The Fifth Risk

by Michael Lewis

Cover image

Publisher: W.W. Norton
Copyright: 2018
Printing: 2019
ISBN: 0-393-35745-7
Format: Kindle
Pages: 254

This is an ebook, so metadata may be inaccurate or missing. See notes on ebooks for more information.

Buy at Powell's Books

The Fifth Risk starts with the presidential transition. Max Stier, the first person profiled by Lewis in this book, is the founder of the Partnership for Public Service. That foundation helped push through laws to provide more resources and structure for the transition of the United States executive branch from one president to the next. The goal was to fight wasted effort, unnecessary churn, and pointless disruption in the face of each administration's skepticism about everyone who worked for the previous administration.

"It's Groundhog Day," said Max. "The new people come in and think that the previous administration and the civil service are lazy or stupid. Then they actually get to know the place they are managing. And when they leave, they say, 'This was a really hard job, and those are the best people I've ever worked with.' This happens over and over and over."

By 2016, Stier saw vast improvements, despite his frustration with other actions of the Obama administration. He believed their transition briefings were one of the best courses ever produced on how the federal government works. Then that transition process ran into Donald Trump.

Or, to be more accurate, that transition did not run into Donald Trump, because neither he nor anyone who worked for him were there. We'll never know how good the transition information was because no one ever listened to or read it. Meetings were never scheduled. No one showed up.

This book is not truly about the presidential transition, though, despite its presence as a continuing theme. The Fifth Risk is, at its heart, an examination of government work, the people who do it, why it matters, and why you should care about it. It's a study of the surprising and misunderstood responsibilities of the departments of the United States federal government. And it's a series of profiles of the people who choose this work as a career, not in the upper offices of political appointees, but deep in the civil service, attempting to keep that system running.

I will warn now that I am far too happy that this book exists to be entirely objective about it. The United States desperately needs basic education about the government at all levels, but particularly the federal civil service. The public impression of government employees is skewed heavily towards the small number of public-facing positions and towards paperwork frustrations, over which the agency usually has no control because they have been sabotaged by Congress (mostly by Republicans, although the Democrats get involved occasionally). Mental images of who works for the government are weirdly selective. The Coast Guard could say "I'm from the government and I'm here to help" every day, to the immense gratitude of the people they rescue, but Reagan was still able to use that as a cheap applause line in his attack on government programs.

Other countries have more functional and realistic social attitudes towards their government workers. The United States is trapped in a politically-fueled cycle of contempt and ignorance. It has to stop. And one way to help stop it is someone with Michael Lewis's story-telling skills writing a different narrative.

The Fifth Risk is divided into a prologue about presidential transitions, three main parts, and an afterword (added in current editions) about a remarkable government worker whom you likely otherwise would never hear about. Each of the main parts talks about a different federal department: the Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Commerce. In keeping with the theme of the book, the people Lewis profiles do not do what you might expect from the names of those departments.

Lewis's title comes from his discussion with John MacWilliams, a former Goldman Sachs banker who quit the industry in search of more personally meaningful work and became the chief risk officer for the Department of Energy. Lewis asks him for the top five risks he sees, and if you know that the DOE is responsible for safeguarding nuclear weapons, you will be able to guess several of them: nuclear weapons accidents, North Korea, and Iran. If you work in computer security, you may share his worry about the safety of the electrical grid. But his fifth risk was project management. Can the government follow through on long-term hazardous waste safety and cleanup projects, despite constant political turnover? Can it attract new scientists to the work of nuclear non-proliferation before everyone with the needed skills retires? Can it continue to lay the groundwork with basic science for innovation that we'll need in twenty or fifty years? This is what the Department of Energy is trying to do.

Lewis's profiles of other departments are similarly illuminating. The Department of Agriculture is responsible for food stamps, the most effective anti-poverty program in the United States with the possible exception of Social Security. The section on the Department of Commerce is about weather forecasting, specifically about NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). If you didn't know that all of the raw data and many of the forecasts you get from weather apps and web sites are the work of government employees, and that AccuWeather has lobbied Congress persistently for years to prohibit the NOAA from making their weather forecasts public so that AccuWeather can charge you more for data your taxes already paid for, you should read this book. The story of American contempt for government work is partly about ignorance, but it's also partly about corporations who claim all of the credit while selling taxpayer-funded resources back to you at absurd markups.

The afterword I'll leave for you to read for yourself, but it's the story of Art Allen, a government employee you likely have never heard of but whose work for the Coast Guard has saved more lives than we are able to measure. I found it deeply moving.

If you, like I, are a regular reader of long-form journalism and watch for new Michael Lewis essays in particular, you've probably already read long sections of this book. By the time I sat down with it, I think I'd read about a third in other forms on-line. But the profiles that I had already read were so good that I was happy to read them again, and the additional stories and elaboration around previously published material was more than worth the cost and time investment in the full book.

It was never obvious to me that anyone would want to read what had interested me about the United States government. Doug Stumpf, my magazine editor for the past decade, persuaded me that, at this strange moment in American history, others might share my enthusiasm.

I'll join Michael Lewis in thanking Doug Stumpf.

The Fifth Risk is not a proposal for how to fix government, or politics, or polarization. It's not even truly a book about the Trump presidency or about the transition. Lewis's goal is more basic: The United States government is full of hard-working people who are doing good and important work. They have effectively no public relations department. Achievements that would result in internal and external press releases in corporations, not to mention bonuses and promotions, go unnoticed and uncelebrated. If you are a United States citizen, this is your government and it does important work that you should care about. It deserves the respect of understanding and thoughtful engagement, both from the citizenry and from the politicians we elect.

Rating: 10 out of 10

Reviewed: 2020-06-29

Last modified and spun 2020-06-30