The Fifth Risk: Michael Lewis explains how the "deep state" is just nerds versus grifters

Michael Lewis is a national treasure, whose gift for explaining how finance grifters think and operate has spawned a whole genre, which he dominates with books like Liar's Poker (an insider view of the S&L crisis); The Big Short (a character-driven, crystal-clear explainer on the financial engineering that led to the 2008 crisis), and Flash Boys (the shitty math and bafflegab behind high-speed trading); and now, The Fifth Risk: an astounding and terrifying book about the experts who fill the ranks in the US government and the Trump-administration grifters who are destroying the work they do to keep us from dying of tornadoes, nuclear accident, food poisoning and a million other dangers, large and small.

The Fifth Risk is a very short book, consisting mostly of interviews with current (and usually anonymous) US government officials, as well as former high-ranking officials who left when the Trump administration took over. These are largely extremely technical people, manifestly and palpably motivated by a sense of duty and a commitment to excellence, who have been charged with an insanely hard job: figuring out how to contain all the complex risks of 21st century technical society, including things like a 100-year, 100-billion-dollar nuclear cleanup that involves mitigating vast, badly secured underground stores of waste from the WWII nuclear bomb production effort, which is slowly seeping towards the Columbia River.

Each profile takes on a similar form: the expert's journey to government service is explained (for example, how a deep-sea scientist became one of the first US woman astronauts and then helmed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; then, the incredibly technical, incredibly high stakes that person lives with (dealing with all the nation's weather data and figuring out how we can not all die from fires, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, etc), and then, the kicker: how Trump's shitty administration of grifters and right-wing thinktankies showed up underprepared, disinterested, and actively hostile to the person and the work they did (in this case, how the guy who runs Accuweather and has been lobbying for years to force the government to stop letting us get weather predictions for free ended up in charge of US governmental weather strategy).

It's a powerful format, by turns inspiring, infuriating and terrifying. It's also a powerful repudiation of "public choice theory," a favorite economic theory among the right, whose simplest formulation holds that everyone is looking out for themselves, and that "duty" and other high-minded ideals are at best self-deception from would-be civil-service empire-builders who are just looking to expand their influence at taxpayer's expense. Public choice advocates will tell you that no one really thinks of themselves as a villain, and that your "bad guy" thinks they're doing the right thing just as much as you do.

Which is true, as far as it goes, but woefully incomplete. The crooks whom Trump brought in to run these incredibly technical, high-stakes, multi-billion dollar agencies don't think of themselves as villains. They genuinely, legitimately believe that (for example) climate change isn't real, or that poor people will find work faster if you cut off their kids' food-stamps.

But there's a difference between the heroes of Lewis's book and the villains: the heroes did their homework. They know what the fuck they're talking about. When they say that you need to spend $X billion to keep the tailings from Little Boy's plutonium payload from seeping into the water supply for much of Washington State and Oregon, they're basing that statement on expert study and research. When a Trumpian asshole sweeps in and declares that any program that costs $100 billion is an example of government waste and can easily be downsized without hurting anyone, they are talking out of their asses.

It's the difference between doing your homework and Dunning-Kruger. What's more, the grifter villains of Lewis's book are willfully ignorant: like Exxon, which discovered and then forgot that climate change was real and driven by burning their oil, these blow-dried gators and henhouse-foxes know, in their deepest hearts, that actually doing their homework would make it impossible to do their jobs with a straight face, so they maintain and cherish their ignorance. This skill is an iron-clad requirement in the Trump administration.

Lewis has these fuckers' numbers. This book is a hymn to the "deep state," which is revealed as nothing more than people who know what they're talking about.

The Fifth Risk [Michael Lewis/WW Norton]

(Thanks, Stewart!)

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