In the movie Apollo 13, Tom Hanks, playing the astronaut Jim Lovell, is directed by NASA to shut down the computer that is guiding his crippled spacecraft back to Earth after an abortive mission to the Moon. Upon turning off his electronic lifeline to home, Hanks sardonically notes, “we just put Sir Isaac Newton in the driver’s seat.” I thought a lot about that line while reading Michael Lewis’s new book The Fifth Risk, a breezy, but nicely reported story that is masquerading as a paean to the faceless, nameless civil servants who are acting as our Isaac Newtons now that our country is being led by a man who knows very little about how the government he runs operates and has shown no inclination to learn.
The federal government has been a long-used punching bag by Republicans. Ronald Reagan famously said the scariest words in the English language were “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” And Reagan’s acolytes have taken his words to heart, constantly railing against supposed waste, fraud, and abuse of a sprawling bureaucracy that is budgeted at hundreds of billions of dollars a year but which few people understand.
Here comes Lewis with a primer on the hidden corners of our government. His book focuses on federal agencies, but not ones you might expect - there are no FBI agents (Department of Justice), Green Berets (Department of Defense), or Ambassadors (Department of State). No, Lewis is plumbing the depths of the backwaters of lesser known offices tucked into the Departments of Energy, Agriculture, and Commerce, where grunt work is done that quietly goes about ensuring everything from the safety of our food to reducing the chances geese will fly into plane engines on take off.
Lewis is clearly enamored of the people he meets. Kevin Concannon is a diminutive septuagenarian who, over the course of a decades-long career in public service, launched and streamlined programs that expanded access to food, medicine, and nutrition for millions of people but who, while spending upwards of a trillion dollars to do so, can walk the streets without being recognized. Likewise, Lewis introduces us to career employees at the Department of Energy who work tirelessly to protect our nuclear arsenal and chase down rogue actors and the first-generation immigrant who, bitten by the Obama bug in 2008, went on to help manage our federal budget.
There is a certain Kennedy-era New Frontier idealism in Lewis’s writing. If you believe in the importance of government of course you want Kathy Sullivan, a scrappy brainiac who outworked hundreds of men to become an astronaut and then had a second career leading NOAA during the Obama Administration, focusing obsessively on improving our ability to track major natural disasters, but the other side of the coin are the opposite numbers who are now in control - who don’t know, don’t care, or don’t want government focusing on issues of public importance. If you don’t think climate change is a thing, why research what is happening in the environment? If you think food stamps are a way for freeloading layabouts like Fox News’s “Surfer Dude” to get over on the system, you feel no compunction about making it harder for people to get them.
The Obama to Trump transition is a major focus on The Fifth Risk. It was as if the Trump people had been handed an owner’s manual for the federal government and dumped it in the trash, unread. Indeed, Lewis goes to some lengths to highlight the extensive transition work done by Obama’s team, only to wait days, and sometimes weeks, for anyone from the incoming administration to show up and find out how these massive departments operated. The outgoing Obama team can be excused for their naivete. If anything, Lewis portrays them as decent public servants who want to help others, but as industry executives and lobbyists started popping up as nominees and appointees to take over, they realized the fix was in.
Once the Obama team left, what was left were people who are only known when something goes wrong, but thankfully, most of them are quite good at their jobs. Lewis’s primary thesis is that the lights are on but no one is home at the upper reaches of many of these agencies, leaving it to the institutionalists, the apolitical employees who work for Democrats and Republicans alike to make sure that the infrastructure of our government continues to operate - in other words, the Newtonians showing that the laws of physics can pilot a spacecraft even when technology has failed.
It is no coincidence that the cover art for The Fifth Risk is a Jenga tower - much of the book talks about how small pieces are being pulled away, like the data that was once widely available and crowd sourced to universities as a sort of force multiplier for studying issues like climate change, that may go unseen or unnoticed, but erode at the foundation of our democracy. Lewis’s book clocks in at just over 200 pages, but it easily could have been twice that long just focusing on the small programs that are being cut, offices being shuttered, and career employees walking out the door with the accumulated knowledge they possess. How many of these pieces can be pulled away before the whole thing comes crumbling down?
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