The Fifth Risk

The Fifth Risk

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 w...

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Title:The Fifth Risk
Author:Michael Lewis
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Edition Language:English

The Fifth Risk Reviews

  • Brad

    Lewis is such a remarkable writer that I sometimes find myself envious of his ability to forge a compelling story where there doesn't seem to be anything. It's useful to contrast The Fifth Risk with Bob Woodward's Fear, which I inhaled last month. Woodward's book ferrets out things that happened — crescendos of malevolence and arias of incompetence — unbelievable though they sometimes seem.

    In contrast, Lewis' amazing little book — it arrived Tuesday night and I finished it early Thursday morning

    Lewis is such a remarkable writer that I sometimes find myself envious of his ability to forge a compelling story where there doesn't seem to be anything. It's useful to contrast The Fifth Risk with Bob Woodward's Fear, which I inhaled last month. Woodward's book ferrets out things that happened — crescendos of malevolence and arias of incompetence — unbelievable though they sometimes seem.

    In contrast, Lewis' amazing little book — it arrived Tuesday night and I finished it early Thursday morning — takes as it's starting point a series of startling non-events all involving the Trump administration. Since Trump didn't expect to win, he didn't take building a transition team seriously (and even thought that the money Chris Christie raised to fund a transition team was tantamount to stealing from Trump). Then Trump won, and stilldidn't see the need for a transition team.

    The Fifth Risk is the story of three critically important and misunderstood Federal departments — Energy, Agriculture and Commerce — that the Trump administration first ignored and then politicized upon taking power. Literally nobody showed up for weeks before and after the inauguration to learn what these departments do (short version: your eyes will widen and your jaw will drop at how much). No Trump administration officials arrived to take the meticulously prepared briefings, and when they did the meetings were short and political.

    Lewis decided to take the briefings himself.

    This book is the result of a months-long crash course in what the Federal Government does, how it does it, and why it matters. That might sound boring, but behavioral economics is boring to most people and in Lewis' last book, The Undoing Project, he made the story of behavioral economics so compelling it was like reading a thriller. He does the same thing with The Fifth Risk, and he does it by focusing on the people behind the government: from hackers to former astronauts, from tornado chasers to septuagenarian billionaires lying about their assets (no, it's not who you think), this is character-driven writing at its best.

    Here's one of my favorite passages from a profile in the book of John MacWilliams, who under Obama had become the first Chief Risk Officer in the history of the Department of Energy. MacWilliams is immensely wealthy and a lifelong conservative, but he champions government investment in R&D:

    "John MacWilliams had enjoyed success in the free market that the employees of the Heritage Foundation might only fantasize about, but he had a far less Panglossian view of its inner workings. 'Government has always played a major role in innovation,' he said. "'All the way back to the founding of the country. Early-stage innovation in most industries would not have been possible without government support in a variety of ways, and it's especially true in energy. So the notion that we are just going to privatize early-stage innovation is ridiculous. Other countries are outspending us in R&D, and we are going to pay a price.'" (64)

    This is an important corrective to the narrative — largely promulgated by Silicon Valley — that innovation led by VCs and startup entrepreneurs will save the world from its problems. What Lewis' book points out time and again is that most of the startups we celebrate were built on top of technology platforms (the internet, GPS, weather satellites, self-driving cars) that were first created or encouraged by the U.S. Federal Government.

    Anybody who is reading this list or has read the previous lists knows that I read a lot of books about the 2016 and its aftermath. I characterize most of those books as guilty pleasures, and I sometimes worry that by reading them I'm contributing to the problem of giving the president the attention he so craves. The Fifth Risk may be the most important of these books, because it explores in alarming detail the long-term impacts of the Trump administration's failure to engage with the work of running the government and its politicizing of the decisions that it does make.

  • Athan Tolis

    Was reading The Fifth Risk in the tube. A well-dressed man got in, noticed the American flag Jenga on the cover and immediately exclaimed “The Fifth Risk, what do you think?” Before I had a chance to respond, he added in a polite American accent “I love the guy, I devour his books,” perhaps to allow me to temper my answer.

    I’m a Michael Lewis fan. I’ve read enough of him to think I know him. So I wasn’t shy about my assessment.

    “Tell you what,” I answered. “You know how half his books are about so

    Was reading The Fifth Risk in the tube. A well-dressed man got in, noticed the American flag Jenga on the cover and immediately exclaimed “The Fifth Risk, what do you think?” Before I had a chance to respond, he added in a polite American accent “I love the guy, I devour his books,” perhaps to allow me to temper my answer.

    I’m a Michael Lewis fan. I’ve read enough of him to think I know him. So I wasn’t shy about my assessment.

    “Tell you what,” I answered. “You know how half his books are about some quirky discovery and the people who made it and the other half are a bunch of articles he wrote before? Well, this is the second type. It’s three chapters, one each about a very important function of the government that is totally underappreciated by the public and about how Trump is about to gut it. “

    “And yeah, I buy it,” I went on, “he’s right, but it lacks balance. So all these 177 dangerous nuclear waste sites that Trump will let fester, who built them? The government did! And how about our side’s enlightened approach? Fine, Trump wants to gut the USDA and did not bother to send anybody for the handover. But tell me what Obama was doing sending a 2008 Harvard graduate to effectively supervise its budget! Why does Michael Lewis not call out our side for fostering an army of Robert McNamaras? If you ask me, we’re no better than the other guys. Our meritocracy stuff, sending some Harvard kid in diapers into such a huge job is precisely the kind of sin we’re paying for.”

    And then I went for the kill: “Our side treats government like training ground for the best and the brightest, theirs wants to gut it. We’ve lost the high moral ground as far as I’m concerned.”

    I proceeded to lament that my favorite part of the book so far had been when on election day, with Pennsylvania called, el Sisi – the Egyptian dictator, one of “our SOBs,” who could be a perfect judge of how to get through to a man not much unlike him in mentality- got through to Trump by calling the switchboard of the Trump Tower, only for the President-elect to exclaim “I love the Bangles!”

    “You know,” my new American friend smiled, “my Zen master would say he was doing his best when he said that.”

    Quite!

    I even had advice for the poor fellow, who was starting to regret asking me: “I finish books, so I’ll read the whole thing, but on balance skip this one!”

    Turns out I was flat wrong.

    This is a third type of Michael Lewis book. It’s a 219 page anecdote that leads to a single punchline.

    And so it was that Michael Lewis knocked me out in three rounds.

  • Richard Derus

    This book explains why there is no hope for reconciliation between decent human beings and Trumpanzees.

  • Darwin8u

    - Michael Lewis, The Fifth Risk

    I've read several books about President Trump and his administration in the last couple years. They all depress me a bit. I feel like I'm reading some real-time version of Gibbons' 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'. But none of the other Trump books scared me like this one did. Lewis isn't interested in the Fox/MSNBC politics or the Twitter-level anxiety of t

    - Michael Lewis, The Fifth Risk

    I've read several books about President Trump and his administration in the last couple years. They all depress me a bit. I feel like I'm reading some real-time version of Gibbons' 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'. But none of the other Trump books scared me like this one did. Lewis isn't interested in the Fox/MSNBC politics or the Twitter-level anxiety of the Trump administration. He is interested, in this book, in the systematic and bureaucratic failures of the Trump administration and what risks this administration's lack of professionalism (this is beyond politics, thisis about competency of governance) might mean to our country and our people.

    Lewis does this using his usual approach (which is a bit similar to John McPhee's new nonfiction approach). He finds interesting people who become narrative heros and guides to an area and ties them together into a compelling story or narrative. The areas Lewis explores? Presidential Transitions (guide: Max Stier); I Department of Energy/Tail Risk (guides: Tarak Shah, John MacWilliams), II USDA/People Risk (guides: Ali Zaidi, Kevin Concannon, Cathie Woteki), III Department of Commerce/All the President's Data (Guides: Kathy Sullivan, DJ Patil, David Friedberg).

    This is a short book. It is relevant but still not top-shelf Lewis. I enjoyed it, but just wished it was bit longer and a bit deeper*. It

    * I get the irony. This books scared the shit out of me. It made me sad. Therefore, I wish it were longer.

  • Diane S ☔

    "What are the consequences if the people given control over our government have no idea how it works?"

    This is the opening sentence in the book summary and also the first sentence inside the book jacket. Lewis takes us inside a few Departments of our federal government, talking to those who work there in the past and present. Showing us what these Departments do what they are responsible for, programs and oversights. Have to admit I didn't know all the things they did, but then again I doubt many

    "What are the consequences if the people given control over our government have no idea how it works?"

    This is the opening sentence in the book summary and also the first sentence inside the book jacket. Lewis takes us inside a few Departments of our federal government, talking to those who work there in the past and present. Showing us what these Departments do what they are responsible for, programs and oversights. Have to admit I didn't know all the things they did, but then again I doubt many people do, including our current government.

    The Dept of Energy, the Dept of Agriculture, touching on the Dept. Of commerce, in all these Departments, after the election, they waited for the new administration to come in and find out what they were doing, transitioning to new people. They waited for months, and finally one person showed up, took one day with the Depts and basically disappeared again. I'm not going to go into details about what eventually happened, would take too long, but one thing of note I will mention. From the Dept. Of Agriculture, 220 billion was removed to another fund, a fund from where it was easier to spend, easier to not account for. This money was from a program that provided low cost loans to our rural areas, a program that has now been effectively shut down.

    Of all the books I have read about our current political situation, this is the one that scared me the most.

  • Bill  Kerwin

    Once again Michael Lewis, author of

    and

    , chooses as his protagonists a few ingenious manipulators of data, but this time he does so with a difference: the self-effacing statistical warriors he singles out for praise are bureaucrats of the United States federal government, a class generally overlooked and often despised. These bureaucrats, however, are people not only familiar with the resources of their agencies but also committed to using them to make lives better for th

    Once again Michael Lewis, author of

    and

    , chooses as his protagonists a few ingenious manipulators of data, but this time he does so with a difference: the self-effacing statistical warriors he singles out for praise are bureaucrats of the United States federal government, a class generally overlooked and often despised. These bureaucrats, however, are people not only familiar with the resources of their agencies but also committed to using them to make lives better for the American citizens who pay their salaries.

    Much of

    is heartening, optimistic, as we watch people who genuinely care about there jobs do what they know how to do, but there is a dark cloud looming over every bureaucratic success story: the Trump administration is now in charge of their government agencies, an administration which holds such bureaucracies in contempt, vassals good for nothing but to plunder and destroy.

    The book begins with a superb prologue, in which—believe it or not—Chris Christie turns out to be the hero, doing his best to organize a Trump transition team so that the various agencies can be staffed by people actually capable of carrying out their mission. But Trump, who cares neither for competence nor mission, dissolves the transition team and then tells Christie: “You and I are so smart we can leave the victory party two hours early and do the transition ourselves.”

    introduces us to the people who are on a mission (NOAA’s Kathy Sullivan, geologist and ex-astronaut, responsible for weather forecasting data; mathematician D.J. Patil, Obama’s chief data scientist; USDA’s Kevin Concannon, in charge of food stamps and related programs; Energy’s chief “risk officer” John McWilliams; and others) and shows us what happens when they—and others like them—meet up with people care about nothing butmoney, that is, the Trump administration.

    It is McWilliams who gives Lewis the title for his book. After outlining four important risks faced by the Department of Energy (nuclear accidents, North Korea, Iran, the electrical grid), McWilliams tells us what is the fifth and greatest risk: “project management.” The fifth risk incorporates all those unlikely and unforeseen, long-shot and long-term disasters that only a vigilant, committed agency has a chance of forecasting and forestalling. In other words, the sort of government Trump and his greedy grifters are constitutionally incapable of providing.

    No grifter sums things up quite as well as Barry Myers, the AccuWeather CEO chosen to helm NOAA and oversee its comprehensive weather data collection efforts and its essential weather forecasts. One of the first things he did was to make this valuable date unavailable to the public. D.J. Patil became concerned:

  • David

    This book is about three important but little-understood government agencies. And, the book is about the willful ignorance of the Trump administration, and its attempts to dismantle the agencies before even having the slightest idea, what these agencies do.

    After the two major political parties nominate a presidential candidate, the candidates form transition teams. These teams are required

    to formulate transitions into government that will be as smooth as possible. The transition teams

    This book is about three important but little-understood government agencies. And, the book is about the willful ignorance of the Trump administration, and its attempts to dismantle the agencies before even having the slightest idea, what these agencies do.

    After the two major political parties nominate a presidential candidate, the candidates form transition teams. These teams are required

    to formulate transitions into government that will be as smooth as possible. The transition teams

    office space in Washington DC in which to meet and plan. Donald Trump did not want to appoint transition teams, because that would require setting aside some money that could be used for political ads. But the law forced him to, anyway.

    The day after a presidential election, government agencies are prepared for visits by large transition teams. They have prepared briefings and are ready to show the newcomers how the agencies work and are ready to smooth the transitions. However, many agencies were totally ignored by Donald Trump. Instead of sending dozens and dozens of members of a new team, Trump sent--nobody at all. Instead, a month after election day, there might be

    visitor, who is unprepared to learn about anything at all. The visitor to the Department of Energy did not want to learn what it is that the agency does. He did not want to learn that most of the department's efforts were aimed at maintaining the stockpile of nuclear weapons, and performing inspections in hostile countries. Instead, all he was interested in, was obtaining a list of scientists who had attended climate change conferences. (He didn't receive such a list.)

    Trump wanted to de-fund the Department of Energy, which supplies ten percent of its annual budget to clean up the horrific plutonium mess in Hanford, Washington. He wanted to eliminate ARPA-E, which did the research for new energy sources. Private companies are not willing to undertake such risky efforts; government research is required for truly innovative advancement.

    And, instead of installing experts into the top jobs at these critical government agencies, Trump installed no-nothings who were loyal to him. For example, he installed into the top jobs at the US Department of Agriculture; a truck driver, a clerk from AT&T, a gas company meter reader, a country club cabana attendant, and the owner of a scented candle company. They had absolutely no credentials or relevant skills. Sonny Perdue became the Secretary of the Department of Agriculture. It became obvious that he is motivated by pure politics, and has zero interest in the nutritional welfare of school children.

    Many people depend on the treasure troves of data collected by the government agencies, and our ability to download the data from their websites. The book describes many innovative uses of the data sets, and the ability of researchers to uncover amazing discoveries about industry, society, climate, and health across the country. But after Trump took office, the EPA and the Department of the Interior removed all sorts of data on climate from their web sites. FEMA removed data about drinking water in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, and the FBI removed most crime data from its web site, all driven by narrow commercial motives.

    This is an excellent book about the importance of government to the country's prosperity and standard of living. Ignorance of what government actually

    seems to be the Trump administration's primary hallmark. Trump has no curiosity, and no interest in learning anything. His only interest is in lining his own wallet with ever-bigger wads of money. What a pity.

  • Melki

    Our recent government shutdown, the yugest, most tremendous, and longest shutdown in history, served, if nothing else, to demonstrate just how

    it is to have someone helping our aircraft land, and someone picking up the trash in our national parks. We

    qualified people taking care of our nuclear waste, and protecting us against the next pandemic. As a famous Canadian singer

    Our recent government shutdown, the yugest, most tremendous, and longest shutdown in history, served, if nothing else, to demonstrate just how

    it is to have someone helping our aircraft land, and someone picking up the trash in our national parks. We

    qualified people taking care of our nuclear waste, and protecting us against the next pandemic. As a famous Canadian singer once warbled, "Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got til its gone."

    Lewis attempts to do just that with his latest book. He takes the reader on a tour of various departments, explaining their functions, using a friendly, conversational tone, and occasionally scaring the crap out of you. One of his main points is that we have genuine heroes working these jobs, people who have dedicated their lives to public service, and their positions should not be subject to the whims of any particular presidential administration.

    His other main point? You can't just

    without knowing exactly

    !!!!! (There really aren't enough exclamation points in the world for that sentence.) And, when the person who has been placed IN CHARGE of an organization

    . . . we've got a problem. (Yes, all of us. It is OUR problem!) But then again, it's been made clear time and again by the

    administration that profit, NOT public well-being is the real concern.

    I read a lot of crime fiction, and thrillers, but this is the single most

    book I've read in a long, long time. I'm going to echo many other reviewers, and say that you REALLY SHOULD read this book. If nothing else, you'll be better equipped to argue with that obnoxious coworker or family member who always insists, "We need the gubmint to stay out of our bidness."

  • Sam Quixote

    Didja know the US gov’mint is a complicated beast? Trump didn’t! And now we’s all gonna DIIIIEEEE!

    But not really.

    Michael Lewis’ The Fifth Risk is the latest in a long line of Trumperature hurriedly bundled together and booted out the door to cater to the surprisingly large audience who can’t read enough Trump-bashing. Except Lewis’ effort is a bit more nuanced in its critique of the Trump administration, focusing instead on what its lackadaisical attitude to the country’s major institutions co

    Didja know the US gov’mint is a complicated beast? Trump didn’t! And now we’s all gonna DIIIIEEEE!

    But not really.

    Michael Lewis’ The Fifth Risk is the latest in a long line of Trumperature hurriedly bundled together and booted out the door to cater to the surprisingly large audience who can’t read enough Trump-bashing. Except Lewis’ effort is a bit more nuanced in its critique of the Trump administration, focusing instead on what its lackadaisical attitude to the country’s major institutions could mean to the average Joe.

    Unlike previous incoming administrations, Trump and his peeps didn’t bother to learn how the government operates. They took their sweet ass time filling the required posts for heads of massive departments – many which remained empty for months post-inauguration – and, when they did, the appointees were dangerously unqualified, uninformed, corrupt and actively working to undermine the effectiveness of what their departments did to line their own pockets instead!

    It’s less Trump-focused than that for the most part though. The Fifth Risk is essentially a love letter to government as Lewis highlights exactly what the Department of Energy, the Department of Commerce and the Department of Agriculture does – and it ain’t what you think! These departments’ remits basically extend far beyond what their misnomers suggest, revelations which are quite remarkable in themselves. But they’re run by equally extraordinary people with sparkling careers, skills and characters, who Lewis diligently profiles.

    The book is reliably well-written by Lewis and thoroughly informative. I get the impression he’s anti-Trump but he largely keeps his tone neutral and non-partisan, which is laudable. Some of the profiles are fascinating and the entire episode on the current state of the American weather service was stunning – to whit, the American taxpayer bankrolls how the weather data is collected and the guy now in charge owns a private weather company and wants to change it so that weather forecasts no longer remain free and charge the taxpayer for data they’ve already paid for!

    On the other hand, despite being a relatively short book, it feels overlong. The profiles become repetitive and the subject matter feels increasingly shallow as the book progresses, largely as the premise – that the guys in charge are going to prove so inept (this is the “fifth risk” by the way: project management) that they will irreparably damage the country – probably won’t be proven for some time yet.

    And it does feel somewhat melodramatic – I mean, could one administration really be so disastrous? It’s not like there haven’t been terrible presidents before and America has prevailed. And there is hope in that the vast majority of the public sector seems to be led by truly good people – skilled, knowledgeable folk who are in it for the mission rather than the money, a veritable phalanx of hyper-competent Leslie Knopes! – and with them around, how bad could a corrupt bossman be (especially as they don’t seem to last with Trump in charge)?

    The Fifth Risk isn’t saying anything groundbreaking or profoundly insightful (“whuh-oh, rough seas ahead!” seems to be the rather inane and vague message from Michael “Auditioning for the Real-Life Captain Hindsight” Lewis) but it does highlight a few worthwhile things like giving credit to civil servants who do amazing work despite none of it being sexy enough to be reported on in the mainstream media, as well as not taking the general peaceable harmony of society for granted as it could be so much worse without the public sector. Most importantly it teaches anyone who thinks “government sucks” (sadly the majority of people are exactly this uninformed) just why it’s the opposite.

    And I think that’s how I felt reading The Fifth Risk: it’s competent and well-researched with a fine purpose but ultimately far from compelling and a bit dull to read. It also doesn’t feel very substantial, not least as the impression was like a trio of loosely connected articles got slapped together, but because it made its point almost immediately and spent the rest of the book repeating itself! Not the best work Michael Lewis has done but not bad either, I wouldn’t say it’s a must-read for anyone.

  • ⚣Michaelle⚣

    Holy shit. I read the excerpt at

    and everything that's gone wrong up 'til now (starting just before the election) makes total sense.

    Also, if that small bit is any indication, the writing is really engaging. I mean, how in the hell did Michael Lewis manage to make me feel even the slightest bit sorry for what Chris Christie endured trying to head up the transition team? Sure, it was a bit self-serving (the next-best thing to

    President), but still...he worked hard to work within

    Holy shit. I read the excerpt at

    and everything that's gone wrong up 'til now (starting just before the election) makes total sense.

    Also, if that small bit is any indication, the writing is really engaging. I mean, how in the hell did Michael Lewis manage to make me feel even the slightest bit sorry for what Chris Christie endured trying to head up the transition team? Sure, it was a bit self-serving (the next-best thing to

    President), but still...he worked hard to work within the law, to vet the possible employees for government positions, and to provide the best candidates for the job (working with a team, according to

    expectations/requirements)...only to be canned and have it all thrown out because someone (Kushner) was still salty Christie did his job prosecuting Kushner's dad for fraud? (Kushner, who also almost had us join with Saudi to boycott/sanction/embargo a country that hosts

    because he was mad they wouldn't give him a business loan?) (Oh, I'm referring to Qatar, in case you're wondering; I hope that's covered in the book.)

    Damn, I can't wait to read the rest.

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