Sunday, January 13, 2019

"The Fifth Risk", perspective on current governance by Michael Lewis

The writing of Michael Lewis has been long followed here, but in recent years his work has not been as compelling as remembered.  "Flash Boys", in particular, was soft on any real insight, and what was meant to be provocative was old news.  "The Big Short" was not viewed as ecstatically here as by critics and most readers.  It was fact checked here as one of the main characters was known well to me during my career.  It was regulation that was either inept or corrupt,or both.  He did well for his investors and himself, and followed the rules as they were.  "His" humor and good nature was barely picked up, as predatory behavior seemed to be necessary for the book.  Oh well.

So reviews of  "The Fifth Risk" were read, and it was picked up months ago.  The fact that it did not directly have anything to do with finance was a big positive, so my inclination was not already set to be snooty.  Yet when I began reading it seemed familiar, and quickly it became clear that this had been read, yes in Vanity Fair articles that were terrific.  Finally the book was picked up again and reopened, realizing that the final chapter had not been published in the magazine, so would be new material to me.

The actual "Fifth Risk" is incompetent government leadership.  This is Lewis back to form, yet what seems ludicrous and in a way humorous is serious stuff.  The Prologue, Lost in Transition, sets the table for that fifth risk.  The first chapter, Tail Risk, is about the Energy Department, now led by Rick Perry, 'nuff said.  The second chapter, People Risk, is about the Agriculture Department, now led by Sonny Perdue, former governor of Georgia.  The third chapter is about the Commerce Department, now led by Wilbur Ross, a successful investor in bankrupt companies whose specialty was laying off large numbers of people and then cashing out.  There is much more that is appalling about each of these characters.

In each case, the new cabinet secretaries had no idea what their departments were responsible for, and reading this book it is clear that most people, myself included, have no idea of the breadth of responsibilities of these departments of the United States government.  It's fascinating reading until one realizes they too, based on knowledge, could have been appointed to one of these jobs.  Hey, "I know nothing too".

The department head then appointed Trump administration dictated assistants, and they appointed the leading workers.  To quote one example, "Into USDA(Agriculture) jobs, the Trump team had inserted a long haul truck driver, a clerk at AT&T, a gas-company meter reader, a country-club cabana attendant, a Republican National Committee intern, and the owner of scented candle company, with skills like "pleasant demeanor" listed on their resumes...  What these people had in common was loyalty to Donald Trump."

So you get the picture.  This book could be read twice if everything was to be internalized.  Nausea might ensue.  And I say again "Oh well", but things are not well, not when the book was written and not now.


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