Teaser #1: Michael Lewis' The Fifth Risk


May 1st, 2020

17 mins 24 secs

Your Host

About this Episode

In honor of Mayday I want to dedicate this episode to the health care workers who are our frontline against the deadly COVID-19 pandemic. I hope our efforts to slow the spread of the virus are so successful that people think we overreacted. As I write the majority of the US is shut down, people are confined to their homes, restaurants and bars and other service industries are closed down. Nearly 60,000 people have died and 26 million people in the US have lost their jobs just in the past month and a half. Conservative estimates, which emphasize the element of uncertainty, claim we should expect somewhere between 80,000 and several hundred thousand more deaths, and if we open our public areas up too soon it could make things much worse. None of that had happened yet when Michael Lewis first wrote The Fifth Risk, a book about the terrible risks we were taking on as Trump deconstructed our government. The May of 2018 disbanding of the White House Pandemic Response team is just one example (https://speier.house.gov/trump-administration-s-mishandling-of-the-coronavirus-response_2). It’s hard not to read Lewis today without noticing how prescient he was that a terrible catastrophe could be brewing that would overwhelm our intentionally weakened government. I am generally optimistic about humanity’s ability to improve our life conditions, but unless we get a clear picture of how the coronavirus pandemic happened, and how the Trump administration in particular is responsible for sabotaging our response to it, then we will also not be prepared for the next crises. So the story, as is so often the case, has good news and bad news. The bad news is that we messed this one up, and the good news is that this means we can do better next time. I hope you are all well. I hope this podcast helps you understand better what we are all going through, and I hope that understanding brings a measure of peace.

There are thousands of positions in our government that are appointments. Whenever we get a new President those positions have to turn over: the people who did that job have to be replaced with new appointees. Candidates for the presidency are required by law to prepare a transition team. Trump’s transition team was led by Chris Christy, but Christy was fired when Trump realized he would have to actually become the President, because at that point, when the job was getting serious, Jared Kushner could not stand Christy actually being so important when Christy had helped put Kushner’s dad in jail for corruption. The outgoing appointees under Obama spent months preparing to brief the new appointees. Those new appointees never got those briefings, often times arriving long after their predecessors were gone. Many positions were never filled. Michael Lewis, the guy who wrote Money Ball, went around to receive all these briefings to understand what was being lost, and the book that came out of that is The Fifth Risk.

Let’s focus on the big three: DOE, USDA and NOAA. In all three cases the top role was filled by the proverbial fox in the henhouse. Rick Perry is now heading the Department of Energy. Rick Perry was the guy who when he was running for president said he would shut down a department he couldn’t remember the name of, and that department was the DOE. Joel Leftwich, a lobbyist for PepsiCo was in charge of the transition team for the USDA. Barry Meier, the guy trying to privatize all weather data, was put in charge of NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). We note in passing that Trump’s pick for labor secretary, Alex Acosta, had to resign after the Epstein controversy, so the acting secretary, meaning not approved by the congress, is Patrick Pizzella who helped Jack Abramoff skirt federal labor laws in the Northern Mariana Islands in the 90s.
What Lewis is ultimately talking about in this book is risk. What are the risks that our federal government works to mitigate, and where are they now dropping the ball. A lot of these risks will be causing problems in the next few decades. Remember when Ta-Nehisi Coates urged us to start doing things for the benefit of our children and grandchildren if we wanted to stop dreaming we were white? Well, these departments getting neglected is peak whiteness, peak short term gain over long term benefit. Also, when we spoke about the Black Panther Party, and how Nixon hired Black people into the public sector to undermine support for the BPP? We should definitely read his attack on government institutions as a racist attack on this Black middle class of civil servants.

I’m just going to start listing things.
First off, the Department of Energy is in charge of a $30 billion budget to maintain and guard our nuclear arsenal.
Two billion of that is used “hunting down weapons-grade plutonium and uranium at loose in the world so that it doesn’t fall into the hands of terrorists” (p41)
The DOE inspects nuclear power plants to make sure they are run safely, but also to make sure no one is refining weapons-grade plutonium on the sly.

The DOE was in charge of implementing the inspections that went along with the Iran nuclear deal that Trump skuttled. Incidentally, Trump has doubled down on the trend of undermining and destroying our ambassador corps, the part of government that does diplomacy, which should be the topic of another book report on a book that Ronin Farrow put out called War on Peace. All of these things make war more likely.
The DOE provides low interest loans to the energy sector to get them to invest in and research new energy technologies. In 2005 these investments went to programs that produced the fracking boom and also the boom in solar PV technology. If there’s going to be a transition away from fossil fuels, then it will have to come from government investment because private companies are too short sighted, obviously.

The DOE has historically educated utility companies about the risks they face. It could possibly coordinate something to secure the grid nationwide, though it doesn’t now. There’s no one in private industry who could take on such a thing.
Rick Perry has never received a single briefing about what the DOE does.
The USDA does so many things that no one knows all of the things it does, not even people who work for it.
The USDA manages a free school lunch program and food stamps. If not for congress Trump would have successfully cut the food stamps budget by 25%. Brian Klippenstein was in charge of the transition in the USDA, and he immediately started a witch hunt to find out who was studying climate change. Brian Klippenstein up to that moment had run Protect the Harvest, which is a group that protects the supposed right to hunt animals and demonizes the humane society.
The USDA is the branch of government that brings legal action against people who abuse animals, and in the Spring of 2017 they shut down a national database that recorded incidents of animal abuse before public outcry forced them to to bring part of it back. So, now we have a President that is pro-animal cruelty.

The USDA saved us all in 2015 from bird flu by quickly creating a reliable test for it and then deploying it in industry. Food safety in the poultry industry is largely a trade off between speed of killing birds and safety in the time it takes to adequately inspect each bird. In 2017 the USDA increased the allowable line speed from 140 to 170 birds per minute.
The USDA manages a bank worth $220 billion dollars that provides loans to small farmers, funds fire stations in rural communities, helps small towns finance electricity, sewage and drinking water. The department that managed all that was called the office of Rural Development, and it was shut down at the same time that Trump was pulling the US out of the TPP, a move that along with the Tariff war has cost US agriculture billions hitting small farmers worst of all. The $220 billion dollar bank was moved under direct management of the secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is the only group in North America that actually collects weather data. Everything you see on the weather channel they got from NOAA.
Accuweather’s CEO Barry Myers was the head of NOAA until this last February. His nomination was withdrawn because Democrats signaled they wouldn’t allow him to be nominated for obvious reasons. Barry Myers has, along with Rick Santorum, has led up to now unsuccessful legislative campaigns to privatize weather data. That is, the data that our tax dollars are used to generate about weather patterns, they want to make it illegal for the public to access that data because they want to package the data and sell it to us. So, if you wanted to get warnings about extreme weather events early, you would have to pay for them. In March 2015 Accuweather used data collected from NOAA and predicted a tornado in Moore Oklahoma 12 minutes before NOAA did. That means people who had subscribed to the Accuweather service got advance warning of a potentially deadly storm. That’s what Barry Meier wants to make the national norm: a two-tier weather alert system in the context of increasingly extreme weather due to climate change.
Speaking of climate change, what that issue is about is risk and food. Early on the most spectacular thing climate change is going to cause is the loss of coastal regions, the most populated regions, and resulting mass migration. What happens a little later on is food scarcity. What’s that got to do with weather data? Everything.
Since 2011 David Friedberg has been using publicly available weather data to sell insurance to farmers. The farmers get insured against adverse and unpredictable weather data, and David Friedberg helps them maximize their crop by using big data to tell them things like when to spread fertilizer. They can tell down to the week when to spread fertilizer, and if they they get it wrong and it rains right after you put down the fertilizer it can cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars. Big data ensures our food security. Let’s hope they don’t privatize weather data. But that’s just one place where NOAA and USDA funded research will help us mitigate climate change, unless these departments are sabotaged by a bankrupt fascist 3rd rate Russian gangster wannabe.

After reading this book I had a great deal more respect for people who work for the fed. They are people who typically can make more money in the private sector, and they almost never get public praise for their successes. They almost never get noticed unless they have made a mistake or by chance found themselves at the center of a catastrophe. It’s really very problematic the way we speak of them. Even leftists tend ot criticize the federal government when they talk about it at all, and in fact there are many ways our lives are better because of our government. We should try and strengthen and expand it.

At the very end of The Fifth Risk, Michael Lewis tells a story that seems to point to the way forward, and to my ear echoes points made by Jane McElevy in No Shortcuts, which is another book you should read. On May 16, 2017 a massive tornado hit Elk City, Oklahoma, the largest city in Beckham County population 25,000. Tornadoes are one of the most difficult weather events to predict. You can tell when a Winter Storm is going to happen, but you can only warn people about a tornado once you’ve seen one. That gives local authorities very little time, once in a blue moon maybe 15 minutes, to communicate to locals the threat. Communicating risk quickly is the best hope people living in tornado prone areas have. Most of the time, local authorities fail at this, with disastrous consequences. Even if you have a tornado warning, you can’t know how bad it is until the tornado hits something. And by then it’s too late. But in Elk City, there was a local fireman named Lonnie Risenhoover. In Elk City a new state of the art prediction model had given Lonnie 30 minutes. A liberal is more likely to trust the news, and so they take tornado warnings more seriously and have a better chance of evacuating to safety. But in Elk City almost everyone voted for Trump. Because local people knew Lonnie they had more trust in the warning and evacuated. That’s Michael Lewis’ final word of hope for winning Trump voters back: someone like Lonnie Risenhoover has to explain the risk to them.

Now, Trump is like a tornado in more ways than one. As we’ve pointed out, people support Trump because they don’t trust the media and all the people they know trust Trump. When progressives move to the hip part of town or refuse to socialize with conservatives or stop going to church, we make it worse. Another way a tornado is like Trump is that people don’t respond to either one as a threat if they don’t believe it will impact them. And finally, a tornado is like Trump because when people have lost about everything, they might find themselves hoping for something to come around and destroy all the rest. Lewis finishes his book with the story of Miss Finley, who used to pray a tornado would come and destroy her barn because that was where her husband had killed himself. And one day a tornado did take her barn. “And so, you might have good reason to pray for a tornado, whether it comes in the shape of swirling winds, or a politician. 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.” (Lewis, p. 217)

Works Cited:

Bloom, Joshua, Waldo E. Martin Jr, and Waldo E. Martin. Black against empire: The history and politics of the Black Panther Party. Univ of California Press, 2016.

Farrow, Ronan. War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence. WW Norton & Company, 2018.

Lewis, Michael. The fifth risk: undoing democracy. Penguin UK, 2018.