Michael Lewis’ ‘The Fifth Risk’ documents how the Trump administration’s incompetence destroys government departments
Donald Trump inspires high passions throughout red, blue and purple America. Trump’s tweets and sensational comments drive our daily news cycles. Often lost in this storm is a clear assessment of how the administration is actually governing. In “The Fifth Risk,” Michael Lewis details the Trump administration’s approach to running three government departments: The Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Commerce. Lewis implements his highly readable style, which was successful in his previous bestsellers, including “The Big Short” and “Moneyball.”
Lewis writes how immediately after winning the election in 2008, the Obama administration (as with previous administrations) sent large teams to visit key government departments that they would be taking over in the new year. In preparation for these meetings, each of the departments spent extensive time and effort preparing review materials to facilitate a smooth transition. Prior to the recent 2016 election, these departments extensively prepared to bring the new administration up to speed, whether the winner was Trump or Clinton. The departments anticipated that, as had always occurred in the past, the winning president’s team would be eager to get going. However, the departments were surprised and concerned when the Trump administration failed to show up for briefings for days and weeks. When Trump’s people finally did visit, they showed extreme lack of interest or preparation. The few people Trump did finally send did not have the qualifications necessary to run these departments. They clearly didn’t understand the departments’ missions and responsibilities. In addition, Trump’s people commonly showed contempt and disrespect for the departments and often brought a personal history of attacking the department they were now looking to run.
Lewis provides the history of each department and gives bios on many of their key personnel. He details the functions and offers some surprising responsibilities for each department. For example, the Department of Energy (DOE) has very little to do with oil. Half of its budget goes to maintaining the nuclear arsenal and protecting Americans from nuclear threat. A quarter of DOE’s budget goes to cleaning up the mess left behind from the building of nuclear weapons, and the final quarter goes to programs aimed at shaping American’s access to, and use of, energy. Underpinning the DOE’s work is Big Science, including research that requires high investment. The DOE runs the national science labs and a highly effective loan program to stimulate innovation in energy. Trump’s first budget proposal sought to completely eliminate this loan program, as well as make major cuts in funding to national science labs. It halved the funding for work to secure the electrical grid from attack or a natural disaster and eliminated all research on climate change.
The Department of Agriculture (USDA) runs 193 million acres of national forest and grasslands and is charged with inspecting almost all the animals Americans eat. It includes a massive science program. The USDA has a large fleet of aircraft for fighting fires — fighting wildfires is the most visible thing the USDA does. Actually, only a fraction of the USDA’s budget is spent on farmers. The USDA finances and manages extensive programs in rural America, such as free lunches for kids living in poverty, many in rural America. This represents approximately 70 percent of the USDA’s budget. The USDA also runs a bank and focuses its $220 billion bank assets on a loan program to help out rural America. The bank provides low-interest loans mainly to towns with fewer than 50,000 people for needed infrastructure projects, and nearly all of these loans are repaid. Lewis writes how Trump’s team showed minimal interest in programs to feed the poor and how Trump’s budget proposed cutting food stamps by 25 percent. The budget proposal cut much of the USDA’s research to deal with the effects of climate change. Also, the Trump administration moved the $220 billion bank portfolio into the office of the secretary so, in Lewis’s opinion, Trump’s new USDA Secretary could work with Wall Street to do things with these funds out of the public eye.
Lewis states that the Department of Commerce is misnamed. It has almost nothing to do with commerce directly and is actually forbidden by law from engaging in business. Trade is only about 10 percent of what the department does. What it does is collect and make sense of all of the country’s economic statistics. More than 50 percent of its budget goes to NOAA to figure out the weather. The department also runs the U.S. Census. Lewis states that the better name for the department should be the Department of Data, or the Department of Science and Technology. Weather data is also climate data and very quickly extensive data started disappearing across the federal government. Examples include the EPA and the Department of the Interior removing climate change data from their websites, the USDA removing inspection reports of businesses accused of animal abuse and the new head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau wanting to end public access to records of consumer complaints against financial institutions. Lewis states, if the data points in a direction different from your worldview, then just get rid of the data, which the Trump administration has been doing throughout government.
The book’s title, “The Fifth Risk,” has to do with the Trump administration’s extensive lack of concern with project management or basic department performance, putting the department’s goals and mission at risk. Lewis’s reporting is solid. He explains the risks to the country if these departments are run ineptly or for personal gain. Lewis tells many personal stories of key department personnel, showing their expertise and commitment to public service over making money.
These stories read like, well, a good book. At just over 200 pages, this short book packs a powerful punch.
Read the full Jan. 16 - 22 issue.
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