DECEMBER 5, 2018
IN NOVEMBER 2016, Wilbur Ross, the billionaire investor who resembles a mole rat peeking out of a suit coat, was nominated to be the Secretary of Commerce. The octogenarian arrived for a briefing at his own department to be told that its purpose was “a science and technology mission,” that is, gathering data about multiple critical variables like the weather and the US population. Ross responded by saying, “Yeah, I don’t think I want to be focusing on that.”
This is but one illuminating story from The Fifth Risk, Michael Lewis’s new book about the federal government. Lewis stuffs his small book with stories of heroes in the massive, tottering bureaucracy we call the federal government and the usurping villains, like Ross, of presidential appointment.
For Lewis, there are two flavors of nefarious Trump appointees: those like Ross who will destroy their agency like a bad plant owner who fails to water, and those who will destroy their agency through delirious greed. Barry Myers, appointed the head of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency, under Ross, is Lewis’s best example of the latter.
Unlike previous heads of the NOAA, Myers isn’t a meteorologist or even a scientist. He is a lawyer who is the CEO of AccuWeather, a for-profit weather forecasting company. The NOAA, among other functions, runs the National Weather Service. The NWS produces massive troves of weather-related data. This information has saved millions of lives and trillions of dollars over the course of its existence. The information is public. It is easy to study how effective it has been.
This is not the case with AccuWeather. They can tout every hurricane and tornado they correctly predict, and remain silent when they get it wrong. However, if AccuWeather is often accurate it is no surprise. Lewis explains:
Barry Myers liked to say that he was in competition with the federal government. If so, the competition was bizarre: the U.S. Department of Commerce gave him, for free, most of the raw material he needed to create his product. Without the weather satellites, weather radar, weather buoys, and weather balloons, there would be no weather forecasting worth listening to, much less paying for.
Myers is similar to other presidential appointees, like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and former Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Scott Pruitt, whose public opinion prior to appointment was hostile to the departments they were set to lead. Myers once told the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company that “[t]he National Weather Service does not need to have the final say on warnings. The customer and the private sector should be able to sort that out. The government should get out of the forecasting business.” Myers can only make money if the NWS can’t deliver its forecast to taxpayers.
Senator Rick Santorum, at the behest of Myers, once introduced a bill that limited the NWS’s ability to communicate with the public. Lewis wants us to
[p]ause a moment to consider the audacity of that maneuver. A private company whose weather predictions were totally dependent on the billions of dollars spent by the U.S. taxpayer to gather the data necessary for those predictions, and on the decades of intellectual weather work sponsored by the U.S. taxpayer, and on the international data-sharing treaties made on behalf of the U.S. taxpayer, and on the very forecasts that the National Weather Service generated, was, in effect, trying to force the U.S. taxpayer to pay all over again for what the National Weather Service might be able to tell him or her for free.
What you realize when reading Lewis’s tale about Myers, which originated in an article for Audible called “The Coming Storm,” is that free-market ideology is often a cover for a scam: getting consumers to pay twice. It allows private citizens to capture the wealth created by public investment. Myers is like someone who has decided to bottle and sell their city’s tap water, then works hard to stop the city from reminding citizens that the water is already paid for.
What Lewis argues is that the federal government has figured out the ways to deal with problems prior to or in spite of any market-based or privatized solutions like the kind Myers would like to propose. The Department of Energy effectively manages our nuclear arsenal and safeguards our nuclear waste. The Department of Agriculture ensures children have access to food and doles out grants to rural communities.
But the federal government is huge. The USDA employs more than 100,000 people, and the Department of Commerce spends a whopping $5 billion on the NOAA. The president, prior to Obama-era reforms, had to vet and appoint 1,400 positions. It was cut down a still-numerous 1,200 appointments.
Is Trump right to make cuts to the federal government, because it has grown too big? In May 2018, John Dickerson argued in The Atlantic that the executive branch had swollen to an unwieldy size, scattering the president’s attention away from core issues. In a response, Jeremi Suri, who wrote the book The Impossible Presidency, said that Dickerson really hadn’t taken the notion of bigness far enough: “Calls by Dickerson and others for more transition planning between administrations and better selection of advisers are important, but misdirected. Limiting the scale of presidential failures will not produce new successes.” Suri thinks the presidency needs to be trimmed down.
Suri’s argument, whether he knows it or not, is based on “lean” management theory that erupted in the 1970s as a reaction to the rigid midcentury corporate bureaucracies like General Electric. Lean theory suggests that keeping employees to a minimum, inventories small, and hierarchies flexible allows a company to react more quickly to market changes. For the lean business it’s best to outsource work to contractors. And while the government did start using contractors (e.g., private militias like Blackwater or private infrastructure companies like Halliburton), Lewis’s book shows that the federal government hasn’t fully embraced lean, and maybe that isn’t all that bad.
The Fifth Risk is, therefore, a sneaky rebuttal to faith in markets that lean thinking implies. If anyone argues at a cocktail party about this book, it is surely to be about the value of bureaucracy. Like the uproar over his books Moneyball and Flash Boys, this book once again testifies to Lewis’s preternatural ability to sniff out controversy in the most obscure, far-flung corners of our world.
The faith in market imperatives that buttress “lean” thinking begets a mistrust in government, even in the face of evidence that federal programs, like the USDA’s Rural Development office, work. Lillian Salerno, an administrator for rural development, characterizes her interactions with the people she tries to help: “Them: We hate the government and you suck. Me: My mission alone put $1 billion into your economy this year, so are you sure about that?” Lewis gives us tale after tale of effective and innovative government programs that have taxpayers’ best interest in mind. Partway through the book, of course, a reader craves to know the ways in which the federal government might not work well. But someone needs to add a voice in defense of the programs that work, that make our lives better, and that protect us from hazards that we can’t foresee.
As Lewis explains, “We don’t really celebrate the accomplishments of government employees. They exist in our society to take the blame.” We treat the government like a teenager treats a parent, with an oblivious and over-exaggerated view of our individual importance. There is no movie capable of glamorizing it. You can’t imagine The Wolf of Wall Street, the cautionary tale that no doubt launched a thousand horny, testosterone-scented applications to Goldman Sachs, being replicated as The Wolf of the Department of Agriculture.
Lewis is a feisty, combative writer who feels unburdened by niceties when he believes he is correct. This presents itself in The Fifth Risk as a profusion of blue language: “shit” and “fuck” abound. At one point he suggests that Brian Klippenstein, who is appointed to head the USDA, might enjoy having sex with sheep. It’s a weird and cringeworthy moment.
However, for any of Lewis’s stumbling, he is correct in his conclusion: the most important job for any government is one of management, a role suggested in the story behind the title of the book. In an interview with John MacWilliams, a former Department of Energy official, MacWilliams lists off the five biggest risks that his department dealt with, including protecting the electrical grid and safely burying nuclear waste. He calls the last and ultimate risk simply: “project management.” MacWilliams says that it is easy to deal with disasters like hurricanes or terrorist attacks. What is difficult are multigenerational tasks like maintaining nuclear waste sites to make sure they aren’t leaking, or doing the research to imagine threats that haven’t occurred yet.
For MacWilliams, and Lewis, the “fifth risk” is the one that is so large or so complicated that individuals can’t imagine it alone. And lean-management market fundamentalists like Barry Myers are incapable of long-term thinking; they are obligated to produce profit in the short term for shareholders. Thus the frightening challenge of this book amid an era of contempt for federal bureaucracies: can we find a way to re-embrace the decidedly unsexy task of managing the future risks together?