Review: The Fifth Risk, by Michael Lewis

Russ Allbery eagle at
Mon Jun 29 23:03:51 PDT 2020

The Fifth Risk
by Michael Lewis

Publisher: W.W. Norton
Copyright: 2018
Printing:  2019
ISBN:      0-393-35745-7
Format:    Kindle
Pages:     254

The Fifth Risk starts with the presidential transition. Max Stier, the
first person profiled by Lewis in this book, is the founder of the
Partnership for Public Service. That foundation helped push through
laws to provide more resources and structure for the transition of the
United States executive branch from one president to the next. The goal
was to fight wasted effort, unnecessary churn, and pointless disruption
in the face of each administration's skepticism about everyone who
worked for the previous administration.

  "It's Groundhog Day," said Max. "The new people come in and think
  that the previous administration and the civil service are lazy or
  stupid. Then they actually get to know the place they are managing.
  And when they leave, they say, 'This was a really hard job, and
  those are the best people I've ever worked with.' This happens over
  and over and over."

By 2016, Stier saw vast improvements, despite his frustration with
other actions of the Obama administration. He believed their transition
briefings were one of the best courses ever produced on how the federal
government works. Then that transition process ran into Donald Trump.

Or, to be more accurate, that transition did not run into Donald Trump,
because neither he nor anyone who worked for him were there. We'll
never know how good the transition information was because no one ever
listened to or read it. Meetings were never scheduled. No one showed

This book is not truly about the presidential transition, though,
despite its presence as a continuing theme. The Fifth Risk is, at its
heart, an examination of government work, the people who do it, why it
matters, and why you should care about it. It's a study of the
surprising and misunderstood responsibilities of the departments of the
United States federal government. And it's a series of profiles of the
people who choose this work as a career, not in the upper offices of
political appointees, but deep in the civil service, attempting to keep
that system running.

I will warn now that I am far too happy that this book exists to be
entirely objective about it. The United States desperately needs basic
education about the government at all levels, but particularly the
federal civil service. The public impression of government employees is
skewed heavily towards the small number of public-facing positions and
towards paperwork frustrations, over which the agency usually has no
control because they have been sabotaged by Congress (mostly by
Republicans, although the Democrats get involved occasionally). Mental
images of who works for the government are weirdly selective. The Coast
Guard could say "I'm from the government and I'm here to help" every
day, to the immense gratitude of the people they rescue, but Reagan was
still able to use that as a cheap applause line in his attack on
government programs.

Other countries have more functional and realistic social attitudes
towards their government workers. The United States is trapped in a
politically-fueled cycle of contempt and ignorance. It has to stop. And
one way to help stop it is someone with Michael Lewis's story-telling
skills writing a different narrative.

The Fifth Risk is divided into a prologue about presidential
transitions, three main parts, and an afterword (added in current
editions) about a remarkable government worker whom you likely
otherwise would never hear about. Each of the main parts talks about a
different federal department: the Department of Energy, the Department
of Agriculture, and the Department of Commerce. In keeping with the
theme of the book, the people Lewis profiles do not do what you might
expect from the names of those departments.

Lewis's title comes from his discussion with John MacWilliams, a former
Goldman Sachs banker who quit the industry in search of more personally
meaningful work and became the chief risk officer for the Department of
Energy. Lewis asks him for the top five risks he sees, and if you know
that the DOE is responsible for safeguarding nuclear weapons, you will
be able to guess several of them: nuclear weapons accidents, North
Korea, and Iran. If you work in computer security, you may share his
worry about the safety of the electrical grid. But his fifth risk was
project management. Can the government follow through on long-term
hazardous waste safety and cleanup projects, despite constant political
turnover? Can it attract new scientists to the work of nuclear
non-proliferation before everyone with the needed skills retires? Can
it continue to lay the groundwork with basic science for innovation
that we'll need in twenty or fifty years? This is what the Department
of Energy is trying to do.

Lewis's profiles of other departments are similarly illuminating. The
Department of Agriculture is responsible for food stamps, the most
effective anti-poverty program in the United States with the possible
exception of Social Security. The section on the Department of Commerce
is about weather forecasting, specifically about NOAA (the National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). If you didn't know that all of
the raw data and many of the forecasts you get from weather apps and
web sites are the work of government employees, and that AccuWeather
has lobbied Congress persistently for years to prohibit the NOAA from
making their weather forecasts public so that AccuWeather can charge
you more for data your taxes already paid for, you should read this
book. The story of American contempt for government work is partly
about ignorance, but it's also partly about corporations who claim all
of the credit while selling taxpayer-funded resources back to you at
absurd markups.

The afterword I'll leave for you to read for yourself, but it's the
story of Art Allen, a government employee you likely have never heard
of but whose work for the Coast Guard has saved more lives than we are
able to measure. I found it deeply moving.

If you, like I, are a regular reader of long-form journalism and watch
for new Michael Lewis essays in particular, you've probably already
read long sections of this book. By the time I sat down with it, I
think I'd read about a third in other forms on-line. But the profiles
that I had already read were so good that I was happy to read them
again, and the additional stories and elaboration around previously
published material was more than worth the cost and time investment in
the full book.

  It was never obvious to me that anyone would want to read what had
  interested me about the United States government. Doug Stumpf, my
  magazine editor for the past decade, persuaded me that, at this
  strange moment in American history, others might share my

I'll join Michael Lewis in thanking Doug Stumpf.

The Fifth Risk is not a proposal for how to fix government, or
politics, or polarization. It's not even truly a book about the Trump
presidency or about the transition. Lewis's goal is more basic: The
United States government is full of hard-working people who are doing
good and important work. They have effectively no public relations
department. Achievements that would result in internal and external
press releases in corporations, not to mention bonuses and promotions,
go unnoticed and uncelebrated. If you are a United States citizen, this
is your government and it does important work that you should care
about. It deserves the respect of understanding and thoughtful
engagement, both from the citizenry and from the politicians we elect.

Rating: 10 out of 10

Reviewed: 2020-06-29


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

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