April 22, 2019

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Michael Lewis Wonders Who’s Really Running the Government

Michael Lewis Wonders Who’s Really Running the Government
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Lewis defines it this way: “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. … 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.”


It is myopia. It is the absence of leadership. It is democracy without citizenship. Enter Donald Trump. It should be said that government has never been all that good at seeing around corners, and there are vast stretches of the federal bureaucracy that are not populated by geniuses. Lewis does not defend the Post Office or the Department of Veterans Affairs (although there are brilliant practitioners doing innovative work for veterans amid the fatty mass of unmotivated bureaucrats). But penicillin was discovered by the Department of Agriculture (and fracking, by the way, in large part by the Department of Energy). The incredible advances in data collection by the National Weather Service have made it possible for us to know ahead of time, with a fair amount of certainty, where hurricanes like Florence are going and at what strength. Thousands of lives have been saved over the years. There are government programs like food stamps — Lewis profiles the director of the program and his obsession with fraud — that have pretty much abolished hunger in the United States. And D. J. Patil, President Obama’s chief data scientist, observes that it was data compiled by the Department of Health and Human Services that enabled journalists at ProPublica to discover the spike in opioid prescriptions that presaged the current addiction crisis. These are details of implementation that tend not to concern the current administration.

Actually, it’s worse than that. Donald Trump appointed the former Texas governor Rick Perry as energy secretary. Perry, who once said he wanted to abolish the department (he also wanted to abolish Commerce and Education), is a figurehead, his role “ceremonial and bizarre.” According to Lewis, Perry didn’t ask for a briefing on any D.O.E. program when he arrived. The real work of sorting out the department was given to Thomas Pyle, a lobbyist funded by the carbon-addled Koch Industries and ExxonMobil. Trump’s goal was to rid the place of Obama supporters and climate change analysts, and to aggrandize the oil and coal sectors. Pyle was followed by a group of young ideologues called the “Beachhead Team.” Lewis quotes Tarak Shah, chief of staff for the department’s $6 billion basic-science program: “We had tried desperately to prepare them … but that required them to show up. And bring qualified people. But they didn’t. They didn’t ask for even an introductory briefing. Like, ‘What do you do?’”

This is an enormity in Lewis’s algorithmic world: “After Trump took office, D. J. Patil watched with wonder as the data disappeared across the federal government.” The disappearing data concerned phenomena that the Trumpers opposed, like climate change or food safety regulations, or that they didn’t care about, like poverty, or stuff that they assumed were government boondoggles, which was most everything not involving the Pentagon. They cut funding for data collection across the board.

Lewis has spent his career writing from an ironic middle distance. He is deft, not didactic. He doesn’t proselytize or offer solutions to fix our ailing democracy, which makes “The Fifth Risk” all the more effective as a call to arms — especially to his natural audience of (mostly) guys who like sports and moneymaking. At a moment when the president of the United States is under frontal assault, Lewis takes a more oblique route. He doesn’t bother with Trump’s flagrant character deficiencies; he is horrified by the practical effects of the president’s ignorance. And so he deploys his skills to make the history of the National Weather Service’s ability to predict hurricanes — and its difficulty in predicting tornadoes — into a page-turner. “If a hurricane is another night in a bad marriage,” he writes, “a tornado is a blind date.” A metaphor lurks here: Donald Trump is a tornado, witlessly devastating the world that Michael Lewis has come to love and chronicle.

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