'The Fifth Risk' Paints A Portrait Of A Government Led By The Uninterested

Oct 2, 2018
Originally published on October 2, 2018 12:31 pm

The thought that Donald Trump may have been totally unprepared to become president in November 2016 is one that's not new to those who have been following the day-to-day crises and dramas of the Trump White House closely.

But a case for this argument is revealingly and startlingly made by Michael Lewis in his fascinating — and at times harrowing — new book The Fifth Risk.

For instance, here's the scene Lewis describes in the early morning hours of Nov. 9, 2016, just after Pennsylvania was called, giving Trump enough electoral votes to win the election (Chris Christie, who was the head of the Trump transition effort, sat on a couch):

"Mike Pence went to kiss his wife, Karen, and she turned away from him. 'You got what you wanted, Mike,' she said, 'now leave me alone.' She wouldn't so much as say hello to Trump. Trump himself just stared at the tube without saying anything, like a man with a pair of twos whose bluff has been called. His campaign hadn't even bothered to prepare an acceptance speech. It wasn't hard to see why Trump hadn't seen the point in preparing to take over the federal government: Why study for a test you'll never need to take?"

Christie would soon be fired from the transition effort by Trump adviser Steve Bannon; the work he and his team did, ceremoniously dumped into the garbage. Trump, Lewis writes, "was going to handle the transition more or less by himself."

And that has proved problematic. Nearly two years later, the Trump administration is still lacking some important components. According to a tally kept by the Partnership For Public Service and The Washington Post, of some 700 key positions in government, slightly more than half have been filled.

Many vacancies have nominees awaiting Senate confirmation, and as of this writing, 153 of these key posts have no nominees whatsoever. For instance at the State Department, unfilled positions include what would seem like some pretty important jobs for the agency running the nation's diplomatic efforts. There's no chief financial officer or undersecretary for public diplomacy, no coordinator for threat reduction programs — and in the foreign service, there are vacancies at U.S. embassies in Ireland, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, South Africa, Pakistan and Turkey, to name a few.

That's just one department. No one has been nominated to run the Federal Aviation Administration or the Federal Highway Administration.

That $715 billion defense bill the president brings up at each rally? At the Pentagon, the office of the principal deputy undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, which would seemingly have a large role in determining how all the money is spent, sits empty.

It can be argued, as Trump has done, that there are too many positions in the government. What do we need all those undersecretaries and deputy assistant secretaries for in the first place? Trump has said, "I am the only one that matters," but it would seem there is a reasoned and smart approach to reducing these numbers, not simply by leaving key posts unfilled.

"Getting to Know the U.S. Government," Lewis writes, "had not been high on Donald Trump's to-do list, even after he learned that he'd be running it." Lewis describes the scene inside the Commerce Department the Monday after the election, where "dozens of civil servants sat all day waiting to deliver briefings" to Trump's transition team about their agencies' role and responsibilities, "that would, in the end, never be heard."

Some of the people that Trump has nominated for key government posts Lewis views as deeply troubling.

Take Trump's choice to head National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Commerce Department agency that, among other responsibilities, oversees the National Weather Service. For that critical position, Trump has chosen Barry Myers, who is CEO of the private forecasting service AccuWeather. As Lewis points out, AccuWeather repackages the weather service's own data and sells it to private concerns for a profit. Myers at one time argued that "the government should get out of the forecasting business." In other words, you want to know if it's going to rain tomorrow? Or which way that hurricane is tracking? Well, buy our app, or subscribe to our forecasts. Myers has yet to be confirmed.

In a previous book, the bestselling Moneyball, Lewis tracked how smart baseball minds were changing the game with the use of data and analytics. In The Fifth Risk (the risk posed by incompetent government leaders), Lewis turns his attention to government data collection, including weather information and the census (which, as we rapidly approach the 2020 decennial census, also lacks a permanent director).

Smart government scientists and techs have been mining this data to protect Americans. But Lewis reports (as have others), a lot of government data is now disappearing from government websites, data on climate change at the EPA, on animal abuse at the Department of Agriculture, on violent crime at the Department of Justice. "Under each act of data suppression," Lewis writes, "usually lay a narrow commercial motive: a gun lobbyist, a coal company, a poultry company."

Government may be too big and the bureaucracy too complex, but Lewis delves into its critical missions: to protect us from threats, including nuclear weapons proliferation, devastating tornadoes, and foodborne illnesses; and to efficiently distribute services and benefits to those needing a hand — whether from Federal Emergency Management Agency or food stamps.

The Fifth Risk meanders a bit, with a few profiles of earnest government workers that are interesting, but then lead us to another earnest government worker. Still this is a slight criticism. Lewis tells an important and timely story, one that all of us who pay for, care about, and want government to work should hear.

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