Book of the week
The Fifth Risk
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–a-year 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 nuclear-weapons 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 Qz.com. 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.” ■