The Fifth Risk

The Week (US) - - 21 - By Michael Lewis

(Nor­ton, $27)

Michael Lewis’ new book “reads like a love let­ter,” said Car­los Lozada in The Washington Post. That’s a sur­prise, given that his topic this time is the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, and specif­i­cally the types of em­ploy­ees who don’t make head­lines or up­set norms. But the au­thor of The Big Short, Money­ball, and count­less other non­fic­tion page-turn­ers de­cided that Don­ald Trump’s showy dis­dain for the rou­tine work of gov­er­nance of­fered an op­por­tu­nity to ex­am­ine just what tax­payer-funded tech­nocrats do con­trib­ute to so­ci­ety. Con­sider the Depart­ment of En­ergy, a $30 bil­lion–ayear or­ga­ni­za­tion where dozens of of­fi­cials waited in vain for Trump ap­pointees to ar­rive in late 2016 to re­ceive pre­pared brief­ings on how things there run. Among the depart­ment’s du­ties are prevent­ing nu­cle­ar­weapons ac­ci­dents and at­tacks on the power grid. The “fifth risk” of Lewis’ ti­tle? You don’t even want to know. The fifth risk is—“brace your­self”—a ran­dom catas­tro­phe cre­ated by a fail­ure to do the quiet work that might have pre­vented it, said Jennifer Sza­lai in The New York Times. Think tun­nels buck­ling be­cause of de­ferred main­te­nance or a cru­cial do­mes­tic in­dus­try cra­ter­ing be­cause of a lack of in­vest­ment to keep up with other na­tions’ ed­u­ca­tion sys­tems. Be­cause Lewis is a “sup­ple and se­duc­tive” sto­ry­teller, he keeps the pages turn­ing by ex­pos­ing how the pro­tec­tions we count on are be­ing eroded by ne­glect. Though The Fifth Risk “feels a lit­tle un­der­done” com­pared with pre­vi­ous Lewis books, it paints a fright­en­ing pic­ture of fed­eral agen­cies hol­lowed out by the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s man­age­ment prac­tices. More than 20 months into Trump’s term, more than half of the 700 key gov­ern­ment po­si­tions re­quir­ing con­gres­sional ap­proval re­main un­filled. And in any agency that hasn’t suf­fered sim­ply from pa­tron­age ap­point­ments, the Trump hires “look sus­pi­ciously like a wreck­ing crew.”

“But in mak­ing his point that Trump has taken his job too lightly,” said George Mel­loan in The Wall Street Jour­nal, Lewis “some­times makes Trump’s point in­stead.” The gov­ern­ment Lewis de­scribes ap­pears un­man­age­ably large and over­due for a down­siz­ing. The haz­ards of not fill­ing jobs sim­ply haven’t ma­te­ri­al­ized: “Trump has been in of­fice al­most two years and the gov­ern­ment still func­tions.” Lewis’ story is in­com­plete, which is “per­haps not a bad thing,” said Thu-Huong Ha in No one can say ex­actly how a Trump-de­signed gov­ern­ment would func­tion, be­cause the ship of state he in­her­ited is so mas­sive it has a mo­men­tum larger than any sin­gle pres­i­dency. In fact, “there’s still time to put the ship back on course.”

Too late: A 2017 high­way col­lapse in Cal­i­for­nia

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