Risky Business

Little did I know when I finished Michael Lewis’s The Fifth Risk a few weeks ago that by the time I got around to writing about it here the risks he writes of would have escalated to an unprecedented degree.

Lewis concentrates first on the Department of Energy and the way in which the Obama administration tried to prepare the incoming Trump administration for the responsibilities they would be undertaking, among which were the care and feeding of the nuclear arsenal and the management of the Hanford site.

The morning after he was elected president, eight years earlier, Barack Obama had sent between thirty and forty people into the Department of Energy. [Obama’s] Department of Energy staff planned to deliver to Trump’s people the same talks, from the same five-inch-thick three-ring binders with the Department of Energy seal on them. No one came. Apparently the incoming administration assumed that everyone, including appointee offices, just stayed.

Next Lewis looks into the Department of Agriculture and discovers that they, also, had prepared for a visit from the incoming administration. No one showed up. It was more than a month before one guy finally came in, focused, bizarrely on a single issue…climate change…’He wanted the names of the people doing the work.’ An interviewee from the CDC, is quoted as saying, My biggest concern is the misuse of science to support policies.

The Department of Agriculture is the current home of the fight against Corvid-19. Who, me worry?

You might call the Department of Commerce the Department of Big Data, since its archives contain miles of it. That’s probably where the Ark of the Covenant from Raiders of the Lost Ark is buried. It has the Bureau of the Census, NOAA, and the National Weather Service. You want some numbers to explain a phenomenon, you go to the Department of Commerce.

However, After Trump took office … data disappeared across the federal government. Both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior removed from their websites the links on climate change data. The USDA removed the inspection reports of businesses accused of animal abuse…The new acting head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau … said he wanted to end public access to records of consumer complaints against financial institutions. The list goes on.

I could wish that Lewis had written a bigger book, one that took an in depth look at all of our Departments instead of just the three that he highlights here. I liked reading the life stories of a few heroes of the “deep state” – those who have struggled against both the status quo and the negligence of the Trump administration, but could also have used more page content illustrating the jobs that our government has taken on and how they are supposed to work.

Still and all, among the many risks that Lewis illustrates one might ask, What is The Fifth Risk?”

Here, Lewis quotes John MacWilliams, late of the Department of Energy, who defines the fifth risk in two words: Project Management. Meaning, I take it, that when the project is in the hands of fools the risk is exponential.

Which is, among other things, what we see playing out before our eyes every day in this third month of the year 2020.