and made ill-considered leadership and budget choices regarding three obscure, but vital, agencies: the Departments of Energy, Agriculture, and Commerce. Members of each department in the Obama administration prepared detailed briefing materials to educate incoming appointees about the agencies' missions and responsibilities, only to have their work ignored or discounted; for example, when Trump's commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, was told that the department's mission was mainly science and technology, Ross responded, "Yeah, I don't think I want to be focusing on that." Lewis accessibly explains the important things that Energy, Agriculture, and Commerce actually do, including "reducing the world's supply of weapons of mass destruction," safely disposing of nuclear waste, administering nutritional assistance programs, and collecting data to improve weather forecasting. He also persuasively documents the dangers that result from placing people without the necessary skills in charge of these departments and from cutting funding. This is an illuminating primer on some of the government projects most crucial to the well-being of the populace, and its relevance to readers won't end with the Trump era.
Customer ReviewsSee All
Enlightening & Breathtaking
The Fifth Risk, the new book by Michael Lewis (Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, The Big Short), is a tour de force.
His main message is that our federal government does a lot of good things that we don’t understand or properly appreciate; and that we have a lot of smart, decent, mission driven people working in it. That’s 90% of his message. The other 10% pans the incoming Trump administration for being unwilling and unable to grasp this or manage it.
Leaving his politics aside, his stories about people and functions within relatively obscure agencies like Agriculture, Energy and Oceanic/Atmospheric are enlightening and breathtaking.
The Fifth Risk
Surprising and revealing. Our government is actually a wonder - and I never knew. Seems the current Administration is happy to sit in the dark.
Yes, yes, Trump is evil…we get it.
Yawn. Another boring Trump is so dumb, and the people who support him—ugh, so gross! Whereas, the eternally employed, never fired, bureaucrats who staff the behemoth that represents the modern state? Wow, they’re so great. And handsome/beautiful. And smart.
Not once, not on any page of this book does the author take a step back and ask pertinent questions about the alleged horrors he imagines are assaulting the great, hulking edifice of the U.S. government. Why, for example, are there not enough appointees? (Answer: because the great bureaucratic behemoth purposely withholds necessary clearances, and those who make it past the post find themselves under constant harassment and bogus HR and Inspector General investigations.)
Why do appointees discard briefing materials? (Answer: they’re written by the permanent bureaucracy, to benefit the bureaucracy and its nefarious outside lobbyist cabal.)
Why are important programs being gutted? (Answer: because they aren’t important, are duplicated throughout the various departments of the U.S. Government, and waste untold billions of dollars on bureaucratic overhead.)
Why aren’t the experts listened to by the barbarians at the gate? (Answer: because those experts got us into two 20 year wars that never seem to end, and bailed out the wretched Wall Street banksters who have hallowed out the country, but who never have to pay the price for their gambling.)
All-in-all a boring, pedantic waste of time to make the author feel good about himself and his virtue. Yawn.