Michael Lewis’s The Fifth Risk might not have been written if not for former Texas governor Rick Perry. In 2016, Perry, who once campaigned to abolish the Department of Energy, was nominated to be its leader by Donald Trump. At his confirmation hearings, Perry admitted he hadn’t previously appreciated the breadth of the $30 billion agency’s portfolio: from overseeing our nuclear arsenal and electrical grid, to tracking black-market uranium.
“After Rick Perry is so preposterously appointed, I went in to the Department of Energy, quite innocently and said, ‘I want to know what these places do now that the people running them do not seem to know what they want to do,” Lewis–the best-selling author of Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, The Blind Side, and The Big Short–told Texas Monthly on our new edition of The National Podcast of Texas. “I wanted to know what they don’t know.”
Lewis’s reporting in The Fifth Risk mostly centers on the Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Commerce, but it’s designed to offer a broader window into the everyday, perhaps misunderstood, machinery of the federal government. It’s Lewis’s contention that while federal departments and agencies might not bask in the same spotlight as the White House and Capitol Hill, they oversee our greatest risks–from natural disasters and climate change to military conflict and vital social programs. What Lewis calls the fifth risk is a lack of curiosity, or as he says in the book, “the risk a society runs when it falls into the habit of responding to long-term risks with short-term solutions.” It’s “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.”
Lewis’s assessment of the Trump presidency is not kind. He believes that a bungled transition from the Obama administration to the Trump administration foreshadowed a government under attack by its own leaders, one ripe with corruption, special interests, and serious conflicts. He also makes a case against what he calls the administration’s “willful lack of intellectual curiosity and a disdain for science” and argues that it puts all of us in mortal danger.
On the podcast, recorded by phone Friday afternoon, Lewis offers behind-the-scenes details of the transition, what Rick Perry did or didn’t do to prepare for his new role, and ultimately, how somebody who’s made a convincing case that things couldn’t be worse is still actually kind of hopeful.
Some highlights (edited and condensed for clarity):
The Fifth Risk’s Origin Story
So the book is me basically wandering around the administration, getting the briefings from civil servants and former Obama people that the Trump administration didn’t bother to get. And it starts with me just being curious about what they weren’t curious about. There was this elaborate enterprise that needed to be run, and they really didn’t seem all that interested in running it. And then it [goes] on from there into this whole question of corruption and you can’t avoid it. Everywhere you go, you see people flooding in who’ve got some narrow financial interests, some glaring conflict. And this is very odd because, among other things, one of the three things Trump was shouting during the campaign was “Drain the Swamp”—and instead of draining it, he’s filled it up with all these slithery green creatures.
What’s at Risk
The government manages a basket of risks, some of them existential, that really aren’t going to be managed by anybody else. Climate change is one of them, the nuclear arsenal another, and responses to natural disasters, wildfires, and hurricanes. This is stuff the private sector is not going to deal with. And one of the consequences of [the Trump administration] not showing up for the transition, not showing up to learn the technical matters that they would be in charge of, is that they amplify all these risks. It’s inevitable, right? It can’t help not to know anything. But one of the byproducts of not knowing anything is you can pretend it’s all not that important, and you can let loose these people who are there just for narrow financial reasons. If there’s one theme is running through The Fifth Risk, it’s that once you abandon a mission-driven approach to government, like doing positive things, the only people who are going to turn up will be there to loot the place.
Why Big Federal Government Matters
If you back away from the federal government and say, “What has it done for us over the last century?,” one of the things that has done has been an engine for innovation. People don’t like to think this. They think that the private sector is the vital innovator, but in fact, most of the basic science that lies at the bottom of advances in medicine and advances in industry starts with government research. Because the industry doesn’t pay for things. Industry has no interest in paying for things that aren’t going to yield a return for thirty years. So you don’t get the internet. You don’t get vaccines for AIDS. You don’t get one thing after another. And the Trump administration has sought to zero out unbelievably successful R&D operations. And what that means is for the moment it will look like, “Oh, they cut the federal government. Great, it’s cheaper.” But the price that’s going to be paid for that isn’t measurable, and it’s a price that will be paid in thirty or forty years. And it’s a price that is the price of not having found out things we might’ve found out, like, for example, a solution to climate change.
On Rick Perry
The former governor of Texas is standing up in a presidential debate saying the federal bureaucracy is out of control and he’s going to eliminate three whole departments and he can’t remember the third name, but later he says the Energy Department was the name he forgot. It does strike one that this does not seem to be the obvious person to run the Energy Department, unless you’re sending him in to just dismantle it. But the minute he actually sees what the Energy Department does, he realizes he doesn’t want to dismantle any of it because what the Energy Department really is, is the department of nuclear weapons. It tests them, it assembles them. It scours the world for loose nuclear material that might be made into bombs by people we don’t want making them into bombs. And it cleans up the vast nuclear waste sites that were left behind from the manufacturing of nuclear weapons. It’s managing existential risks. It’s basically a big science lab. And he sees it. So that means that he called for the elimination of a department of which he was entirely ignorant—and then he’s put in charge of that very department. Could there be a less suitable person to run this department? And when you back away from this and ask who should be running this department, it’s not someone like Rick Perry. It’s a nuclear physicist or someone who’s very fluent in science. And he’s clearly not, he’s like a glad-hander.
Is Something More Sinister at Play?
If it’s a really properly managed government, then places like the State Department, if they aren’t in total chaos, may start to actually produce some insight into what happened between Trump and the Russians leading into the election—or going back twenty years. It may be that Trump thought, “the only way I survive in this office is if I maintain a state of total chaos, where everybody’s dealing with chaos all the time, so no one ever really gets a clear picture of me or a or of my past dealings.” As I wandered around the government and talked to people and looked at who Trump had put in the various places, I asked myself what could possibly be the motive for all this. And I think it’s easy to spin a kind of conspiracy theory that Trump is like an agent of the Russian government sent in to to destroy our society, starting with the federal government. But I don’t actually think it’s as simple as that. I think it’s a psychological problem of being incapable of employing anybody who had done anything but professed total loyalty to him. But anybody who knew anything about the government was pretty much against him going into the election. So he already didn’t have access to the typical Republican or Democrat talent pools for these operations. But then on top of that, he’s willfully ignorant. He himself doesn’t want to learn anything. And so he’s put in a position of kind of randomly assigning jobs to people based on roughly how they look. People think the Energy Department is about oil and Rick Perry looks like a Texas oil guy. It’s crazy, when what we really need is a nuclear physicist in that job. So the evaluation of the jobs was so bizarrely superficial that you ended up with a situation where it looks as if he’s just trying to destroy the place.
On White House Distraction
Most of the public interest in this administration has been narrowly focused on the White House and Trump himself and the circus. [Steve] Bannon told me himself, like, this is our strategy right from the beginning. How do you deal with the media? You flood it. You flood it with crap and nobody can focus on any one thing for very long. It was a conscious strategy during the campaign and Trump has just kept it going as president. But as a result, while everybody’s staring at the mad captain who’s supposed to be steering the ship, isn’t really steering the ship, all this stuff is happening below decks on the ship that’s really important and not being attended to.