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Overpraising the Overseers

books and culture

Overpraising the Overseers

A new book lauds federal bureaucrats, sometimes justifiably, but ignores valid criticisms of what they do. November 16, 2018
Politics and law

The Fifth Risk: Undoing Democracy, by Michael Lewis (W.W. Norton, 256 pp., $26.95)

Following the death of Tom Wolfe, there’s a good case to be made that Michael Lewis is America’s greatest living nonfiction storyteller. He specializes in identifying the drama in the obscure and technical: the advent of mortgage-backed securities in Liar’s Poker; the human story behind a previously uncelebrated football position in The Blind Side; the arcane science of baseball statistics in Moneyball; the unlikely winners in the 2008 financial crisis in The Big Short. That three of those four books have been made into successful movies is even more remarkable. Any new Michael Lewis book carries the expectation that narrative will be married with insight.

And there is, to be sure, some of that in Lewis’s latest, The Fifth Risk. Like most Lewis books, it’s built around the stories of obscure but significant Americans; in this case, a series of high-ranking federal government employees, in such agencies as the Department of Agriculture, the National Weather Service, and the Department of Energy. But he tells his characters’ stories differently than he has in his earlier books. The Fifth Risk is more like an extended op-ed in praise of Obama-era initiatives, with illustrative human-interest asides. It’s no surprise—well, maybe a bit of a surprise—that Barack and Michelle Obama have just acquired the film rights to The Fifth Risk as part of their Netflix production deal.

Lewis’s point is that government performs crucial functions that the public does not appreciate—and that the incoming Trump administration actively disdained learning. “How to stop a virus, how to take a census, how to determine if some foreign country is seeking to obtain a nuclear weapon . . . these are enduring technical problems,” writes Lewis. There are, in other words, ongoing risks, relatively predictable risks, even risks that it takes difficulty just to imagine, as well as the risks of not taking action at all. But then there’s an uber-risk, a “fifth risk”: that continuity of government will be interrupted because of an administration’s fundamental lack of interest in learning what it doesn’t know, but should.

Lewis tells us that months of work by a Chris Christie-led transition team was thrown out by Steve Bannon after Trump’s victory, and that dutiful and responsible civil servants in the Departments of Energy, Commerce, and Agriculture prepared briefings for the new administration but were either left waiting or found themselves meeting with uncurious ideologues. This failure to appreciate the vital functions of government, says Lewis, leads to risks that no other sector of society can prepare for. “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,” he writes. “A bad transition took this entire portfolio of catastrophic risks, and made all the bad things more likely to happen and the good things less likely to happen.”

There are times when Lewis’s stories of bureaucratic adventures are engaging—the Weather Service learning how to predict hurricanes and track tornadoes, how the Department of Energy copes with the waste left behind by nuclear weapons. And he is convincing when it comes to the Trump administration’s apparent sins of omission and even cronyism, as when it names the non-scientist head of the private firm Accuweather (which does little but package and market government-generated data) to lead the National Weather Service.

But The Fifth Risk is plagued by similar sins on Lewis’s part. First, there’s his incomplete and uncritical approach to the work of the departments about which he writes. One would never know from Lewis that $20 billion of the Department of Energy’s $30 billion budget is devoted to the care and feeding of nuclear weapons—not developing alternatives to fossil fuels. He obtusely celebrates the fact that Obama-era investments in private-sector green-energy firms turned an overall profit (notwithstanding the infamous Solyndra solar-panel debacle, which led to bankruptcy and wasted tax dollars). Projects that turn profits are exactly those in which government should not be investing, because doing so crowds out private capital.

Lewis is certainly right, though, about society’s fundamental reliance on government. DOE has responsibilities for protection of the electric grid—the lifeline of modern life. Government, similarly, protects the food supply—and, for that matter, provides our military defense. Yet Lewis is uncurious about what might be viewed as the central puzzle posed by his book: Why, given such virtues, has distrust in government grown? Why, by extension, is it proving difficult for government to recruit capable successors to retiring baby-boomer bureaucrats, many of whom are the heroes of The Fifth Risk?

The answers to these questions are related. When government takes on tasks about which there is broad consensus, and does so capably, it inspires trust (the military ranks consistently as the nation’s most trusted institution). When it pushes the boundaries of its mandate—we are, for instance, meant to cheer, per Lewis, the fact that the Department of Agriculture vastly expanded the number of food-stamp recipients—trust can wane. That’s likely to be most true as agencies take it upon themselves to promote social and economic change, rather than deliver core services.

Intertwined with government taking on too many tasks in the name of societal transformation is retreat from government service by graduates of schools founded for that purpose. Paul Volcker, the legendary former Federal Reserve chairman, has long sounded the alarm about the problem of staffing the government with capable people. (He chaired the 1996 National Commission on the Public Service.) Thus, it was notable when, in a recent New York Times profile, Volcker singled out for criticism the two most prestigious schools chartered for that purpose.

According to the Times’s Andrew Ross Sorkin, Volcker believes that “schools like the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton have failed to educate a new generation of civil servants.” These schools are no longer teaching governing, but policy. “They can argue war and peace and poverty and everything else,” Volcker told the Times. “But when you go to a school of public policy, you’re not learning how to run the goddamn government. You’re learning how to debate political issues.”

I attended the Woodrow Wilson School, and taught at the Kennedy School, and I can vouch for Volcker’s criticisms. At the Kennedy School, I saw a shift toward graduates choosing careers with non-governmental advocacy organizations, or toward public-sector careers in which they could be “policy entrepreneurs.” This is a long way from an aspiration to run Medicaid in a way to reduce fraud, or analyze how to keep Social Security solvent. By societal consensus, both programs should exist, and we need them to be well-run. So it is with bank examiners, food-safety inspectors, and, of course, police departments. These are non-glamorous careers for which we need good people.

Michael Lewis is right about the fundamental importance of government, an importance which conservatives, in righteous indignation about government overreach, can certainly overlook. But he is wrong to celebrate functionaries whose careers, looked at critically, actually suggest reasons for public distrust of the institutions on which we rely.

Photo by Mario Villafuerte/Gettyimages

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