The Fifth Risk
By Michael Lewis
The question posed on the inside of the book jacket spells out author Michael Lewis’s thesis very clearly: “What are the consequences if the people given control over our government have no idea how it works?”
But the follow-up and even more disturbing question might be this: And what if they don’t have the intellectual curiosity to try and find out?
The Fifth Risk is a two-sided coin. On the one side, it features wide-ranging interviews of the talented and anonymous people who actually do the work of the federal government.
And on the other side, it shows how these very people and their knowledge have been marginalized by the rise of President Donald Trump – a combination of ignorance and neglect.
But before you harrumph and toss the paper in disgust, an example of another leftie giving poor Donald the business, at least hear the origin of the tale.
Presidential nominees of the major parties, by law, must create “transition” teams once they win their respective party’s nomination. Point being, you’re supposed to be prepared in the event you win.
As Lewis reports, Trump thought the whole idea absurd. Why spend a whole lot of time and money on something that may not happen, taking away valuable resources from the campaign, which may ultimately hinder your ability to win?
He had a point.
On the flip side, what kind of message does it send if you’ve chosen to make zero preparations in the event that you win?
Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie convinced Trump to allow him to head the transition team. Which was somewhat awkward because when he was U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey, “Christie had prosecuted and jailed Jared Kushner’s [Trump’s son-in-law] father for tax fraud. Christie’s investigation revealed … that Charles Kushner had hired a prostitute to seduce his own brother-in-law, whom he suspected of cooperating with Christie, videotaped the sexual encounter, and sent the tape to his sister. The Kushners apparently took their grudges seriously.”
Christie assembled a team and spent months researching and vetting candidates for different administration posts.
Days after the election, Lewis reported that Christie was fired and his binder of candidates tossed. Why? White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon later conceded, “It was Jared,” according to Lewis.
Trump was going to handle the transition by himself.
“I was f***ing nervous as s**t,” Bannon later told friends. “I go ‘Holy F**k, this guy [Trump] doesn’t know anything. And he doesn’t give a s**t.”
So what is the Fifth Risk? John MacWilliams, the first-ever Chief Risk Officer at the Department of Energy (DOE) under President Obama, characterizes it as simply “Project Management.”
Basically, a lot of things can go wrong, and anyone who knows anything about chaos theory knows shit will happen. Really clever people can imagine the risk and plan for it ahead of time. Not-so-clever people have bad shit happen to them and chalk it up to lousy luck and think no more about it.
Here’s a classic example of how things can go wrong.
Lewis tells the story of the DOE burying radioactive waste in New Mexico. “The contents of the barrels were volatile and so needed to be seasoned with, believe it or not, kitty litter … According to a DOE official, a federal contractor in Los Alamos, having been told to pack the barrels with ‘inorganic kitty litter,’ had scribbled down ‘an organic kitty litter.’ The barrel with organic kitty litter burst and spread waste inside the cavern. The site was closed for three years, significantly backing up nuclear waste disposal in the U.S. and costing $500 million to clean.”
So this is what can happen even with the best of intentions.
But what happens when you de-fund climate science just because you don’t want to contemplate what studying climate science may reveal?
Risk doesn’t go away just because you ignore it.
The final story in the book is powerful. It references a woman whose house is destroyed by a tornado. She tells the guy from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) “for the last ten years, I prayed for a tornado to come and take that barn. I didn’t think it would take the house, too.”
Turns out her husband had committed suicide in the barn ten years before.
But here’s Lewis’s larger lesson: “You might have good reason to pray for a tornado, whether it comes in the shape of swirling winds, or a politician. You imagine the thing doing the damage you would like to see done, and no more. It’s what you fail to imagine that kills you.”
The Fifth Risk is a seminal book. You finish it and say to yourself, “Am I really going to sit around and watch this Gong Show unfold? Or is it about time I said or did something?”