Review: Michael Lewis’s “The Fifth Risk”

by Miles Raymer


Michael Lewis has emerged as a critical figure in the modern American quest for self-understanding. Even for readers like me who’ve never picked up one of his books, his reputation as a kind of national “explainer-in-chief” looms large. I’m not sure what exactly drew me to The Fifth Risk instead of his better-known works, but I’m guessing it had something to do with the book’s topical nature and my growing anxiety that the long-term fallout from the Trump Administration may prove more damaging than I’d originally anticipated.

The Fifth Risk makes an entertaining and thought-provoking case that such anxiety is an appropriate reaction to the mess Trump and his cronies are making of the U.S. government’s Executive Branch. Lewis presents his analysis of Trump’s misdoings in an introduction and three thematically-related essays––a format that’s highly digestible but far from exhaustive. Surprisingly, the book includes neither a list of references nor an index, giving the impression of a rushed publication process that at least partially compromises the text’s credibility.

Lewis’s central argument is that turning the government over to a goon like Trump comes with many risks, some of which are obvious and some of which are not:

The United States government employed two million people, 70 percept of them one way or another in national security. It managed a portfolio of risks that no private person, or corporation, was able to manage. Some of the risks were easy to imagine: a financial crisis, a hurricane, a terrorist attack. Most weren’t: the risk, say, that some prescription drug proves to be both so addictive and so accessible that each year it kills more Americans than were killed in action by the peak of the Vietnam War. Many of the risks that fell into the government’s lap felt so remote as to be unreal: that a cyberattack left half the country without electricity, or that some airborne virus wiped out millions, or that economic inequality reached the point where it triggered a violent revolution. Maybe the least visible risks were of things not happening that, with better government, might have happened. A cure for cancer, for example.

Enter the presidential transition. A bad transition took this entire portfolio of catastrophic risks––the biggest portfolio of such risks ever managed by a single institution in the history of the world––and made all the bad things more likely to happen and the good things less likely to happen. (25-6, emphasis his)

Lewis provides plenty of evidence for the corrupt and feckless nature of this “bad transition,” seeking especially to shine an expository light on some of the not-so-obvious risks that are now being ignored or exacerbated. These can collectively be thought of as the “fifth risk”––a term that derives from Lewis’s exchange with John MacWilliams, Associate Deputy Secretary of the Department of Energy. After listing his top four risks to national security (a nuclear weapons accident, North Korea, Iran, an attack on our electrical grids), MacWilliams identifies the fifth risk simply as “Project Management” (69). Lewis interprets:

There is another way to think of John MacWilliams’s fifth risk: the risk a society runs when it falls into the habit of responding to long-term risks with short-term solutions… “Program management” is the existential threat that you never really even imagine as a risk. Some of the things any incoming president should worry about are fast-moving: pandemics, hurricanes, terrorist attacks. But most are not. Most are like bombs with very long fuses that, in the distant future, when the fuse reaches the bomb, might or might not explode. It is delaying repairs to a tunnel filled with lethal waste until, one day, it collapses. It is the aging workforce of the DOE––which is no longer attracting young people as it once did––that one day loses track of a nuclear bomb. It is the ceding of technical and scientific leadership to China. It is the innovation that never occurs, and the knowledge that is never created, because you have ceased to lay the groundwork for it. It is what you never learned that might have saved you. (75-6)

To measure the magnitude of this problem, Lewis examines the bureaucratic entities that have been quietly created in recent decades to manage the fifth risk, most notably the Department of Energy (DOE), the Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Lewis interviews current and former members of these government bodies, revealing how their important work is now being compromised by Trump’s malicious agenda.

Unsurprisingly, the potential misuse of science is most worrisome to our veteran public servants. This is best articulated by USDA Under Secretary Cathie Woteki:

“They are going to politicize the science,” said Woteki. “My biggest concern is the misuse of science to support policies”…

If the Trump administration were to pollute the scientific inquiry at the USDA with politics, scientific inquiry would effectively cease. “The high-level discussions really worry me,” she says…”There is already good science that isn’t being funded,” she said. “That will get worse.” Junk science will be used to muddy issues like childhood nutrition. Maybe sodium isn’t as bad for kids as people say! There’s no such thing as too much sugar! The science will suddenly be “unclear.” There will no longer be truth and falsehood. There will just be stories, with two sides to them. (113-4)

This specific type of “post-truth” thinking has been around for a couple decades, although it has roots in propaganda practices as old as time. We have become accustomed to this idea dominating our media and the rhetoric of elected officials, but the notion that it is now pressuring the federal government’s career bureaucrats adds an additional gut-punch.

Lewis rightly points out that “We don’t really celebrate the accomplishments of government employees,” and the best part of The Fifth Risk is that it takes the time to do so (111).  There is a lot of understated heroism on display, carving a space for optimism amongst the fear and loathing. But the overall landscape is grim. Most disturbing are the several instances documented by Lewis where the Trump Administration sought to fill public offices with private sector tycoons, as observed by former Chief Data Scientist DJ Patil:

After Trump took office, DJ Patil watched with wonder as the data disappeared across the federal government…And he came to see there was nothing arbitrary or capricious about the Trump administration’s attitude toward public data. Under each act of data suppression usually lay a narrow commercial motive: a gun lobbyist, a coal company, a poultry company. “The NOAA webpage used to have a link to weather forecasts,” he said. “It was highly, highly popular. I saw it had been buried. And I asked: Now, why would they bury that?” Then he realized: the man Trump nominated to run NOAA thought that people who wanted a weather forecast should have to pay him for it. There was a rift in American life that was now coursing through American government. It wasn’t between Democrats and Republicans. It was between people who were in it for the mission, and the people who were in it for the money. (188, 190)

This rift is certainly real and growing, and it remains to be seen if the American people will realize quickly enough that our enemies are not the mission-driven government wonks who are so easy to mock, but rather the money-driven, slick-suited businessmen who understand only terms of ownership and zero sum games.

For further reading about large-scale risk management, I recommend Warnings by Richard A. Clarke and R.P Eddy (or you can check out my review).

Rating: 6/10