The Fifth Risk

by Michael Lewis

Book Summary by Brian T. Murphy

Summary: This is probably the most important book I have ever read. This book details stories from the Department of Energy, USDA, and Department of Commerce, and describes the everyday operations of these organizations to highlight how important they are in our lives. Lewis brilliantly uses storytelling to communicate a few simple messages: 1) Government agencies are essential to our democracy. They provide us with critical resources, and they rarely publicize it; 2) Employees working for these agencies often times pass up more lucrative jobs in favor of public service; this need to give back drives the success of these agencies, and thus of a democracy that directly benefits its citizens; 3) The Trump Administration put little thought into who would run these agencies because they did not expect to win the Presidential election; 4) President Trump, often with intent, waged a war on the taxpayer by appointing either unqualified people or those in direct financial conflict to these (and other) agencies. Nothing is more toxic to a democracy than this, dismantling it from the inside.   

Major themes:

  • “There was a rift in American life that was now coursing through American government. It wasn’t between Democrats and Republicans. It was between the people who were in it for the mission, and the people who were in it for the money.” P190-191

  • Lewis perfectly states part of the Trump Administration philosophy. The want to have all the benefits without doing any of the hard work: “Here is where the Trump administration’s willful ignorance plays a role. If your ambition is to maximize short-term game without regard to the long-term cost, you are better off not knowing the cost. If you want to preserve your personal immunity to the hard problems, it’s better never to really understand those problems. There is an upside to ignorance, and a 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.” p 77

  • “In the red southern states the mayor sometimes would say, ‘Can you not mention that the government gave this?’ Even when it was saving lives, or preserving communities, the government remained oddly invisible. ‘It’s just a misunderstanding of the system… we don’t teach what Government actually does.’ ” p 119

Prologue. Lost in Translation

  • “He’d [Max Stier, Partnership for Public Service] explain that the federal government provided services that the private sector couldn’t or wouldn’t: medical care for veterans, air traffic control, national highways, food safety guidelines. He’d explain that the federal government was an engine of opportunity: millions of American children, for instance, would have found it even harder than they did to make the most of their lives without the basic nutrition supplied by the federal government.” p 24-25

  • “His campaign hadn’t even bothered to prepare an acceptance speech. It wasn’t hard to see why Trump haven’t seen the point in preparing to take over the federal government: Why study for a test you’ll never need to take?” p 28

  • The chapter details how Trump was not prepared to transition into the White House, and details the firing of Chris Christie (transition team) and how Trump was basically going to handle the transition all by himself. Even Bannon didn’t think this was a good idea: “Holy fuck, this guy doesn’t know anything. And he doesn’t give a shit.” p 32

I. Tail Risk [Department of Energy, DOE] 

  • Gist of chapter: this chapter tells detailed stories about the importance of DOE programs, the risks to our livelihood, and the people, funds, and programs at DOE that protect us. Through several examples, Lewis explains why the Trump administration is a threat to the DOE, and by extension, to us.

  • After Trump was elected, then Deputy Secretary of the DOE noted “there was radio silence.” “across the federal government the Trump people weren’t anywhere to be found. The few places they didn’t turn up, they appeared confused and unprepared.” “ ‘It was like he [Kushner] thought it was a corporate acquisition or something,’ says an Obama White House staffer. ‘He thought everyone just stayed.” p 36

  • Trump’s “landing team” at the DOE was small and led by a man Thomas Pyle, “President of the American Energy Alliance, which, upon inspection, proved to be a Washington, DC, propaganda machine funded with millions of dollars from Exxon Mobil and Koch industries.” Pyle was also a Koch lobbyist and had a side business writing editorials attacking the DOE. The section details how Pyle spend little time (one hour) asking questions about the DOE and preparing for a transition. p 38-39

  • Pyle engaged in McCarthy-esque techniques, asking for a list of names of DOE employees that attended “Cost of Carbon” meetings, or who attended climate change meetings. P40-41

  • The chapter details how the well-qualified man inside the DOE who was in charge of the Nuclear weapons program, was packing his stuff at work and still hadn’t been replaced. “It was only after Secretary Moniz called U.S. senators to alert them to the disturbing vacancy, and the senators phoned Trump Tower sounding alarmed, that the Trump people called General Klotz and–on the day before Donald Trump was inaugurated as the forty-fifth President of the United States–asked him to bring back the stuff he had taken home and move back into his office. Aside from him, the people with the most intimate knowledge of the problems and the possibilities of the DOE walked out the door.” p 45

  • Trump nominated Governor Rick Perry to head the DOE, the man who called for its elimination (and later admitted that he didn’t know what the DOE did and regretted saying that). p 47

  • “Since Perry was confirmed his role has been ceremonial and bizarre. He pops up in distant lands and tweets in praise of this or that DOE program while his masters inside the White House create budgets to eliminate those very programs.” Perry was not in control, and decisions were being made from afar. “The woman who ran the Obama department’s energy-policy analysis unit received a call from DOE staff telling her that her office was now occupied by Eric Trump’s brother-in-law. Why? No one knew.” p 48

  • The DOE now stifles development of solar companies. “Its loans to early-stage solar energy companies launched the industry. There are now thirty-five viable utility-scale, privately funded solar companies–up from zero a decade ago. And yet today the program sits frozen.” p 49

  • The chapter focuses on John MacWilliams, Associate Deputy Secretary of DOE. “My team prepared its own books. They were never given to anybody. I never had a chance to sit with the Trump people and tell them what we’re doing, even for a day. And I’d have done it for weeks. I think this was a sad thing. There are things you want to know that would keep you up at night. And I never talked to anyone about them.” p 56

  • Unbelievable story of “Broken Arrow” (a nuclear accident that doesn’t lead to nuclear war). Declassified in 2013, a pair of 4 megaton of hydrogen bombs (>250x Hiroshima) fell from a B52 in NC. One disintegrated on impact and the other floated down on parachute and armed itself, and later found in a field outside Goldsboro, NC, “with three of its four safety mechanisms tripped or rendered ineffective by the plane’s break up.” The point was that the bomb didn’t explode because it’s the job of the DOE to design safety mechanisms, thus highlighting the overlooked critical role the department can play in keeping us safe. p 58

  • Lewis details the U.S. Army’s praise for Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, and the role of the DOE in monitoring the main routes Iran could take to enrich uranium. It then contrasts that with Trump Administration ignoring opinions of nuclear scientists and backing out of the Iran deal. p 62

  • The DOE was responsible for American energy independence. “Fracking –to take one example– was not the brainchild of private-sector research but the fruit of research paid for twenty years ago by the DOE. Solar and wind technologies are another example. The Obama administration set a goal in 2009 of getting the cost of utility-scale solar energy down by 2020 from 27 cents a kilowatt-hour to 6 cents. It’s now at 7 cents, and competitive with natural gas because of loans made by the DOE. ‘The private sector only steps in once DOE shows it can work’ ” p 63-64

  • Lewis tells the famed story of solar company Solyndra but highlights “the whole point was to take big risks the market would not take”. Lewis stresses that because of political fallout from failures or negative press from Solyndra, people were very risk-averse, when taking risks was the entire point. p 64-65

  • “Our electricity is supplied by a patchwork of not terribly innovative or imaginatively managed regional utilities. The federal government offers the only hope of a coordinated, intelligent response to threats to the system: there is no private-sector mechanism.” p 66-67

  • The founding document of the DOE is a letter Albert Einstein wrote to Franklin Roosevelt. p 69

  • The people who created the plutonium for the first bombs, in the 1940s forties and early 1950s, were understandably in too much of a rush to worry about what might happen afterward. They simply dumped 120 million gallons of high-level waste, and another 444 billion gallons of contaminated liquid, into the ground. They piled uranium (half-life 4.5 billion years) into unlined pits near the Columbia River. They dug forty-two miles of trenches to dispose of solid radioactive waste –and left no good records of what’s in the trenches.” We will one day (or continue?) to pay for these crimes against the planet and its innocent inhabitants. p 75

  • Lewis perfectly states part of the Trump Administration philosophy. The want to have all the benefits without doing any of the hard work: “Here is where the Trump administration’s willful ignorance plays a role. If your ambition is to maximize short-term game without regard to the long-term cost, you are better off not knowing the cost. If you want to preserve your personal immunity to the hard problems, it’s better never to really understand those problems. There is an upside to ignorance, and a 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.” p 77

II. People Risk [United States Department of Agriculture, USDA] 

  • The USDA name “is seriously misleading–most of what is does has little to do with agriculture. It runs 193 million acres of national forest and grasslands, for instance. It is charged with inspecting almost all the animals Americans eat, including the nine billion birds a year. Buried inside it is a massive science program, a large fleet of aircraft for firefighting, and a bank with $220 billion in assets.” p 87

  • From Ali Zaidi, whom the chapter focuses on, said this: “The USDA had subsidized the apartment my family had lived in. The hospital we used. The fire department. The town’s water. Electricity. It had paid for the food I had eaten.” p 88

  • Lewis details how after the election no one from the Trump Administration showed up to begin transitioning into their new jobs. “More than a month after the election, the Trump transition team finally appeared. But it wasn’t a team: it was just one guy, named Brian Klippenstein.” Lewis details how this sole man, later joined by three other people a couple of weeks before inauguration, were among the only ones to sit in and learn the jobs of over 100,000 USDA staff. “They were basically for show. The Trump transition sent in these teams in the end just to say they were doing it.” p 91

  • Lewis uses an entire section to detail the ridiculous lack of credentials of the incoming USDA team. p 92

  • Lewis gives an example of an unsung hero at the USDA, but really is a common theme throughout his book (service): “In his job at USDA, Concanon had overseen for eight years the nation’s school-lunch program; the program that ensures that pregnant women, new mothers, and young children receive proper nutrition; and a dozen or so smaller programs designed to alleviate hunger. Together these accounted for approximately 70 percent of the USDA’s budget–he’d spent the better part of a trillion dollars feeding people with tax payer money while somehow remaining virtually anonymous.” p 97

  • Kevin Concannon ran the section titled “Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services”. His main concern about Trump coming into office was the Food Stamps program. “The Trump budget had proposed cutting food stamps by more than 25 percent over the next 10 years and more or less abandoning the notion that the country should provide some minimum level of nutrition to its citizens.” p 98

  • Lewis tells the story of Concannon’s background and motivations for wanting to serve in the USDA. His story reflects the authors interview on real Time with Bill Maher. The people who traditionally work at these institutions do so out of a sense of service. They relate through personal stories. Gratitude. This is lacking in the Trump administration philosophy, and could seriously wound these agencies permanently. p 100-101

  • This stat must be engrained in our collective conscious. On food stamps: “Eighty-seven percent of that money goes to households with children, the disabled, and elderly. ‘The idea that we are going to put these people to work is nonsense.’ Able-bodied adults on food stamps are required to work, or attend job training, for at least 20 hours a week. The nation’s private food banks dispense about $8 billion in food each year while $70 billion in food is provided through food stamps: private charity alone will not feed everyone who needs feeding. The problem with the program is not that people are cheating it. The problem with the program is that people who should be on it are not.” p 104

  • One paragraph about Kevin Concannon epitomizes a major theme in the book, that those in government often are there out of a sense of service rather than to make money. Concannon could have made more money in the private sector. He says “I’ve always had enough. I’ve never felt the need to go over to the other side and make three times the amount of money. If you like what you do, you just keep doing it.” This represents the good in us and stands in direct contrast to greed, power, and ego, which is a driving moral force in the Trump Administration. p 106

  • Lincoln created the Department of Agriculture in an effort to make US agriculture more efficient, to create “a vast science lab.” “in 1872, the average American farmer fed roughly four other people; now the average farmer feeds about 155 other people. It’s not just people and plants that have become more productive. In 1950, the average cow yielded 5,300 pounds of milk. In 2016, the average cow yielded 23,000 pounds of milk.” This is a testament to science, and should be tattooed onto those who fight against the benefits of genetic modification. p 108

  • The Department of Agriculture is responsible for the safety of all meat. The FDA handles all other food. p 110

  • “We don’t really celebrate the accomplishments of government employees. They exist in our society to take the blame. But if anyone ever paid attention, they would note that Woteki’s department, among other achievements, had suppressed the potentially catastrophic 2015 outbreak of bird flu.” p 111

  • Lewis details the appointment of Sam Clovis (PhD in Public Administration) as the USDA’s Chief Scientist. He was a right wing Limbaugh-style talk show host in Iowa. He replaced a man who was inducted into the National Academy of Sciences. Woteki (a lead scientist at the USDA) worried about the misuse of science to support policies. p 112

  • “One-quarter of the arable land in the world is already degraded, either by overfarming or overgrazing.” p 113

  •  This is an important point. Rural America receives hundreds of billions in what they would consider handouts. Bring this up in any discussion involving socialism or poverty. “The same Republican senators from farm states who said they abhorred government spending of almost any sort became radical socialists when the conversation turns to handouts to big grain producers.” The USDA “ran the $220 billion dollar bank that serviced the poorest of the poor in rural America”. p 116-117

  • The failure of government was not taking credit for the good they did: “As the USDA loans were usually made through local banks, the people on the receiving end of them were often unaware of where the money was coming from.” People would get the loans and brag about how proud they were “to have done it on their own”. p 118

  • Lillian Salerno headed the Rural Development branch of the USDA. This is classic: “I had this conversation with elected and state officials almost everywhere in the South,” said Salerno. ‘Them: We hate the government and you suck. Me: My mission alone put $1 billion into your economy this year, so are you sure about that? Me thinking: We are the only reason your shitty state is standing.” p 122

  • “Fifteen percent of the country lives in towns of fewer than 10,000 people, for instance, but a far greater proportion of the armed services come from rural areas than from urban ones. But the more rural the American, the more dependent he is for his way of life on the U.S. government. And the more rural the American, the more likely he was to have voted for Donald Trump.” p 123

III. All the President’s Data [Department of Commerce] 

  • “The Department of Commerce should really be called the Department of Information.” “On the Monday after the presidential election, the same thing that had happened across the rest of the U.S. government happened inside the Department of Commerce: nothing. Dozens of civil servants sat all day waiting to deliver briefings that would, in the end, never be heard. They’d expected Trump’s campaign organization to send in Landing Teams to learn about what was being done there, and why…But his people didn’t seem to want to know about them.” A senior Commerce official noted that the few conversations he had were focused only about trade and nothing else. Lewis then details hiring of Wilbur Ross and how he alone came in for meetings, and “had no idea what he was getting into. And he had no help.” p 160-161

  • In conversations with Ross a Bush Administration official was describing that the DOC mission was focused on science and technology and Ross responded “Yeah, I don’t think I want to be focusing on that.” p 164

  • Much of the chapter focuses on competition between the DOC National Weather Service and private sham company Accuweather, led by Barry (lawyer) and Joel Myers. Accuweather initially made money by “repackaging and selling National Weather Service information”. “In 2013 it began to offer a forty-five day weather forecast. In 2016 that became a ninety-day weather forecast.” Atrocious. p 166

  • “Barry Myers liked to say that he was in competition with the federal government. If so, the competition was bizarre: the U.S. Department of Commerce gave him, for free, most of the raw material he needed to create his product. Without the weather satellites, weather radar, whether buoys, and weather balloons, there would be no weather forecasting worth listening to, much less paying for. Whatever AccuWeather –and any other private weather forecaster–might be doing to refine the National Weather Service’s forecasts also depended on having those forecasts in the first place.” “By the 1990s, Barry Myers was arguing with a straight face that the National Weather Service should be, with one exception, entirely forbidden from delivering any weather related knowledge to any American who might otherwise wind up a paying customer of AccuWeather.” Santorum, a recipient of campaign donations from the Myers family, tried to write this idea into law. This is a private company benefiting from public data. This is wrong. p 169-170

  • “Pause a moment to consider the audacity of that maneuver. A private company whose weather predictions were totally dependent on the billions of dollars spent by the U.S. taxpayer to gather the data necessary for those predictions, and on decades of intellectual weather work sponsored by the U.S. taxpayer, and on international data sharing treaties made on behalf of U.S. taxpayer, and on the very forecasts that the National Weather Service generated, was, in effect, trying to force the U.S. tax payer to pay all over again for what the National Weather Service might be able to tell him or her for free.” Santorum and Myers are criminals. This is why our democratic experiment might fail – because unchecked capitalism will rot and corrupt our elected officials to their core. p 171

  • Gist of this section: “ ‘You’re essentially taking a public good that’s been paid for with tax payer dollars and restricting it to the privileged few who want to make money off it.’ ” [Senior official at the DOC] p 173

  • “By early 2018 Barry Myers had, by some mysterious process, gotten himself one Senate floor vote away from running NOAA.” p 173

  • “As a private citizen Myers devoted considerable energy to making the National Weather Service seem worse. As a public servant he could do much more. ‘Barry is uniquely dangerous, in a way a Scott Pruitt is not,’ said a Senate staffer. “Scott Pruitt does not understand the agency [Environmental Protection] he’s trying to destroy. Barry’s skills make him more effective in dismantling NOAA.” p 174

  • “The private weather industry, unlike the National Weather Service, has a financial interest in catastrophe. The more spectacular and expensive the disasters, the more people will pay for warning of them.” p 175

  • Two pages list a series of offenses against the US taxpayer. War on taxpayers. Basically, it lists multiple examples where critical pieces of data (payed for by the taxpayer) were removed or redacted from websites and reports. Re-writing of history. The country’s chief data scientist, DJ Patil, wrote memos to assist incoming personnel and never “heard a peep about them.” “Under each act of data suppression usually lay a narrow commercial motive: a gun lobbyist, a coal company, a poultry company.” “The NOAA Page used to have a link to weather forecasts… I saw it had been buried.” “There was a rift in American life that was now coursing through American government. It wasn’t between Democrats and Republicans. It was between the people who were in it for the mission, and the people who were in it for the money.” p 190-191

  • “The relationship between the people and their government troubled her. The government was the mission of an entire society: why was the society undermining it? ‘I’m routinely appalled by how profoundly ignorant even highly educated people are when it comes to the structure and function of our government,’ she said. ‘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.” p 194

  • Pages 200-209 provide further details about interference from AccuWeather stooge Myers that can be summed up by this NOAA employee’s quote: “What can we do in this space without interfering with the profits of AccuWeather?” p 209

  • The final page and a half are ominous and worth reading. Conservative voters wanted to show the government a little spanking by electing Trump. What they got was a full blown massacre. Perfectly stated by Lewis as he ends the book: “You imagine the thing doing the damage that you would like to see done, and no more. It’s what you fail to imagine that kills you.” p 218-219

Think for Yourself. Dissolve your Allegiances.