There’s rarely been a bad time in American history to write about dysfunctional government. The country harbours a distrust towards authority that has little purchase in Britain, despite its grounding in ill-feeling towards London governments.
The rancour of Donald Trump’s presidency has done nothing to stop this, although it has entrenched a split between pro-government liberals (in Yankee terms) and their conservative opponents. The divide is well attested by Michael Lewis’s The Fifth Risk, released back in 2018, but not with any subtlety.
Lewis tackles interesting subjects. His earliest effort, Liar’s Poker, deals with his time working in finance. Moneyball covers data scouting in baseball, while The Big Short looks at sub-prime mortgages’ role in the last financial crash. The latter two books made particularly good movies.
But as a journalist there is something unsatisfying about Lewis’s style. Whereas many hacks abide by Louis Heren’s query – why is this lying bastard lying to me? – Lewis seems to approach every interview assuming only honesty and good intentions. He’s the kind of journalist that PRs like.
The Fifth Risk looks at several government agencies in the wake of Trump’s presidency, namely the departments for energy, agriculture and commerce (which as we learn is more about data and information). The aim is to publicise the work of agencies that rarely draw attention, at a time when the orangutan’s shysters are doing their best to undermine them.
Plenty of what Lewis describes is interesting, and not without criticism towards previous government efforts. The Department of Energy, for example, spends a decent wedge on managing the decommissioned nuclear site in Hanford, Washington, responsible for material used in nuclear weapons. The handling of the site during disuse has been far from perfect, and the fears are that Trump’s anti-government agenda could imperil its safety in the future.
Equally concerning are the attempts by Trumpites to prevent the Department of Commerce from publishing weather data. Barry Myers, an AccuWeather executive nominated by Trump to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, does his best to protect the interests of his (barely) former employer. The upshot of this is that many Americans lose ready access to weather information, including about natural disasters.
The tales of corruption, de-funding, ignorance, incompetence, and stupidity on the part of Trump administration officials are no doubt largely true. Most accounts of Trump’s rise to power indicate that his campaign failed to prepare for government, which he may or may not have expected to run before the election in November 2016.
Yet this doesn’t make Lewis’s wide-eyed accounts of public servants whose only alleged goal in life is helping people less grating. Reading The Fifth Risk would lead you to believe that every government employee is a selfless Leslie Knope dedicated only to public service. And, aww shucks, these people are just terrible at taking credit for any of their good work.
I don’t doubt such people exist, but it’s naive to assume that public servants are without their own interests. A history of any civil service would reveal stories of corruption, arse-covering, and greed, just as in private companies or non-profits. A human does not become an angel just for joining Whitehall or any of its international peers.
To be fair to Lewis, his previous books suggest a bias towards anyone he is speaking to. Bradley Katsuyama, a financier at the centre of Flash Boys, is given an equally easy time by Lewis. The author would do well to consider the advice of Jeremy Paxman, a poster boy for the lying bastard school of journalism: “I think you should approach any spokesman for a vested interest with a degree of scepticism.” Not referring to interviewees by their first name might be a good start.
For fans of anti-Trump literature or information on obscure US government programmes The Fifth Risk provides plenty of fodder. Anyone seeking a balanced view on what public bodies are well placed to handle given the incentives should look elsewhere.