41 pages • 1 hour readMichael Lewis
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The Fifth Risk is a narrative nonfiction work published in 2018 by Michael Lewis. Originally, two parts of the book appeared as articles in Vanity Fair, and the third part was released as an audiobook. The Fifth Risk discusses the Trump administration’s transition to running the federal government, and it examines the departments of Energy, Agriculture, and Commerce during the shift from the Obama to the Trump presidencies. The book spent 14 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and it is slated to be adapted into a Netflix series by former US President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama.
Michael Lewis is well-known for titles like Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, and The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, all of which have been adapted into films. In The Fifth Risk, Lewis incorporates a mix of interviews with former federal staff members, historical context, and his own experience of visiting government offices and relevant sites. This study guide refers to the 2018 edition published by W. W. Norton & Company.
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The Fifth Risk offers a look at the potential risks managed by the United States government, their ramifications, and the Trump transition team’s lack of preparedness to take control of the government. By looking at the Department of Energy (DOE), Department of Agriculture (USDA), and Department of Commerce, Lewis pulls back the curtain on three parts of the government that are not usually focused on, as the work of departments like Defense, Treasury, and Homeland Security typically garner more media headlines. However, throughout the Preface and three sections that follow, it becomes clear that there are more to these departments than the average person would expect, and Lewis draws out some of this knowledge by interviewing experts with long careers in each area. Ultimately, his narrative demonstrates the Trump administration’s negligence in preparing to take over the government and the potentially devastating effects of that approach.
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The Preface begins in April of 2016, when Chris Christie became the leader of the Trump transition team. He and his staff begin to compile lists of potential candidates for the top 500 government jobs. However, when Trump discovers that money was spent to hire a team, he orders that the transition team be shut down, despite both Christie’s and Steve Bannon’s (his chief strategist) reminders that federal law requires that the two top candidates begin work to prepare to take over the federal government.
The first part then turns to the DOE, introducing four elements that are seen in each section. The first is that, on the day after the election, no one showed up from the Trump campaign to begin the transition from the outgoing Obama administration to the incoming Trump administration. Even when someone finally did appear, it usually was not for long enough for current staffers to give a thorough overview of their department. The second element is the almost Salem-like search for those who support theories of climate change and a desire to cut funding to research that explores the subject. In this section, a representative from the Trump transition team asks for a list of employees who attended meetings of organizations interested in climate change.
The third element that Lewis highlights in each section is the dissonance between those Trump team does install in each department and what that department does. Rick Perry, who becomes the Secretary of Energy, at one point called for the elimination of the department. This pattern is repeated with the installation of underqualified staffers in the USDA and with Barry Myers’s involvement with the National Weather Service.
The fourth element is Lewis’s interviews with former department staff members. His first is with John MacWilliams, the former chief risk officer within the DOE, who introduces the “fifth risk” that gives the book its name: project management. Poor project management can have devastating financial effects, and starting even before Trump entered the White House, there has been a cycle of mismanagement and short-term solutions that haven’t alleviated long-term problems. In this part, he uses nuclear waste as an example.
In the second part, Lewis focuses on the USDA and how much of what that department does goes unnoticed by Americans who utilize its programs for financial support. He also notes the steps that the Trump administration took to defund science-based programs and research as part of illustrating the difference between departments that spend and departments that regulate.
Part 3 is the longest of the sections and focuses on the Department of Commerce, which is, despite its name, is more focused on science and data than business. Lewis illustrates the effects of tornadoes and what steps the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has taken to improve not only its ability to predict severe weather but also its ability to convince people that the threat is real when the National Weather Service issues a warning. The need for emergency preparedness in this chapter serves, in some ways, as a metaphor for the importance of government officials being able to manage the many risks that come their way, including and especially the ones that they don’t anticipate.
By Michael Lewis