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The Fifth Risk
Cover of The Fifth Risk
The Fifth Risk
Borrow Borrow

What are the consequences if the people given control over our government have no idea how it works?

"The election happened," remembers Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, then deputy secretary of the Department of Energy. "And then there was radio silence." Across all departments, similar stories were playing out: Trump appointees were few and far between; those that did show up were shockingly uninformed about the functions of their new workplace. Some even threw away the briefing books that had been prepared for them.

Michael Lewis's brilliant narrative takes us into the engine rooms of a government under attack by its own leaders. In Agriculture the funding of vital programs like food stamps and school lunches is being slashed. The Commerce Department may not have enough staff to conduct the 2020 Census properly. Over at Energy, where international nuclear risk is managed, it's not clear there will be enough inspectors to track and locate black market uranium before terrorists do.

Willful ignorance plays a role in these looming disasters. If your ambition is to maximize short-term gains without regard to the long-term cost, you are better off not knowing those costs. If you want to preserve your personal immunity to the hard problems, it's better never to really understand those problems. There is upside to ignorance, and 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.

If there are dangerous fools in this book, there are also heroes, unsung, of course. They are the linchpins of the system—those public servants whose knowledge, dedication, and proactivity keep the machinery running. Michael Lewis finds them, and he asks them what keeps them up at night.

What are the consequences if the people given control over our government have no idea how it works?

"The election happened," remembers Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, then deputy secretary of the Department of Energy. "And then there was radio silence." Across all departments, similar stories were playing out: Trump appointees were few and far between; those that did show up were shockingly uninformed about the functions of their new workplace. Some even threw away the briefing books that had been prepared for them.

Michael Lewis's brilliant narrative takes us into the engine rooms of a government under attack by its own leaders. In Agriculture the funding of vital programs like food stamps and school lunches is being slashed. The Commerce Department may not have enough staff to conduct the 2020 Census properly. Over at Energy, where international nuclear risk is managed, it's not clear there will be enough inspectors to track and locate black market uranium before terrorists do.

Willful ignorance plays a role in these looming disasters. If your ambition is to maximize short-term gains without regard to the long-term cost, you are better off not knowing those costs. If you want to preserve your personal immunity to the hard problems, it's better never to really understand those problems. There is upside to ignorance, and 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.

If there are dangerous fools in this book, there are also heroes, unsung, of course. They are the linchpins of the system—those public servants whose knowledge, dedication, and proactivity keep the machinery running. Michael Lewis finds them, and he asks them what keeps them up at night.

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About the Author-
  • Michael Lewis is the best-selling author of Liar's Poker, Moneyball, The Blind Side, The Big Short, and The Undoing Project. He lives in Berkeley, California, with his wife and three children.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    October 1, 2018
    Lewis (The Big Short) exposes a less sensational but significant danger posed by the Trump administration's approach to governance. As he recounts in an ambiguously sourced prologue, Trump's transition team actively refused to learn about much of what the federal government does, and made ill-considered leadership and budget choices regarding three obscure, but vital, agencies: the Departments of Energy, Agriculture, and Commerce. Members of each department in the Obama administration prepared detailed briefing materials to educate incoming appointees about the agencies' missions and responsibilities, only to have their work ignored or discounted; for example, when Trump's commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, was told that the department's mission was mainly science and technology, Ross responded, "Yeah, I don't think I want to be focusing on that." Lewis accessibly explains the important things that Energy, Agriculture, and Commerce actually do, including "reducing the world's supply of weapons of mass destruction," safely disposing of nuclear waste, administering nutritional assistance programs, and collecting data to improve weather forecasting. He also persuasively documents the dangers that result from placing people without the necessary skills in charge of these departments and from cutting funding. This is an illuminating primer on some of the government projects most crucial to the well-being of the populace, and its relevance to readers won't end with the Trump era.

  • Kirkus

    October 15, 2018
    Lewis (The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed Our Minds, 2016, etc.) turns timely political reporting he published in Vanity Fair into a book about federal government bureaucracies during the first year of the Donald Trump presidency.At first, the author's curiosity about the relationship between individual citizens and massive federal agencies supported by taxpayer dollars did not lead him to believe the book would become a searing indictment of Trump. However, Lewis wisely allowed the evidence to dictate the narrative, resulting in a book-length indictment of Trump's disastrous administration. The leading charge of the indictment is what Lewis terms "willful ignorance." Neither Trump nor his appointees to head government agencies have demonstrated even the slightest curiosity about how those agencies actually function. After Trump's election in November 2016, nobody from his soon-to-be-inaugurated administration visited federal agencies despite thorough preparation within those agencies to assist in a traditionally nonpartisan transition. Lewis primarily focuses on the Energy Department, the Agriculture Department, and the Commerce Department. To provide context, he contrasts the competent transition teams assembled after the previous elections of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Displaying his usual meticulous research and fluid prose, the author makes the federal bureaucracy come alive by focusing on a few individuals within each agency with fascinating--and sometimes heartwarming--backstories. In addition, Lewis explains why each of those individuals is important to the citizenry due to their sometimes-arcane but always crucial roles within the government. Throughout the book, unforgettable tidbits emerge, such as the disclosure by a Forbes magazine compiler of the world's wealthiest individuals list that only three tycoons have intentionally misled the list's compilers--one of the three is Trump, and another is Wilbur Ross, appointed by Trump as Commerce Secretary.As with nearly all of Lewis' books, this one succeeds on so many levels, including as a well-written primer on how the government serves citizens in underappreciated ways.

    COPYRIGHT(2018) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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