Michael Lewis’ Frightening Account of Government in the Age of Trump

This article was updated on October 17 at approximately 7:15am ET to note that Barry Myers, who was nominated to run NOAA, was a lawyer and entrepreneur, not even a weather scientist.

Michael Lewis is such an engaging writer that it’s been said he could tell a gripping story about a piece of dirt in the road – beginning with the geological origins, several billion years ago, of the dirt’s mineral components. Lewis can write conservative (The Blind Side) and he can write liberal (“Obama’s Way”).1 He can turn nerdy statistical analysis into an entertaining story about baseball (Moneyball) – and the movie version got six Oscar nominations. As you already know, he can write about finance from any perspective you can imagine.

This time, apparently to test his gift for storytelling, Michael Lewis decided to write about government bureaucracy. Not at the highest levels of statecraft, which have a certain glamor, but in the weeds where the smaller decisions that affect people directly are made. In the weeds is where data on the weather is collected, stray nuclear material is tracked down and rural families in poverty are given a leg up. It’s also where a royal mess was made of the Hanford nuclear site in Washington state, and where what Lewis describes as the “failure of NASA to heed engineers’ warnings about how brittle the rings that sealed the solid rocket boosters could become in the cold” resulted in the destruction of the space shuttle Challenger.

Are you bored yet? If so, read Lewis’ book. His account of governance in the age of Donald Trump is frightening, inspiring, and surprisingly lively. Despite some disagreements with its political implications, I cannot recommend it enough.

A frightening and inspiring book

Why is The Fifth Risk frightening? Because Donald Trump, unlike his diligent predecessors George W. Bush and Barack Obama (both come out looking good in Lewis’ account), is aggressively uninterested in the machinery of government. He didn’t think he’d need a transition team: he had to be convinced by Chris Christie that it was against the law not to have one. Christie wound up heading the team until he was summarily fired six months later – by Steve Bannon. Lewis surprises us by saying that “Trump always avoided firing people himself. Mr. You’re Fired on TV avoided personal confrontation in real life.”

Two years into the Trump presidency, half of the 700 top positions that were supposed to be filled by presidential appointment remain vacant. And the lower-level jobs haven’t been handled well either: the Trump team’s inability to find people to do them means that about half of those jobs are being done by holdovers from the administration of his nemesis, Barack Obama.

Why is The Fifth Risk inspiring? Because it helps us see the expertise and dedication of a large number of modestly paid and technically skilled government employees who work in obscurity to keep the country safe, the machinery of thousands of pieces of the country’s infrastructure running, and the laws that protect us and our property enforced. Lewis’ biggest contribution in The Fifth Risk is to document these functions and explain why we cannot simply eliminate the ones we don’t like or would prefer not to fund.

What is the purpose of government?

We have to have a government. Only a nut would advocate for complete anarchy, the dismantling of national defense, or the complete abolition of the social safety net. The Trump administration seems committed, as are many Republicans and conservatives, to reducing the size of government without eliminating it, but Lewis argues convincingly that the president is doing this in the worst possible way. Lewis claims Trump doesn’t understand that the most important function of government is to keep Americans safe, especially from risks they aren’t aware of.