US bu­reau­cracy in tur­moil

Trump’s wan­ton ways pose a threat to an ap­pa­ra­tus whose pro­fes­sion­al­ism is taken for granted

The Hindu Business Line - - THINK - STANLY JOHNY

Amer­i­can au­thor Michael Lewis has a rep­u­ta­tion for writ­ing books on com­plex top­ics in sim­ple, en­ter­tain­ing for­mats. Hav­ing writ­ten best-sell­ters like Liar’s Poker (bond trad­ing), The Big Short (sub-prime cri­sis) and Money­ball (base­ball sta­tis­tics), Lewis has es­tab­lished him­self as a mas­ter sto­ry­teller of the non-fic­tion genre.

In his lat­est book, Fifth Risk ,he has picked a topic that’s nei­ther pop­u­lar nor too com­plex. But in a coun­try where pri­vate en­ter­prise is ev­ery­thing and govern­ment ser­vices are seen with a bit sus­pi­cion, Lewis tells the un­sung story of govern­ment de­part­ments.

“We don’t cel­e­brate the ac­com­plish­ments of govern­ment em­ploy­ees. They ex­ist in our so­ci­ety to take the blame,” he writes in the book. And the whole idea be­hind Fifth Risk, as it ap­pears, is to bring into light the ac­com­plish­ments of the govern­ment de­part­ments — be it clear­ing up the nu­clear waste, feed­ing mil­lions of poor ev­ery year or pre­vent­ing or sup­press­ing med­i­cal catas­tro­phes such as the 2015 out­break of bird flu.

The other risks

Lewis has in­ter­viewed many bu­reau­crats and other govern­ment level of­fi­cers for the book. In one of those con­ver­sa­tions, John McWil­liams, who served as a risk of­fi­cer at the Depart­ment of En­ergy, lists out to Lewis the five ma­jor risks the US is fac­ing.

The first is a nu­clear weapons ac­ci­dent, the sec­ond is po­ten­tial con- flict with North Korea, the third is Iran go­ing nu­clear, and the fourth is a cy­ber at­tack on the coun­try’s elec­tric­ity grid.

McWil­liams says the DOE has “the job of en­sur­ing that nu­clear weapons are not lost or stolen, or at the slight­est risk of ex­plod­ing when they should not”. He takes the threats from North Korea se­ri­ously. “The mis­siles the North Kore­ans have been fir­ing into the sea are not the ab­surd acts of a lu­natic mind but ex­per­i­ments,” says McWil­liams.

And he’s a sup­porter of the Iran nu­clear deal which he be­lieves “re­moved the ca­pac­ity from Iran to ac­quire nu­clear weapons”. (Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, how­ever, pulled the US out of the deal, say­ing it was the “worst” deal in Amer­i­can his­tory). The elec­tri­cal grid is be­ing re­peat­edly tar­geted by cy­ber van­dals. In 2016, the DOE counted half a mil­lion cy­ber in­tru­sions into var­i­ous parts of the US elec­tri­cal grid, writes Lewis.

He writes peo­ple are good at re­spond­ing to a cri­sis that just hap­pened, “as they nat­u­rally imag­ine that what­ever just hap­pened is most likely to hap­pen again”. But the risk we should most fear is not the risk we eas­ily imag­ine. It is the risk we don’t. Which brought us to the fifth risk”. It’s, in the words of McWil­liams, “pro­gramme man­age­ment” and govern­ment de­part­ments and of­fi­cials play a ma­jor role in it.

On the face of it, it doesn’t even look like a risk. But Lewis says “pro­gramme man­age­ment is not just pro­gramme man­age­ment. Pro­gramme man­age­ment is the ex­is­ten­tial threat that you never re­ally even imag­ine as a risk.”

Lewis pro­files a num­ber of of­fi­cials who are in project man­age­ment, like DJ Patil, who worked in the US Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture (USDA), Kathy Sul­li­van, the ge­ol­o­gist who ran the Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion, Kevin Con­can­non, who ran the Food, Nu­tri­tion and Con­sumer Ser­vices at the USDA, and McWil­liams him­self who worked with the Depart­ment of En­ergy.

Now com­pare this with the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion. Trump was not even ready to have a tran­si­tion team dur­ing the cam­paign days. For­mer new Jersey gover­nor Chris Christie vol­un­teered him­self to set up a tran­si­tion team. But when it came to Trump’s no­tice via news re­ports that the tran­si­tion team had raised sev­eral mil­lion dol­lars, he got an­gry.

“Shut it down, shut down the tran­si­tion,” Trump told Steve Ban­non, his cam­paign chief, and Christie. This hasn’t changed even af­ter Trump got elected the Pres­i­dent of the US.

Lewis writes about the Depart­ment of En­ergy of­fi­cials who pre­pared the brief for the tran­si­tion team and waited for them to ar­rive with ques­tions to un­der­stand the run­ning of the depart­ment and the com­plex is­sues it deals with. It didn’t hap­pen. Of­fi­cials at other de­part­ments share sim­i­lar sto­ries.

Lewis calls it the “wilful ig­no­rance” of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion. “There’s an up­side to ig­no­rance, and a down­side to knowl­edge. Knowl­edge makes life messier. It makes it a bit more dif­fi­cult for a per­son who wishes to shrink the world to a world­view,” he writes in a ref­er­ence to Pres­i­dent Trump. “The de­sire not to know” is a Trumpian im­pulse, writes Lewis.

This wilful ig­no­rance is one part, and on the other, Trump has brought in in­com­pe­tent peo­ple, or peo­ple with con­flict of in­ter­est to run govern­ment de­part­ments. For ex­am­ple, Barry My­ers, Trump’s nom­i­nee for the head of the Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion, was the CEO of Ac­cuWeather.

Lewis tells the story of My­ers’s prior war against the NOAA’s weather ser­vice data. “There was a rift in Amer­i­can life that was now cours­ing through Amer­i­can govern­ment... It was be­tween the peo­ple who were in it for the mis­sion, and the peo­ple who were in it for the money.”

Light on pol­i­tics

What makes the book re­ally in­ter­est­ing is the Lewis touch in sto­ry­telling and, of course, the Trump time. It makes log­i­cal sense to read on how govern­ment de­part­ments func­tion in the time of a Pres­i­dent whose ide­o­log­i­cal guru, Ban­non, put the “de­con­struc­tion of the ad­min­is­tra­tive state” as one of the goals of the Trump pres­i­dency.

But Fifth Risk is light on pol­i­tics. Lewis ap­proaches the prob­lem as a tech­ni­cal one. He doesn’t go deeper into the po­lit­i­cal dif­fer­ences, or the po­lit­i­cal de­sign of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion. He doesn’t see the ide­o­log­i­cal prob­lem. He’s rather fo­cussed on the state so­lu­tion, ef­fi­ciency, ex­per­tise, wel­farism, etc. There it be­comes an apo­lit­i­cal man­i­festo of the ad­min­is­tra­tive state.

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