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Michael Lewis on The Fifth Risk: 'The election happened … And then there was radio silence'

The morning after Trump was elected president, the people who ran the US Department of Energy – an agency that deals with some of the most powerful risks facing humanity – waited to welcome the incoming administration’s transition team. Nobody appeared. Across the US government, the same thing happened: nothing.
People don’t notice when stuff goes right. That is the stuff government does. In The Fifth Risk, Michael Lewis reveals the combustible cocktail of wilful ignorance and venality that is fuelling the destruction of a country’s fabric. All of this, he shows, exposes America and the world to the biggest risk of all. It is what you never learned that might have saved you.
“It surprised me in the first place that this supposedly grey, boring enterprise, called our Government, was actually filled with interest. It was filled with interesting people – people who deserved to be characters in a story. I almost made a point of trying to find and focus on the parts of the federal government that were fifth risk-like. They weren’t the things everyone was talking about (they weren’t the state department, they weren’t the justice department). I found that when you go to the Commerce Department or the Agriculture Department or the Energy Department you find mission critical things going on. Things that if you knew about, you’d be terrified at the thought they might be mismanaged.

I was surprised by just how ignorant the society is of its own government and how little the government had done to address that ignorance.”

There’s a reason they exist. It is in the popular imagination that the government is this thing that is sort of created over time in a kind of senseless way because nobody is disciplining it or watching it etc. In fact, it’s something like the opposite. What’s in the government is usually there for a very good reason and if people have become indifferent to it, or even contemptuous of it, it’s because the government has been doing its job so well that you’re not worried about it … It became a game for me to airdrop into the place you couldn’t possibly think there was a story and let me show you there’s a story and how easy it was to do that.
The other thing is that the government is also absolutely horrible at explaining itself to the public (I’m sure this is true [in the UK]). It’s the opposite of Trump, it’s like it has no capacity to market itself. All of it [the US government] is misnamed. So the idea that this thing called the Commerce department in the United States is actually the department for weather and climate – no one knows that. Even to people who work in government you say “where do you think the 8 billion dollars the commerce department spend every year goes?” and they say trade or business in some way. No, it’s the accumulation of data about the society and the vast, most expensive part of it is the accumulation of weather data.
So I guess what I’m saying is, I was surprised by just how ignorant the society is of its own government and how little the government had done to address that ignorance.”

The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis is available now.  

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