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Risky Business

By: Michael M. Rosen
June 3, 2019

olitics without romance” is how the late Nobel prize-winning economist James Buchanan described the “public choice” theory he expounded in the early 1960s and helped disseminate far and wide over the next five decades. According to Buchanan’s model, politicians and government bureaucrats alike must be understood in the context of the agencies and governing bodies they occupy, taking into account all parochial and personal interests they may have.

Instead of glorifying government workers as selfless “public servants,” public choice theory approaches them as rational actors seeking to maximize their interests and advance their careers, much as market players seek to maximize profit. Buchanan’s analysis doesn’t render government employees any less or more honest or principled than the rest of us—it neither exalts nor denigrates them.

In The Fifth Risk, Michael Lewis’s paean to the unsung heroes of the federal agencies he believes President Trump has alternatively neglected and hobbled, hitherto unknown government workers are singled out for praise as avatars of integrity who tirelessly promote an objectively beneficent public good that heartless (and clueless) Republicans ceaselessly seek to undermine. This GOP interference, Lewis warns, is putting the country at risk, from errant nuclear weapons, an Iranian bomb, cyberterrorism, North Korean attack, and all because of the undermining of administrative “project management”—the fifth risk of the title.  But for someone as statistically rigorous and dispassionate in his analysis as Lewis generally is, his latest book ends up being an egregious hagiography that fails to explain the nature of high-level government work. Buchanan is surely rolling over in his grave.

A contributing editor to Vanity Fair, Lewis is probably best known for his books Moneyball (2003), The Blind Side (2006), and The Big Short (2010), each of which was adapted into a feature film.  He has revolutionized non-fiction writing and brings a sensitive eye and a supple pen to each subject he studies, whether high-finance, baseball, organizational psychology, even parenting.

The Fifth Risk tells the stories of talented Americans who eschewed lucrative corporate opportunities in order to contribute to the public sector—unquestionably impressive individuals like Ali Zaidi, a Pakistani immigrant who grew up a Republican but joined President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget; Brian Concannon, a much-sought-after expert on public nutrition who during his tenure in Obama’s Department of Agriculture significantly raised the proportion of Americans receiving food stamps; and Kathy Sullivan, the first female astronaut in space, and a top official at the Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The closest Lewis comes to a thesis is when he quotes John MacWilliams, a high-ranking official in Obama’s Department of Energy, that we must beware “the risk a society runs when it falls into the habit of responding to long-term risks with short-term solutions…the existential threat that you never really even imagine as a risk.” But the book doesn’t much expand on this theme, other than generally pointing out certain areas (natural disasters, food security, school nutrition) in which the risk of potential catastrophe is higher than most Americans care to acknowledge.

Instead, Lewis is content to dwell on the what he characterizes as the ignorance and buffoonery of the Trump administration and the gallantry of the civil servants it has destabilized. On the first point, it’s difficult to quibble with his reporting on the incoming administration’s near-willful blindness to the challenges ahead, as reflected in the prolonged absence of transition staffers from critical early meetings, their embarrassing indifference to the workings of federal departments, and the extended high-level vacancies in many federal agencies. After all, if most accounts are to be believed, Trump himself hardly expected to win the presidency, and his famous inattention to detail informed the feeble, confused efforts at integration by his chaotic transition team. Lewis’s uncharitable depictions of the unqualified fat cats the 45th president appointed to fill key roles seem heartily justified. (He lets Obama’s Commerce Secretary, Penny Pritzker, off the hook, however, despite her being not significantly more qualified or scandal-free than Wilbur Ross, Trump’s own flawed billionaire appointee.) These shortcomings are well known, albeit not in the excruciating detail Lewis furnishes.

On the second point, while the heroes Lewis limns surely see themselves as striving to better the country, his tales of derring-do at FEMA, NOAA, the National Weather Service, and elsewhere lack coherence and celebrate civil servants to an exaggerated extent. For every selfless, brilliant federal employee, there’s a venal, incompetent one. But that’s not unique to the feds, or even to government at large in the U.S. or abroad. Every major organization has its geniuses and dolts, wits and cads, givers and takers.

What’s more, the overwhelming majority of workers in federal agencies are career employees with only a miniscule layer at the top appointed by the White House. Although those political appointees steer the direction and set the priorities of the agencies, one needn’t be a deep-state-loathing, tinfoil-hat-wearing conspiracy theorist to recognize that the careerists retain significant discretion and ability to execute (or not execute) those policies.

“We don’t really celebrate the accomplishments of government employees,” Lewis writes. “They exist in our society to take the blame.” This claim is dubious in and of itself, but even if true, the wisest approach is neither to bury nor praise our civil servants but instead to understand the context of their work and the competing interests that influence it. Perhaps if Lewis had consulted Buchanan’s record, a more balanced and informative book would have emerged.