The Fifth Risk, by Michael Lewis – TwoMorePages Book Review

The Fifth Risk, by Michael Lewis – TwoMorePages Book Review

“Holy shit, that department does WHAT?!” This was basically the recurring theme of this book for me.

I’m not sure why I even doubted I’d like this book. I loved Michael Lewis’s books, Flash Boys, The Big Short, Liar’s Poker – and I am obviously interested in all things shitting on Trump. So if you combine those two things into one book, why wouldn’t I love The Fifth Risk?

I learned a ton of things in this book –

  1. The Department of Energy is responsible for:
    • nuclear non-proliferation
    • spending billions on cleaning up an area where we tested the A-bombs (side note – an area which voted for Trump despite their entire economy depending on federal funding. WHAT?! O.o)
    • weapons testing – specifically, bomb development
    • the technology that created fracking! It jump starts projects that eventually change the world!
  2. The Department of Agriculture is responsible for:
    • Fighting Wildfires
    • Managing 193 million acres of national forest and grasslands
    • Inspecting all the animals Americans eat
    • Enrichment programs in rural America, including free school lunch for children
    • The ENTIRE FOOD STAMP PROGRAM
  3. The Department of Commerce is the biggest collector of data in the world – and has very little to do with commerce
    • NOAA falls under it, and is responsible for predicting the weather
    • The Census falls under it,  affecting voter representation
    • The Patent and Trademark Office falls under it, tracking all the country’s inventions
    • The National Institute of Standards and Technology falls under it, setting building standards

Hello! Rachel here, in blue again, and I would like to echo that I learned a ton from this book. (And I was a political science major and I’m going to public policy school so that’s saying something about how obscure some of this stuff is.) But anyways, my general takeaway is that anyone who reads this book is far far more qualified to be president than the current occupant of the White House. And it is capital S scary all the current Administration does not know or care to know. Like, y’all, some of the stuff Lewis talks about is “keep-you-up-at-night, ready-to-build-a-fallout-shelter-if-people-start-ignoring-it” kind of stuff. 

Bungled Transitions

“People don’t understand that a bungled transition becomes a bungled presidency.”

“A bad transition took this entire portfolio of catastrophic risks – the biggest portfolio of risks ever managed by a single institution in the history of the world – and made all the bad things more likely to happen and the good things less likely to happen.”

Of course Donald Trump bungled the transition. He didn’t expect to win, and so made no preparations for that possibility. I’m not surprised about that.

“Day 1, we’re ready to go. Day 2 it was, ‘Maybe they’ll call us?'”
– The transition team at the Department of Energy

“No one showed up that first day after the election, or the next. This was strange: the day after he was elected, Obama had sent his people into the USDA, as had Bush.

At the end of the second day, the folks at the Department of Agriculture called the White House to ask what was going on.

“The White House said they’d be here Monday,” recalled one. On Monday morning they worked themselves up all over again into a welcoming spirit. Again, no one showed. Not that entire week.

On November 22, Leftwich made a cameo appearance for about an hour. “We had though, Rural America is who got Trump elected, so he’ll have to make us a priority,” said the transition planner, “but then nothing happened.”

Get to Know the US Government had not been high on Donald Trump’s to-do list, even after he learned that he’d be running it. On the Monday after the presidential election, the same thing that had happened across the rest of the US government happened inside the Department of Commerce: nothing.

Dozens of civil servants sat all day waiting to deliver briefings tha twould, in the end, never be heard. They’d expected Trump’s campaign organization to send in landing Teams to learn about what was being done there, and why.

The problems that had been Obama’s problems for the past eight years were about to become Trump’s problems. But his people didn’t seem to want to know about them.

“They just didn’t bring any bodies in at all,” says a senior Commerce official.

“A lunch or two with the CFO might have alerted the new administration to some of the terrifying risks they were leaving essentially unmanaged.” 

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What I *am* surprised about is that he sent NO ONE to try to transition several important departments for a long, long time.

Obama did everything possible to get his department heads to prep to make the transition as easy as possible and Trump shat on all of it. Didn’t even send people to go learn.

Because of fucking course he did.

Trump was going to handle the transition more or less by himself. Not even Steve Bannon thought this was a good idea. “I was fucking nervous as shit,” Bannon later told friends. “I go, ‘Holy fuck, this guy [Trump] doesn’t know anything. And he doesn’t give a shit.” 

Look, as I’ve said before, if Steve Bannon thinks your idea is a bad idea, it’s probably an awful idea. Also, Steve Bannon has friends? 

Maliciously Breaking Things

And when he *finally* sent people to go learn things, this is what his appointee to the Department of Energy asked?

“Can you provide a list of all Department of Energy employees or contractors who have attended any Interagency Working Group on the Social Cost of Carbon meetings?

Can you provide a list of Department employees or contractors who attended any of the Conference of the Parties (Under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) in the last five years?”

You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.

Honestly I can’t say I was surprised that this was there first instinct on contact with one of the “science-y” departments, but it still made me madder than hell. I’m glad it got compared to McCarthyism, but also no one in the general public seemed to care. And, if that isn’t a call to action on making people knowledgeable about climate change, I don’t know what is. 

They’d eventually delete the contact list with the email addresses of all DOE-funded scientists – apparently to make it more difficult for them to communicate with one another.

“That, in a nutshell, was the spirit of the Trump enterprise. “It reminded me of McCarthyism…”

Holy shit, it gets worse?!!?! And that was only at the Department of Energy. At the US Department of Agriculture…

They sent certified letters to several senior career civil servants perceived to be close to the Obama administration, telling them they were being reassigned – from jobs they were good at to jobs they knew little about.

They instructed the staff to stop using the phrase “climate change.” They removed the inspection reports on businesses that abused animals – roadside circuses, puppy mills, research labs – from the department’s website.

When reporters from National Geographic  contacted the USDA to ask what was going on with animal-abuse issues, “they told us all of this information was public, except now you had to FOIA it,” said Rachael Bale. “We asked for the files, and they sent us 1700 completely blacked-out pages.”

…The Trump Administration – just fucking things up because…? Fuck you that’s why.

“It’s not really the Department of Commerce,” said the Bush official. “It’s mission is a science and technology mission.”

“Yeah, I don’t think I want to be focusing on that,” said Ross [Trump’s appointee to head the Department of Commerce]

The above line by Ross actually killed me. But, since I’m mad at Ross, everyone should know that he’s lied to Forbes for more than 15 years about how much he is worth – he overstated his wealth by over 2 BILLION DOLLARS. How’s that for a good businessman. 

The Department of Energy

So, speaking of the Department of Energy, this book was eye opening as to how important the work of some Departments is.

“My team prepared its own books. They were never given to anybody. I never had a chance to sit with the Trump people and tell them what we’re doing, even for a day. And I’d have done it for weeks. I think this was a sad thing. There are things you want to know that would keep you up at night. And I never talked to anyone about them.”

– MacWilliams, of the DoE

Things like what, you might ask?

The list of things that might go wrong inside the DOE was endless.

  • The driver of a heavily armed unit assigned to move plutonium around the country was pulled over, on the job, for drunk driving.
  • An 82 year old nun cut through the perimeter fence of a caility in tennessee that housed weapons-grade nuclear material.
  • A medical facility ordered a speck of plutonium for rsearch, and a weapons-lab clerk misplaced a decimal point and FedExed the researchers a chunk of hte stuff so big it should have been under armed guard – whereupon the horrified medical researchers tried to FedEx it back.

Or…

“Broken Arrow” is a military term of art for a nuclear accident that doesn’t lead to a nuclear war. MacWilliams.

A pair of 4-megaton hydrogen bombs, each more than 250 times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, broke off a damaged B-52 over North Carolina. One of the bombs disintegrated upon impact, but the otehr floated down beneath its parachute and armed itself.

It was later found in a field outside Goldsboro, North Carolina, with three of its four safety mechanisms tripped or rendered ineffective by the plane’s breakup. Had the fourth switch flipped, a vast section of eastern North Carolina would have been destroyed, and nuclear fallotu might have descended on Washington DC and New York City.

“The reason it’s worth thinking about this, the reason that bomb didn’t go off was because of all the safety devices on the bombs, designed by what is now DOE.”

So yeah, disaster prevention is a big part of the DoE’s mission. I never knew that. I assumed that well…it mostly dealt with fossil fuel or electricty regulations, you know – energy.

Oh, speaking of disaster prevention –

“These [DoE] labs are incredible national resources, and they are directly responsible for keeping us safe. It’s because of of them that we can say with absolute certainty that Iran cannot surprise us with a nuclear weapon.”

After the [Iran] deal was done, US Army officers had approached DoE officials to thank them for saving American lives.

The serious risk in Iran wasn’t that the Iranians would secretly acquire a weapon. It was that the President of the United States would not understand his nuclear scientists’ reasoning about the unlikelihood of the Iranians’ obtaining a weapon, and that he would have the United States back away foolishly from the deal. Released from the complicated set of restrictions on its nuclear-power program, Iran would then build its bomb.

Ah, well. Fuck.

Yeah, well, never mind science, we’ll deal with Iran, I could hear some Trump person thinking to himself.”

Never mind the science? What the hell?!? Always mind the science! Always!

And who is in charge of all this scary stuff going down at DOE? Oh, you know, only the former Texas Governor and short-lived presidential candidate who wanted to ax the DOE but couldn’t remember he actually wanted to do that and really had absolutely no clue what the DOE did. Oops. 

“[Perry’s] sporadic public communications have had in them something of the shell-shocked grandmother trying to preside over a pleasant family Thanksgiving dinner while pretending that her blind-drunk husband isn’t standing naked on the dining-room table waving the carving knife over his head.”

I think it’s up to us to imagine who might be the naked knife wielding grandfather, except wait, no, don’t do that, it’s an image you really don’t want in your head. 

Okay, well only worry about what you can control, right? Let’s talk about things the DoE does that are NOT disaster related:

Government has always played a major role in innovation. Early-stage innovation in most industries would not have been possible without government support in a variety of ways, and it’s especially true in energy. So the notion that we are just going to privatize early-stage innovation is ridiculous. Other countries are outspending us in R&D, and we are going to pay a price.

Fracking – to take one example – was not the brainchild of private-sector research, btu the fruit of research paid for 20 years ago by the DoE.

“The private sector only steps in once DoE shows it can work.”

Wait – whaaaaat? The Department of Energy directly subsidizes innovation? I don’t know why that wasn’t obvious to me – technological innovation is in the public’s interest, so of course government would be involved in that.

But to have something so close to Texas’s economy – fracking – come from the DoE labs is…well, humbling. I bet if you went out and asked 100 conservative oil and gas workers if they knew that, 98% of them would say no.

Well, I guess I should say…the Department of Energy *did* subsidize innovation –

“Pound for pound, dollar for dollar, activity for activity, it’s hard to find a more effective thing government has done that ARPA-E. [the DoE’s research grant program that subsidizes innovation – it invented Kevlar, for instance].
– Fred Smith, Republican founder of FedEx

  • Trump’s first budget eliminated ARPA-E altogether.
  • It also eliminated the spectacularly successful $70 billion loan program.
  • It cut funding to the national labs in a way that implies the laying off of 6000 of their people.
  • It eliminated all research on climate change.
  • It halved the funding for work to secure the electrical grid form attack of natural disaster.

“All the risks are science-based. You can’t gut the science. If you do, you are hurting the country. If you gut the core competency of the DoE, you gut the country.”

But you can. Indeed, if you are seeking to preserve a certain worldview, it actually helps to gut science. Trump’s budget, like the social forces behind it, is powered by a perverse desire – to remain ignorant. Donald Trump didn’t invent this desire. He was just its ultimate expression.

*sigh*. We are going to be recovering from this administration for the rest of my adult life.

This is what really got me. It’s a huge pet peeve of mine when people claim about “too much government intervention” in their lives, and I just want to scream “DO YOU KNOW WHAT OUR LIVES WOULD BE LIKE WITHOUT IT?!!??!!” We wouldn’t have safe electricity and power, no clean water, no clean food, no weather forecasting (which if you don’t think is important consider how often you check the weather), no life-saving drugs, etc. 

The Department of Agriculture

There’s a drinking game played by people who have worked at the Department of Agriculture: Does the USDA do it? Someone names an odd function of government (say, shooting fireworks at Canada geese that flock too near airport runways) and someone else has to guess if the USDA does it. (In this case, it does).

Okay, got me again. I assumed that the USDA would … focus on Agriculture. They fight forest fires?! They manage the free lunch program for kids? They manage loan portfolios in rural areas? (okay, that last one at least kind of makes sense)

“Of all the budgets USDA’s is the weirdest.” It was weird, first, because the USDA did so many different things. It was weird because so many Americans had no idea how much their lives depended upon it. And it was weird because of the sheer sums of money sloshing around the place, dispensed by government employees no one had ever heard of.

USDA.PNG

Okay, so, we’ve established that the USDA does a lot of shit. What kind of shit? Shit like:

  • Fighting Wildfires
  • Managing 193 million acres of national forest and grasslands
  • Inspecting all the animals Americans eat
  • Enrichment programs in rural America, including free school lunch for children
  • The ENTIRE FOOD STAMP PROGRAM

Similar to the DoE, the USDA touches peoples lives and most of them don’t even know it.

As the USDA’s loans were usually made through local banks, the people on the receiving end of them were often unaware of where the money was coming from. There were many stories very like the one Tom Vilsack told, about a loan they had made, in Minnesota, to a government-shade-throwing, Fox News-watching, small-town businessman.

The bank held a ceremony and the guy would up being interviewed by the local paper. “He’s telling the reporter how proud he is to have done it on his own,” said Vilsack. “The USDA person goes to introduce herself, and he says, ‘So, who are you?’ She says, “I’m the USDA person.’ He asks, ‘What are you doing here?’ She says “Well, sir, we supplied the money you are announcing.’ He was white as a sheet.”

In the red Southern states, the mayor sometimes would say, “Can you not mention that the government gave this?” Even when it was saving lives, or preserving communities, the government remained oddly invisible.

“It’s just a misunderstanding of the system,” said Salerno. “We don’t teach people what government actually does.”

“Georgia was usually a problem. Texas, too. “If they ran any of their football teams the way they run their food program, they’d fire the coach.” 

Ouch, yikes. Although, maybe that’s how we get Texas et. al. on board: compare the food program to football. Worth a shot, right?

It is the greatest of ironies that the people who usually rail against government the most are the ones that rely on it the most.

Well, at least I’ll get to experience some schaudenfraude.

“I worked in the little box in the government most responsible for helping the people who elected Trump. And they literally took my little box off the organization chart.”
– Lillian Salerno, USDA

“What she fears isn’t so much the bad intentions of the people who fill the jobs she once did. She fears their seeming commitment to scientific ignorance.”

Why, why ignore the science. Science makes our lives so so so much easier, I promise y’all. 

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Bunch of gullible idiots…

Department of Commerce

Like so many US government agencies, the Department of Commerce is seriously misnamed. It has almost nothing to do with commerce directly and is actually forbidden by law from engaging in business.

“Commerce is one of the most misunderstood jobs in the cabinet, because everyone thinks it works with business. It produces public good that are of value to business, but that’s different. Every secretary who comes in thinks Commerce does trade. But trade is maybe 10% of what Commerce does – if that.”
-Rebecca Blank, former acting Commerce Secretary

Remember how I said “wait, that department does WHAT?” was a recurring theme from this book? Responsibilities of the Commerce Department:

  • NOAA falls under it, and is responsible for predicting the weather
  • The Census falls under it,  affecting voter representation
  • The Patent and Trademark Office falls under it, tracking all the country’s inventions
  • The National Institute of Standards and Technology falls under it, setting building standards

Wtf? We use weather forecasts EVERY DAY at work, and our fundamental data comes from the department of commerce? That’s news to me.

The census? That REALLY IMPORTANT thing that determines how many representatives each state gets in the US House? That’s *also* in the Commerce Department?!

Okay, let’s focus on NOAA because, well, it’s half the department’s budget, and because I literally use their data EVERY DAY at work unknowingly.

“NOAA is a beast. It’s 12,000 employees and they are decentralized – out in these little tiny offices all over the country. But it does more to protect Americans than any other agency except for Homeland Security and the Department of Defense.

It’s incredible value and everyone shits on it. The people are great. They aren’t in it for the money. They’re in it for the mission.”

  -A Senior Bush official, explaining the importance of NOAA to incoming Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross

12 THOUSAND employees? If you had asked me about this before I read this book, I’d think it might be a couple dozen meteorologists. But then again, that’s before I figured out that the Commerce Department basically specializes in big data. It makes sense that they would have a ton of data collection employees.

“The more people have access to the weather data, the better it is for the country. There’s so much gold in there. People just don’t know how to get to it.”
– Bush official, in advising Trump on who to pick to run NOAA

And all the data that the Commerce Department collects is applicable in other scenarios as well. It’s not just weather data. All you have to do is give people access:

  • Data scientists in the DHS figured out there was an opioid crisis by discovering odd concentrations of opioid prescriptions.
  • Stanford researchers used data to answer the question “How likely is it that an American child will be better off than his parents?” – using census data allowed the researchers to control for race, gender, and other traits.
    • Results side note – A white child born into the upper income quintile was 5x more likely to stay there than to fall to the bottom. A black child born into the upper-income quintile was as likely to fall to the bottom quintile as to remain rich. WHAT?! O.o
    • Also, 90% of children born in 1940 went on to earn more than their parents. 50% of children born in the 1980s did. I wonder what the information will look like going forward.
  • White House researchers also tried to answer the question: “What causes excessive use of police force?”
    • Results side note – black and white people actually get pulled over at the same rate. But black people get searched significantly more. (the first half was surprising to me)
    • Also, the data was able to pinpoint which officers pulled over blacks at higher rates, some at rates 10x higher than “normal”. That seems helpful.

“David [of NOAA] showed Google and Amazon and Microsoft that there was a business case for taking it. Until we got it up, no one was able to reprocess the data.”

Another ENTIRE INDUSTRY spawned by government. Mind. Blown.

After Trump took office, DJ Patil watched with wonder as teh data disappeared across the federal government. Both the Environmental Protection Agency adn the Department of the Interior removed from their websites the links to climate change data.

The USDA removed the inspection reports of businesses accused of animal abuse by the government. The new acting head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Mick Mulvaney, said he wanted to end public access to records of consumer complaints against financial institutions.

Two weeks after Hurricane Maria, statistics that detailed access to drinking water and electricity in Puerto Rico were deleted from the FEMA website.

In a piece for FiveThirtyEight, Clare Malone and Jeff Asher pointed out that the first annual crime report released by the FBI under Trump was missing nearly 3/4 of the data tables from the previous year.

So of fucking course Trump fucked it up. -.-

And it wasn’t broken accidentally…

“There was nothing arbitrary or capricious about the Trump administration’s attitude toward public data. Under each act of data suppression usually lay a narrow commercial motive: a gun lobbyist, a coal company, a poultry company.

“The NOAA webpage used to have a link to weather forecasts,” DJ said. “It was highly, highly popular. I saw it had been buried. And I asked: Now, why would they bury that?” Then he realized: the man Trump nominated to run NOAA thought that people who wanted a weather forecast should have to pay him for it.

There was a rift in American life that was now coursing through American government. It wasn’t between Democrats and Republicans. It was between the people who were in it for the mission, and the people who were in it for the money.

Speaking of Barry Myers and his attempt to take down NOAA: “Pause a moment to consider the audacity of that maneuver. A private company whose weather predictions were usually dependent on the billions of dollars spent by the U.S. taxpayer to gather the data necessary for those predictions, and on decades of intellectual weather work sponsored by the U.S. taxpayer, and on 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 fro what the National Weather Service might be able to tell him or her for free. 

If that doesn’t make you tear out your hair, I don’t know…

We are in the middle of a technological revolution surrounding data and Trump is intentionally handicapping our country at its knees to help his cronies. “Drain the swamp” my ass.

Conclusion

I learned a LOT in this book, a lot about the work of government agencies that I was only vaguely familiar with before; a lot about entire industries that sprang forth from the loins of government (fracking, data analysis, weather predictions); a lot about just how ignorant Rick Perry was when he said he wanted to get rid of the Department of Commerce and the Department of Energy.

…and a lot about how Trump’s administration is purposefully breaking all these things. I keep thinking that there is nothing more that I could learn about Trump that could make me hate him more. And I am consistently proven wrong.

But I’m going to try to focus on the more positive aspects of the book. The unsung heroes Michael Lewis described that manage the food stamp program, that work to make government data accessible to the public, that try to warn people about weather emergencies; that prevent nuclear disaster from befalling the public; that move the needle of innovation and invention forward.

I’m glad I read this book, and it makes me appreciate government way more than I ever did before.

More than that, it’ll give me some factual examples of good government work next time some idiot accuses me of loving big government. “Do you like your weather forecasts? Do you like FRACKING and cheap oil prices? Do you like your small town funded loan through your podunk little bank?” WELL THEN YOU LIKE GOVERNMENT TOO ASSHOLE.

(Side note – I’ve become a lot more hateful as of late. Do I need to worry about this, Rachel?) Nah, deep breathes…deep breathes…except this book made me madder than usual too. 

Anyway, chalk another winner up to Michael Lewis. Making me learn more about the world, one book at a time.

In conclusion, 2/2 would recommend. 

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