US bureaucracy in turmoil
Trump’s wanton ways pose a threat to an apparatus whose professionalism is taken for granted
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.