Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The Fifth Risk, by Michael Lewis (author), Victor Bevine (narrator)

Audible Studios, October 2018

What happens when the people responsible for running our government have no idea how it works--and don't really care?

This is a look at how complex the actual workings of our government really are, what the federal agencies actually do, why it matters, and how completely unprepared and indifferent the Trump team was.

This is not a partisan work. Not at all--unless you count caring about government working properly as "partisan." But in that case, the "parties" you're talking about aren't Democrat and Republican, or liberal and conservative.

Lewis describes the senior staff of the federal departments and agencies preparing for the arrival, right after the election, for the arrival of the "landing teams" of whichever candidate won, to be able to brief them on what their agencies and departments do, to equip them to start the process of taking over.

Lewis also describes the utter silence and absence of anyone from the Trump team that day, that week, for weeks to come.

When Trump people did arrive, it was in ones, twos, or very small groups. They weren't interested in in-depth briefings. In several cases, they just wanted the names of anyone in the department or agency working on "questionable activities," such as researching or studying climate change or energy safety.

We also get some of the backstory.

I am not Chris Christie's biggest fan. More accurately, I'm not a Christie fan at all. But Christie got Trump to, very grudgingly, agree to create, once he was the nominee, the Presidential transition team which is required by federal law. But Trump wouldn't pay for it with his own money, and he wouldn't agree to spend campaign funds on it, so Christie started separate fundraising for it.

When Trump discovered this, he hit the roof, and accused Christie of "stealing my money." He was convinced he and Bannon could plan the transition in twenty minutes after he'd won the election. Bannon persuaded him that if he disbanded the transition team, Joe Scarborough and Trump's other media favorites would conclude that Trump believed he had no chance of winning. So transition planning continued. Christie, of course, was fired.

And Trump didn't pay any attention to the plans his transition team made for him.

When a former Bush official took the time and care to assemble a list of people politically inoffensive to Trump who were qualified to fill positions in one department, Trump ignored that list, and appointed friends, donors' favored candidates, campaign volunteers with absolutely no relevant experience. We've all seen the coverage of Steve Mnuchin at Treasury and Scott Pruitt at Energy, but the nomination of Barry Myers, CEO of Accuweather, to head NOAA did not get the same level of coverage. It wasn't ignored, and it was controversial. Why? Because Barry Myers has sued NOAA, and lobbied intensively, to have NOAA banned from sharing its weather information and data with anyone who might otherwise be a paying customer of the for-profit weather companies. This was an attempt to take the information and data the American taxpayers pay millions for our government to collect and process, and turn it over to for-profit companies to make the taxpayers pay for again.

If you think, no bbiggie, I get my weather from Accuweather or the Weather Channel, or whatever other source, not NOAA, you need to know that those companies get all their data that they reprocess and give to you for a profit, from NOAA. They are not launching the satellites, or gathering the data, or maintaining the history, or anything else that is the expensive end of weather prediction. Accuweather claims they make better predictions, but they also don't share enough information for anyone to even have an opinion. And weather prediction overall has gotten dramatically better in recent decades and even in recent years--NOAA is the source of the research that has done that.

Myers is so controversial, even in a highly partisan Congress, that he hasn't been confirmed, a year after his nomination.

That is just one example in this book. This book only covers a small number of departments and agencies because a book that covered them all would be unmanageable to write and produce in time to be of current use rather than historical use. It's just scratching the surface.

Lewis covers this through interviews and with people formerly at the agencies, people outside of them who work with and rely on the vast data these agencies and departments produce, and looking at the ways this data, instead of being a drain on the economy, is a valuable source of growth and innovation in the private sector. It's fascinating, absorbing, and clear. Very much worth reading or listening to. Recommended.

I got this audiobook free from Audible as an Audible member, and I'm reviewing it voluntarily.