The Fifth Risk (Hardcover)

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Breathing fresh air (or at least air that is not imminently dangerous), eating safe food, avoiding a nuclear melt down, ensuring that future generations will have wilderness to enjoy; these and many other facets of life in the USA have been protected by departments of government.  While it may be fashionable to oppose bureaucracy, I don’t think any of us would get very far without air to breath or food to eat.  In the past these departments were staffed by scientists, economists, and people who knew a bit about the work they were doing for the American people.  Times have changed. Lewis explains what is happening in some of these departments essential to the running of our country.  In the Department of Energy, tasked with such mundane issues as risk assessment for nuclear reactors, we lost essential personnel.  In the Department of Agriculture staff that could tell one end of a steer from another were replaced by such great hires as a cabana operator unversed in anything agricultural. 

— Deon Stonehouse


"The election happened," remembers Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, then deputy secretary of the Department of Energy. "And then there was radio silence." Across all departments, similar stories were playing out: Trump appointees were few and far between; those that did show up were shockingly uninformed about the functions of their new workplace. Some even threw away the briefing books that had been prepared for them.

Michael Lewis's brilliant narrative takes us into the engine rooms of a government under attack by its own leaders. In Agriculture the funding of vital programs like food stamps and school lunches is being slashed. The Commerce Department may not have enough staff to conduct the 2020 Census properly. Over at Energy, where international nuclear risk is managed, it's not clear there will be enough inspectors to track and locate black market uranium before terrorists do.

Willful ignorance plays a role in these looming disasters. If your ambition is to maximize short-term gains without regard to the long-term cost, you are better off not knowing those costs. If you want to preserve your personal immunity to the hard problems, it's better never to really understand those problems. There is upside to ignorance, and downside to knowledge. Knowledge makes life messier. It makes it a bit more difficult for a person who wishes to shrink the world to a worldview.

If there are dangerous fools in this book, there are also heroes, unsung, of course. They are the linchpins of the system--those public servants whose knowledge, dedication, and proactivity keep the machinery running. Michael Lewis finds them, and he asks them what keeps them up at night.

Coverage from NPR

Product Details
ISBN: 9781324002642
ISBN-10: 1324002646
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Publication Date: October 2nd, 2018
Pages: 256
Language: English