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the fifth risk

9 october 2018

Michael Lewis' book about the Trump administration and the chaos it has inflicted on the ordinary levels of federal government, The Fifth Risk, is something of a disappointment. The book is not very well constructed, and it lacks focus. But it's entertaining in an anecdotal way, and it raises extremely serious issues, issues that go far beyond the usual salacious-gossip approach to Trump and his minions that one reads in the New York Times or Washington Post, or in other high-profile books by the likes of Wolff, Woodward, and Omarosa.

For one thing, Donald Trump, after an initial appearance wrecking his own transition team, barely appears in the rest of The Fifth Risk. This is fitting, because Lewis' subject is expertise in the federal government, and Trump has none whatsoever. Instead, Lewis drills down to the undersecretary and assistant secretary level of three unglamorous DC departments: Energy, Agriculture, and Commerce. I can't remember whether these are the three that Rick Perry would have eliminated, but then, neither can Perry.

Rick Perry is apparently Secretary of Energy at the moment, though Lewis reports that Perry has no role in making policy and may still have only a foggy idea what his department does. Mostly, they keep track of nuclear materials. This involves more than a couple of spreadsheets. Lewis credits the Department of Energy with worldwide monitoring of fissionable materials. They are also charged with maintaining the US nuclear arsenal, and with cleaning up waste sites like the gigantic retired plutonium plant in Hanford, Washington. Congress appropriates billions of dollars for this continuous risk management. To paraphrase the old bumper sticker, if you think taxes are expensive, try radiation poisoning.

But the Department of Energy was of so little interest to the incoming Trump administration that its new chiefs – the very few that Trump managed to appoint – scarcely met with the outgoing political appointees, and paid almost no attention to the permanent civil service except to doubt that they were doing anything but playing Candy Crush and watching cat videos. And this process, or absence of process, was repeating itself at nearly every other department of the federal government in the winter of 2016-17. To a great extent, it continues today.

Lewis' other stops in his assessment of how the Trump administration manages public risks are the Agriculture and Commerce departments. Lewis is a huge fan of the federal government's contributions to infrastructure and quality of life. The right wing, and to a great extent the neoliberal center-left, hold it as gospel that the market gives life and the government takes it away. Lewis argues that rural life; nutrition for children, the elderly, and the disabled; basic research; food safety; weather forecasting; and the data that we need to understand our complex society – as well as many other things we are barely aware of – would cease to exist if we trusted the market to pay for them. In fact, the market would not exist in any recognizable form without government nurturing.

Even if you are not as sanguine about the federal government as Lewis is – and even he has to admit that federal departments are inertial and red-tapy – the fact is that Congress funds it, and entrusts it with staggering missions of stewardship. Even conservatives set about such work seriously, if only because, like Everest, the federal bureaucracy is there. Uniquely among modern administrations, Trump's has neglected outright to manage its responsibilities – as many a reporter other than Michael Lewis has observed.

If I find Lewis' arguments persuasive, why do I find The Fifth Risk disappointing? Lewis too often substitutes fervor for logos. His book is short – just 200 pages – and even limiting itself to Trump's transition team and three of his government's departments, it takes on too much territory. Lewis gets sidetracked into biographies of the people he interviews. He builds up stemwinding energy and then abandons a topic without summing up or sometimes even making a complete point. Towards the end of the book, Lewis gets into telling tornado stories, as if recounting the movie Twister to slightly buzzed friends – and ultimately ends the entire book basically in the middle of a tornado anecdote. Things don't cohere, here.

But I finished the book and learned something from it, and perhaps better, resolved to learn more about the workings of the government I subsidize – at least before the 45th President makes those workings completely opaque, or dismantles the machine altogether. It's no Moneyball, but The Fifth Risk will just about repay the brief amount of time you'll invest in it.

Lewis, Michael. The Fifth Risk. New York: Norton, 2018. E 912 .L48