The Fifth Risk

Michael Lewis
Reading Order: Book 20
Categories: 2019, Erik Rostad
Pages: 219
Date Started: June 2, 2019
Date Finished: June 6, 2019
4h 19m 54s
Reason Book was Chosen: If Michael Lewis writes a book, there's a good chance I'm going to read it. This one is no exception.

My Thoughts

Here’s the basic premise of this book – most people have no idea what the major government agencies do on a regular basis. Each new presidential administration is supposed to appoint people to run these agencies. The Trump administration has not done so. Negative results will not necessarily occur in the short-term but more likely in the long term due to the lack of project management.

The potential for negative results due to project management is an interesting one. Project management is identified as the fifth risk by John MacWilliams for the purpose of this book. His other four along with the fifth are:

  1. Nuclear Weapons Accident
  2. North Korea
  3. Iran
  4. The Electric Grid
  5. Project Management

The reason that project management gets placed in there is because the political appointees that are supposed to be appointed to run the agencies are not being appointed by the Trump administration. There’s a lack of any leadership at these agencies. Talented employees are leaving in droves and so the risk is that important projects for the USA are not being managed.

For this book, Michael Lewis basically travels the country to meet with current and former government employees. They are all shocked at the lack of care of the Trump administration to even try to understand what the different government agencies do.

That’s basically what this book is about. Lewis finds out what different agencies do and then he asks each person he meets what worries them the most. Further to that, Lewis discusses the agencies where the Trump administration has not appointed anyone to run them, or worse, where they have appointed someone to run them.

Case in point, Trump appointed Rick Perry to run the Department of Energy. In this famous clip from the 2011 presidential debates, Perry listed three agencies he wanted to do away with. Energy was the 3rd, and he couldn’t for the life of him remember it:

There are other Trump political appointees with similar stories.

This scares Lewis and the government employees with whom he speaks. Even highly educated people don’t know what most of the governmental agencies do. In Trump’s assertion that most of the government is ineffectual, it may become more ineffectual by his very actions. His seeming lack of care is creating problems that could have tremendous consequences in the near future.

Here are some things I learned in this book:

  • The Department of Commerce has little to do with commerce and is forbidden by law from engaging in business
    • The Dept of Commerce runs the census
    • It collect economic stats
    • the Patent & Trade office is within it
    • the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is within it (and consumes $5 of the $9 billion yearly budget)
      • NOAA oversees the National Weather Service, where most weather outlets obtain their weather information
    • Lewis says it should be called the Department of Information or Data – collects troves of data that AI could use to improve many areas of life
  • The US government employs 2 million people who are basically managed by 4,000 political appointees. 70% of the employees work in national security in one way or another
  • Half of the Dept of Energy’s budget ($30 billion annual) is for guarding the nuclear arsenal
  • The Office of Science falls within the Department of Energy
  • The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) actually has very little to do with agriculture.
    • The Department of Agriculture is responsible for the safety of all meat
    • There are seven divisions within the USDA
      1. Natural Resources and Environment
      2. Food Safety
      3. Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services
      4. Research, Education, and Economics (Science)
      5. Rural Development
      6. Marketing and Regulatory Programs
      7. Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services
  • The biggest expense farmers have is fertilizer

This book made me want to learn more about the government and about what different agencies do. I’ve naively thought that a lot of the agencies could be done away with while not having any clue about what they actually do. That’s not a very informed opinion, and I should fix that.

Along those lines, here is a great quote to end with from Kathy Sullivan as highlighted in the book:

I’m routinely appalled by how profoundly ignorant even highly educated people are when it comes to the structure and function of our government. The sense of identity as Citizen has been replaced by Consumer. The idea that government should serve the citizens like a waiter or concierge, rather than in a ‘collective good’ sense.”

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Warnings Unheeded