The Fifth Risk – Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis is a very well-known name in the field of investigative journalism in the world of finance. His previous books have been incisive and in-depth looks at different subjects, right from the stock markets (Liar’s Poker, The Big Short, Flashboys) to sports (Moneyball).

In The Fifth Risk, Michael Lewis attempts to investigate a different area, politics. The book deals with a specific aspect of the Trump Presidency, and the hidden risks evolving from his mismanagement. The author starts off by saying that the various departments of the US government maintain an ongoing portfolio of critical projects that impact the American public, and to some extent, the world at large. These projects fall under various umbrellas – the Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Commerce, the DoD, etc. Most of these projects are unknown to the citizens who are thus not aware of the risks that are inherent in these projects not getting managed properly. That is the meaning of the Fifth Risk, the risk of Project Management, or the lack thereof.

Whenever there is a change in the Presidency, the new administration is supposed to take over the reins of various positions in these departments and further ensure that the knowledge transfer happens sufficiently so that the critical projects are carried on smoothly. The author claims that during the beginning of the Trump Presidency, no such thing happened. Due to the uncertainty and the lack of confidence of even Trump in his probability of actually getting elected, he had not planned for any such endeavour at such a scale. “Why study for a test you’ll never need to take?” Even the transition team that every candidate is required to set up by law was mismanaged by Trump, after reluctantly appointing Chris Christie to manage the team, and then firing him and putting a coterie of family members to continue the manage the possible transition.

At first the outgoing team in the departments awaited the arrival of the new team. At most of the places, none showed up. Eventually whenever someone did, they were some ex-corporates that Trump hand-picked out of his business contacts. And slowly many of them systematically over-turned the work done by these departments in various important areas such as nuclear waste disposal, weather monitoring, etc. It was as if the entire focus of the new teams sent by Trump was to find out and crack down on people who vouched for climate change.

The purpose of the book is to establish the important work done by the US government and its massive number of employees in areas that affect the country in many important ways. However, most of the time, the public are not aware of the roles that the government plays in the background. Maybe as a result even Trump thinks that these “projects” are not worth his attention and government budget, and that is a reason why many of these programs face an imminent threat of being de-prioritized or shut down in the worst case scenario. The most brazen of these attempts is the case of Barry Myers, the CEO of Accuweather, who was nominated by Trump to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Among other things, the NOAA monitors weather conditions across the country and provides warnings about extreme climactic conditions to the general public through public broadcasters. Barry Myers supported a bill that sought to prevent the NOAA to disseminate forecasts and weather information to the general public! What is more incredulous is that in preparing their own weather forecasts, private weather forecasting companies also rely on the data collected by NOAA. And it is only their paid customers who get weather forecasts well in advance of the event. The conflict of interest in this case was too plain to be ignored. The author predicts a dire scenario when weather information reaches you depending on how much you have paid for it.

“The dystopic endgame is not difficult to predict: the day you get only the weather forecast you pay for. A private company will become better than the Weather Service at knowing where a hurricane will make landfall: What will it do with that information? Tell the public or trade it inside a hedge fund? You know what Hurricane Harvey is going to do to Houston before Houston knows: Do you help Houston? Or do you find clever ways to make money off Houston’s destruction?”

The Fifth Risk is critical to understand and manage because the costs of removing the focus from such programs will be borne by future generations, when Trump is no more President. Judging from the nominees that Trump sought to place in the various departments, it is almost a mirror of the highest seat of the US government. Someone who was clearly not ready for a role as important as this was suddenly thrust into the limelight and had to take the oath of becoming the President of the United States. Similar to that, the nominees in the various departments also were individuals from the private sector who were either incompetent at worst, or had a major conflict of interest at best.

Although politics and cronyism embedded in the US government long before Trump, the kind of brazenness that has been shown in recent times is beyond equal. The author rues that the relationship that the public plays with the government is changing, for the worse.

“The sense of identity as Citizen has been replaced by Consumer. The idea that government should serve the citizens like a waiter or concierge, rather than in a‘collective good’ sense.”

The author makes very good points about long term project risks, the most striking two examples being the weather forecasts, and the nuclear waste disposal project at Hanford. If Trump has his way, many such projects face a danger of being discontinued or at worst mismanaged. However, it is difficult to believe that a single person would be able to entirely derail the good work that the government has done till now. There is no need for the American public to panic yet. Instead the citizens can use these stories as an important exhibit the next time they head for the elections.

Pick up this book if you’re interested in understanding how important it becomes to elect the right candidate especially in view of all the hidden risks that gestate out of everyone’s radar until they become too big to manage. In the meantime, do carry an umbrella always. Under the leadership of Barry Myers, the weather forecast may not reach you in time.


The Conquest of Happiness – Bertrand Russell

“The secret of happiness is this: let your interests be as wide as possible, and let your reactions to the things and persons that interest you be as far as possible friendly rather than hostile.”

The first thought that came to my mind while reading this book is that although this book is generally classified as philosophy, I find it equally suitable to be clubbed under self-help. Well, in a way, all philosophy is a form of self-help. And this book veers more into that territory than other philosophy literature. Now depending on where you stand with regard to the self-help genre, you may like or hate this book. But what I liked is that most of the concepts proposed in this book are clear, succinct and as relevant today as they were during the author’s time. And this book can be a good introduction to some of Bertrand Russell’s other works as well.

The Conquest of Happiness is divided into two parts. The first part deals with the various causes of unhappiness. It follows that the second part then talks about the various causes of happiness, with the end goal of the author being able to devise a framework to conquer happiness.

Every chapter deals with a particular area that contributes to the unhappiness or happiness in a human being. The author proceeds to dissect that cause and provide his approach of dealing with that cause. For example, the causes on unhappiness include Competition, Boredom, Persecution Mania, and a fear of public opinion. These are emotions that every human faces to some degree or the other. In the more grounded of us, these emotions are in control, whereas others still face a much more uphill battle in dealing with these emotions in daily life.

The causes of happiness, in the view of the author, include zest, family, work, and effort. Again, looking at this list, one would not be mistaken to imagine himself reading a self-help book. Yet, I would still recommend reading this book in its entirety due to its timeless ideas. Of course, some of the content is not politically correct in today’s day and age. But you have to forgive the author for using terms and meaning that were more relevant and acceptable at the time that this book was written.

At the end of the book, the author presents his overview of what constitutes a happy man. In short, what I gleaned from the book were the following steps to ensure that unhappiness does not take over your life:-

  1. Focus on outward pursuits not inward. Unhappy people often focus on the wrongs that happen to them. Instead of focusing on the outward world, they interpret the events in their life negatively because of their unhappiness. The author says that one must focus outward in order to reduce the events that affect you negatively.
  2. Cultivate more number of interests in varied fields – According to the author, having a narrow focus or having only one thing (other than work) to focus on can also be overwhelming sometimes. Instead by cultivating a varied set of hobbies can help one fight the devilish habit of boredom, and help one spend time more happily.
  3. Stop comparing yourself to others
  4. Give happiness to others instead of asking it. Paradoxically, this gives you back much more happiness.

“The happy man is the man who lives objectively, who has free affections and wide interests, who secures his happiness through these interests and affections and through the fact that they, in turn, make him an object of interest and affection to many others. To be the recipient of affection is a potent cause of happiness, but the man who demands affection is not the man upon whom it is bestowed. The man who receives affection is, speaking broadly, the man who gives it.”

This book is a very good introduction to Bertrand Russell’s other famous works and can be considered as a starting point in your journey. The overly obvious self-help tones may be jarring to some, but the advice is still relevant and quite helpful.

Verdict: Recommended if you’re planning to start out to read more about Western Philosophy. 3.75 out of 5.