This mess is entirely predictable when you systematically undermine government

A few weeks ago when it became clear just how stunningly poorly Trump has caused the federal government to perform in this crisis I thought to myself, “OMG, Michael Lewis’ The Fifth Risk is so amazingly on-point for this.  I did a quick little google search expecting to find all sorts of columns, Op-Eds, etc., making this case (heck like all Lewis’ books, it was a bestseller), but basically came up empty.  Because I am… lazy, I did not go ahead and write that post myself.  I figured I’d just be patient and go with ye olde copy and paste.  And lo and behold, even better than other people talking about Lewis’ book, Vox has an interview with the man himself.  Some highlights:

In his most recent book, The Fifth Risk, Lewis explores the different ways the US government manages its “vast portfolio” of risks — and how the Trump administration has systematically and purposefully undermined that effort. I spoke to Lewis about what the US government’s risk portfolio looks like, why Donald Trump’s leadership puts us all in danger, how undermining trust may be the biggest risk of them all, and more…

Roge Karma

There are a lot of ways to view the US federal government and the role of the president. But one that you draw out in The Fifth Risk is the idea of the president as a risk manager and the government as a risk aggregator. That is not a way we are used to thinking about our leaders or our institutions. So what does it mean for the president to be a risk manager? And why do you think that is a helpful lens through which to look at our leaders/institutions?

Michael Lewis

A lot of what the federal government does is manage risk, broadly defined. When I walked into my first agency, the Department of Energy, I encountered a man named John McWilliams who was the department’s “chief risk officer” and who had compiled a list of the 138 most dire risks that the Department of Energy alone faced. At the time, I didn’t even know what the Department of Energy did, so that there were 138 risks inside of it worth counting was interesting.

McWilliams was someone who thought about risk like a Wall Street person thought about risk. He thought about volatility. He thought about risk as a portfolio. He was grappling with it in that language. And I thought that was a very interesting way to think of the job of the president: to manage this giant portfolio at risk, not just the Department Energy, but across all of these agencies.

I’d also spent six months with Obama before the end of his first term. When I sat down with him and talked about what he thought about day to day, he framed the job as a decision-making job, and all of the decisions involved risk. In the end, the decisions that got to him were all the horrible risk decisions that nobody else wanted to make. A lot of our conversation was just about that: how to make smart, risk-based decisions…

Roge Karma

If the president is fundamentally a risk manager, then what does that make Donald Trump? What does Donald Trump do to the basket of risks that the US government is supposed to manage?

Michael Lewis

He amplifies them all. And he does so in various ways. One is that he has virtually no interest in hiring people for their ability to manage risks, for their understanding of risk, or for their knowledge and expertise about risks. So the people he hires in risk management positions are often wildly ill-suited to them because the only filter they pass through is a loyalty test to Donald Trump.

In the runup to the 2016 election, huge numbers of people, both Democrats and Republicans, who are experts in the specific risks the government managed, came out against Trump. And he just refused to take them into his administration.

Roge Karma

Could you talk a bit about the type of people who were hired by Trump?

Michael Lewis

There was a list of CVs that Politico dug up of Trump appointees to the Department of Agriculture, and none of them were qualified for anything they got appointed to do.

But since we’re on the Department of Energy, Trump appointed Rick Perry as secretary of energy. He had called for the elimination of the department in a presidential debate without being able to remember the name of the department. Later, once he was appointed secretary of energy, Perry said he didn’t realize the department did things like manage the nuclear arsenal. There may be less qualified people to run the Department of Energy, but it’s hard to think of them.

You can move around the government and find at the very top level people who were really ill-suited to the jobs, but the people who flooded into the second- and third-tier jobs — they were all just hacks on campaigns.

Here’s an example that chills my spine. The Department of Agriculture has a $3 billion a year research budget for the science that it funds — all mostly focused on how we are going to feed ourselves in the future, especially as the climate changes. In the past, this research has yielded gold, but that’s because it’s been in the hands of real scientists. Trump tried to install in that job a right-wing talk radio show host from Iowa who happened to back him and who had absolutely no understanding of the science of agriculture or anything like it…

Trump has created a bizarre absence of information channels from people who know things to the Oval Office. Just look at the coronavirus. People were trying to tell him this was a problem in early January. And on the rare occasions anybody who knows something gets through to him, he doesn’t want to hear it. That’s his temperament. He doesn’t want you to give him the bad news. And if you give him the bad news, you’re fired.

That’s exactly the opposite of the temperament you want in somebody who’s managing risk. People are already reluctant to give you bad news or bad information or tell you about risky situations because it’s an inherently unpleasant thing to do. If you disincentivize them even further, you’re just not going to find out what you need to know…

Roge Karma

Let’s talk about the coronavirus then. I think this pandemic has really brought your book’s thesis to life. So if you had to write another chapter of The Fifth Risk about coronavirus, what would it be about?

Michael Lewis

What I would do next is study the way society is now compensating for the ineptitude and malign character of its leader. It really does remind me of a dysfunctional family with a psychotic, alcoholic dad, where everybody’s trying to cover for dad.

The pandemic has taken this to an extreme. My mayor, the mayor of San Francisco, has to take extraordinary action all by herself because the president doesn’t know what he’s doing. And we’re all gonna be much better for it. A lot of people are gonna be alive because of it. But it was an example of local officials taking charge of something that they really shouldn’t have had to take charge of.

If you need some pandemic reading, you could do a lot worse than the Fifth Risk.  It’s not Moneyball, but I don’t think Michael Lewis is even capable of not being an engaging writer.  And, since I’ve got two copies on my shelf, I’ll happily send you one (presuming I know you or we’re regular correspondents– don’t know about postage to Finland, though) via media mail if you hit me up with an email

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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