The Fifth Risk – Michael Lewis

6 min read

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.