The lat­est book from the best­selling author of ‘The Big Short’ ex­plores the world’s most im­por­tant govern­ment sys­tem, as run by the least ex­pe­ri­enced pres­i­dent in US his­tory

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW - Suzanne Lynch

In Jan­uary 2017 Joe Hezir, t he mild-man­nered chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer of the US Depart­ment of En­ergy was work­ing qui­etly in his of­fice in Wash­ing­ton DC. As the days passed, he ex­pected a call from the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion ask­ing him to stay on in his job. Though an Obama-era ap­pointee, the per­son­nel of one ad­min­is­tra­tion typ­i­cally stay on to help the in­com­ing team, of­ten for more than a year.

But “the call never came”, writes Michael Lewis in his new book, The Fifth

Risk. “No one even let him know his ser­vices were no longer re­quired. Not know­ing what else to do, but with­out any­one to re­place him, the [chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer] of a $ 30 bil­lion op­er­a­tion just [ upped] and left.”

The depar­ture of US of­fi­cials like Hezir, and the ut­ter chaos that ac­com­pa­nied the as­cent of Don­ald Trump to the pres­i­dency of the United States within the fed­eral govern­ment, is the sub­ject of Michael Lewis’s new book.

The best- sell­ing author shot to fame with books such as The Big Short and Flash

boys, which re­vealed the in­ner work­ings of the fi­nan­cial sys­tem. They were based on his own stint on Wall Street as a highly-paid in­vest­ment banker, be­fore he aban­doned his ca­reer and fol­lowed his dream of writ­ing full-time.

As a writer with a knack for tack­ling ar­cane and of­ten com­plex sub­jects and mak­ing them pre­sentable for a gen­eral au­di­ence, Lewis’s lat­est book fo­cuses on fed­eral agen­cies – the sprawl­ing civil ser­vice that un­der­pins the work­ing of the US govern­ment.

As he ex­plains in a phone in­ter­view from his home in Berke­ley, Cal­i­for­nia, the ge­n­e­sis of the book was two-fold.

“A cou­ple of things hap­pened at the end of 2016. I had just fin­ished The Un­do­ing

Project, my book on No­bel Prize- win­ners Daniel Kah­ne­man and Amos Tver­sky, who stud­ied peo­ple and risk, so I was think­ing about the con­cept of how peo­ple mis­judge risk in sys­temic ways.”

“Then Trump is elected, and I saw how he ap­proached run­ning the govern­ment. The United States govern­ment is – among other things – a port­fo­lio of risks that are con­stantly be­ing man­aged, most of them re­mote, cat­a­strophic risks like pan­demics or nat­u­ral disasters.

“And I re­alised, Trump has am­pli­fied all these risks, and the Amer­i­can peo­ple are not pay­ing much at­ten­tion. They’re talk­ing about Trump but they’re not talk­ing about the ef­fect of Trump on the things he is sup­posed to be run­ning.”

Un­der the bon­net

Lewis packed his bags and headed to Wash­ing­ton in a quest to get un­der the bon­net of the grand machin­ery of the US govern­ment.

His jour­ney led him into the dusty cor­ri­dors and rooms of govern­ment de­part­ments, to off-the-record meet­ings with govern­ment em­ploy­ees who were scared to go pub­lic with their con­cerns, and con­ver­sa­tions with se­nior fig­ures in Trump’s or­bit be­fore he fell out with them, such as for­mer New Jer­sey gover­nor Chris Christie and Bre­it­bart founder Steve Ban­non.

“The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, like pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tions, pre­pared these mas­sive brief­ings to hand over to the Trump peo­ple, and the Trump peo­ple did not care enough to show up to the brief­ings,” he says. “Then it oc­curred to me: I can go and get the brief­ings. I can get the in­for­ma­tion that the Trump peo­ple did not bother to seek out, and drama­tise for the Amer­i­can peo­ple what is go­ing on.”

The re­sult is a re­mark­able in­sight into the world’s most im­por­tant govern­ment sys­tem as it grap­ples with one of the most in­ex­pe­ri­enced pres­i­dents in US his­tory.

The book con­tains vivid and some­times funny anec­dotes re­veal­ing the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s un­ortho­dox ap­proach to gov­er­nance.

It opens with a por­trait of the tran­si­tion pe­riod – the two- month pe­riod be­tween the 2016 Novem­ber elec­tion and Trump’s in­au­gu­ra­tion in Jan­uary – when the in­com­ing pres­i­dent is re­quired by law to set up a tran­si­tion team. Christie, who was ap­pointed by Trump to man­age the tran­si­tion pe­riod be­fore be­ing fired over dif­fer­ences with Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kush­ner, is try­ing to bat­tle Trump, who is rag­ing against the need to em­ploy re­sources to pre­pare for pres­i­dency.

The rea­son? He never ex­pected to win. “Why study for a test you’ll never need to take?” writes Lewis

Af­ter Trump fires Christie and takes over the tran­si­tion him­self, the Trump team moves to Wash­ing­ton. But as the vast machin­ery of the fed­eral govern­ment awaits in­struc­tions, none ar­rive. Not only does the in­com­ing team fail to show up to sched­uled meet­ings, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion also pushes through i ts own po­lit­i­cal ap­pointees, many with lit­tle ex­pe­ri­ence.

Weather man

Barry My­ers, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of Ac­cuWeather – a com­mer­cial weather fore­caster – is nom­i­nated by Trump to lead the Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion, a govern­ment agency that in­cludes the Na­tional Weather Ser­vice – de­spite the fact that his com­pany had been try­ing to curb the au­thor­ity of the na­tional weather agency for decades.

One of­fi­cial in the Depart­ment of En­ergy de­scribes re­ceiv­ing a call in­form­ing her that her of­fice was now be­ing oc­cu­pied by Eric Trump’s brother- in- law. “Why? No one knew,” writes Lewis.

But while much of the book’s strength is the in­sight it gives to the in­ner work­ings of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, The Fifth Risk is also a se­ri­ous ex­plo­ration of the work done by govern­ment agen­cies – a rad­i­cal propo­si­tion in a coun­try that of­ten views the ad­min­is­tra­tive state with sus­pi­cion, par­tic­u­larly in Repub­li­can pol­i­tics.

Lewis fo­cuses in par­tic­u­lar on three Govern­ment de­part­ments – De­part­ments of En­ergy, Agri­cul­ture and Com­merce – whose head­quar­ters are lo­cated in the grand aus­tere build­ings that line the streets of Wash­ing­ton, just blocks from the White House.

The he­roes in Lewis’s book are not the well-known names of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion but or­di­nary, hard-work­ing ca­reer civil ser­vants who have cho­sen to work for the US govern­ment for rel­a­tively low pay.

The book is peo­pled with characters such as Kevin Con­can­non, the son of Ir­ish em­i­grants who grew up in a work­ing-class fam­ily of seven in Port­land, Maine. He ran the govern­ment depart­ment re­spon­si­ble for the school lunch pro­gramme, which dis­trib­uted food to fam­i­lies in need across the coun­try. His call to pub­lic ser­vice was spurred in part by a visit by two so­cial work­ers to his fam­ily who sug­gested new med­i­ca­tion for his brother, who had schizophre­nia, an early les­son in how the fed­eral govern­ment could help those in need.

No virtues

As for Lewis’s views on Trump two years af­ter his elec­tion, Lewis is un­equiv­o­cal. “It’s just a catas­tro­phe. He is a catas­tro­phe of a hu­man be­ing. I can­not think of a sin­gle hu­man virtue he pos­sesses. He has, as a rule, taken the United States govern­ment, which is deal­ing with long-term prob­lems, and has shifted ev­ery­body’s fo­cus to the next few hours. It’s go­ing to take peo­ple a while to re­alise how bad this is. The costs are go­ing to be paid for gen­er­a­tions.”

Lewis is equally de­spon­dent when it comes to his views on the mid- term elec­tions, now just a few weeks away.

“I had no idea how dis­turbed my coun­try was, and it re­mains dis­turbed. Even if the Democrats eke out vic­to­ries in the House and the Se­nate, we should not be any­where near this place. There shouldn’t be 35 or 40 per cent of the pub­lic that still has a kind thought for Don­ald Trump. He should be to­tally iso­lated at this point. He’s not. He can still get the crowds.”

He ac­cuses Trump of “de­stroy­ing what trust is left in a so­ci­ety. He has sys­tem­at­i­cally un­der­mined trust in the me­dia, un­der­mined trust in the elec­toral process, and now he has un­der­mined trust in the supreme court. I just wonder what’s left,” he says, be­fore adding, “the ob­vi­ous an­swer is fi­nan­cial.”

“Peo­ple still trust the dol­lar, trust the US trea­sury. I wonder how long it is go­ing to be un­til he man­ages to un­der­mine that.”

As we talk, it is clear that Lewis is back in fa­mil­iar ter­ri­tory: the world of fi­nan­cial mar­kets that first pro­pelled his literary suc­cesses.

Fi­nan­cial risks

Ten years af­ter the col­lapse of Lehman Broth­ers, I ask him if he feels that the lessons of the crash have been learned.

“The bank­ing sys­tem is bet­ter reg­u­lated, much bet­ter cap­i­talised, so the like­li­hood of bank runs as be­ing the source of the next fi­nan­cial cri­sis has de­creased a lot.” The dan­gers of an­other fi­nan­cial crash lie in the po­lit­i­cal realm, he be­lieves. For ex­am­ple, if the US govern­ment were to make a provoca­tive move on China, that could se­verely dis­rupt the fi­nan­cial world.

Ul­ti­mately, how­ever, he be­lieves that the real im­pact of the fi­nan­cial cri­sis was po­lit­i­cal.

“The re­sponse to the fi­nan­cial cri­sis showed ev­ery­body in Amer­ica that the sys­tem was rigged in favour of the elites. Ev­ery­body else has to live by the harsh rules of cap­i­tal­ism. This spawned those an­gry move­ments on the right and the left. They spawned the Tea Party, which is some of the core of the Trump sup­port, and it spawned the Bernie San­ders cam­paign. The two have a lot in com­mon.

“I think in the United States the drama of the fi­nan­cial cri­sis changed the pol­i­tics of the coun­try, for the worse, and made Trump pos­si­ble.”

Michael Lewis will be in Dublin on Novem­ber 8th for a pub­lic in­ter­view. Book­ing at il­f­dublin.com. The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis is pub­lished by Allen Lane, ¤25

Peo­ple still trust the dol­lar, trust the US trea­sury. I wonder how long it is go­ing to be un­til he man­ages to un­der­mine that


Author Michael Lewis: ‘[Don­ald Trump] has sys­tem­at­i­cally un­der­mined trust in the me­dia, un­der­mined trust in the elec­toral process, and now he has un­der­mined trust in the supreme court.’

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