May Book Review - The Fifth Risk

May 14, 2019

What do all those federal agencies do, and why do we need them? Michael Lewis’ recent book, “The Fifth Risk” explains. 

Earlier this year, parts of the federal government were shut down and their employees furloughed. It may have been hard for the average person to detect the range of services lost or damage done. Michael Lewis’ recent book, “The Fifth Risk” presents a timely discussion about the valuable, often unseen work that federal employees perform.

 Lewis begins by describing what generally happens when a new President and administration come to Washington, how new political appointees at the heads of agencies are typically briefed by career staff so that they can become familiar with the programs they’re in charge of. Not so with the 2016 change in administration, according to Lewis. He gives examples of incoming administrators having no subject matter background and showing little interest in their agencies other than overturning whatever had been going on beforehand and rooting out potentially disloyal staff. And in many cases, leaders of critical programs have not even been appointed, leaving the staff without clear direction.

 Lewis discusses a range of valuable functions that federal employees perform, many of which are not visible or only vaguely known by the public. He does a deep dive with a few examples including the Department of Energy, at one time considered for elimination by its future administrator who was apparently unaware that the Department oversees the monumental tasks of maintaining and guarding the nation’s nuclear arsenal and cleaning up a vast quantity of toxic nuclear weapons waste. Another example Lewis describes is the Department of Commerce, a name that appeared to some to suggest unnecessary intrusion into the private sector, until some of its more critical functions became understood. The Department houses large national data collection efforts such as economic statistics and the Constitutionally-mandated 10-year census, which informs an array of decisions in government and the private sector. It also houses the National Weather Service which provides basic weather data to the commercial weather forecasters we all watch, and ultimately saves lives from extreme weather events.

 Lewis interviews a former government senior scientist about the risks facing society. One of the major risks the scientist mentions is that of losing the ability to prepare for unforeseen problems by eroding the infrastructure and expertise of government. This, he contends, is the greatest risk of all.

 Overall, Lewis gives us an interesting and very readable civics lesson. Having worked in a federal agency myself, I found this book profoundly truthful.

 The Fifth Risk is available from local libraries.