Michael Lewis Makes a Story About Government Infrastructure Exciting
If someone had asked you a few weeks ago whether former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie would ever be depicted as a beleaguered hero in a Michael Lewis book, it would have been reasonable to say the chances were low — lower, even, than Christie’s abysmal approval ratings when he left office earlier this year. Christie, after all, hasn’t done much to endear himself to the American public; early in 2016, his surprise endorsement of Donald J. Trump (who once called Christie a “little boy”) looked like the desperate move of a politician whose office was still smoldering from a payback scandal.
But it’s 2018 in America, where anything can happen and everything is relative, and the opening pages of Lewis’s new book, “The Fifth Risk,” have Christie acting like an upright statesman during the run-up to the 2016 election, hoping to convince a chaotic Trump campaign to devise an orderly transition plan in case of victory. Lewis says this was like trying to persaude Trump that he needed to study for a test he might never take. Christie was soon dismissed from Trump’s team, and the transition proceeded accordingly — which is to say, shambolically. Two years later, out of more than 700 key government positions requiring Senate confirmation, only 361 have been confirmed, and a full 152 have no nominee at all.
“Many of the problems our government grapples with aren’t particularly ideological,” Lewis writes, by way of moseying into what his book is about. He identifies these problems as the “enduring technical” variety, like stopping a virus or taking a census. Lewis is a supple and seductive storyteller, so you’ll be turning the pages as he recounts the (often surprising) experiences of amiable civil servants and enumerating risks one through four (an attack by North Korea, war with Iran, etc.) before you learn that the scary-sounding “fifth risk” of the title is — brace yourself — “project management.”
Lewis has a reputation for taking fairly arcane subjects — high finance, sovereign debt, baseball statistics, behavioral economics — and making them not just accessible but entertaining. He does the same here with government bureaucracy, though “The Fifth Risk” feels a little underdone compared to some of his previous books. Two of its three parts appeared as articles in Vanity Fair; the other as an audiobook original. Those pieces might have been written under deadline, but even with extra time to smooth things out, Lewis has elected to preserve some clunkers: Silence is still “deafening,” poverty still comes “in many flavors” and Lewis still decides “to kill two birds with one stone.”
For the most part, though, he keeps the narrative moving, rendering even the most abstruse details of government risk assessment in the clearest (and therefore most terrifying) terms. He asks a handful of former public servants, now living as private civilians, what they fear might happen if Trump continues his haphazard approach to staffing the federal government. Their answers include an accidental nuclear catastrophe and the privatization of public goods, like government loans and drinking water.
One danger to the proper functi
oning of federal agencies is a combination of incompetence and neglect. Lewis reports how the Trump team filled jobs at the Department of Agriculture with a number of decidedly nonagricultural nonexperts, including a country-club cabana attendant and the owner of a scented-candle company.
But this kind of bumbling patronage, according to Lewis, is only one part of the Trump method. The other involves bringing in what looks suspiciously like a wrecking crew. Trump has repeatedly placed essential agencies under the leadership of individuals who have previously called for the elimination of the same agency, or else a radical limit to its authority.
Take, for example, Barry Myers, Trump’s nominee for the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Myers also happens to be chief executive of AccuWeather, his family’s company. As a private citizen, Myers lobbied to prevent NOAA’s National Weather Service from having direct contact with the public, saying that “the government should get out of the forecasting business” — despite the fact that AccuWeather repackaged free government weather data and sold it for a profit.
With Myers in charge, Lewis says “the dystopic endgame is not difficult to predict: the day you get only the weather forecast you pay for.”
Lewis leavens all the doomsaying with some (darkly) funny bits. A woman astronaut recalls that male NASA technicians were so flummoxed by the prospect of menstruation in space that they offered her a kit of a hundred tampons for a short journey. The wrappers had been removed and the tampons sealed in little red cases, strung together in an “endless unfurling” that she likened to a “bad stage act.”
What Lewis doesn’t do is delve too deeply into politics, preferring instead to focus our attention on technical functions of government that everyone takes for granted. This tack will undoubtedly make the book more appealing to some of the government skeptics (i.e. conservatives) who are traditionally part of his enormous audience, but it also leaves the book with an analytical weakness. As Lewis’s narrow depiction of Christie inadvertently shows, technical know-how isn’t nearly enough. You can have a detailed understanding of the technocratic workings of government and still be, politically speaking, extremely unhelpful to the public you’re supposed to serve.
Lewis undoubtedly knows this, and as a storyteller he had to put limits somewhere. Besides, when the polar ice caps melt and the world is in flames, Democrat, Republican — none of that will matter anymore. Lewis himself seems to swing from civic optimism to abject nihilism, sometimes within the same perfect sentence. As he says about the imposing, brutalist building that houses the Department of Energy: “It will make an excellent ruin.”