Books, Reviews

Strategic ignorance: Michael Lewis’s The Fifth Risk has terrifying lessons for Australia

| |

Governments ignore information provided by experts at our peril. It’s one thing to ignore or hide reports to delay action. The next step, as Michael Lewis’s The Fifth Risk makes clear, is to defund and decimate government-funded organisation, thus undermining both knowledge and effectiveness in the civil service and dependent institutions.

Lewis is writing about Trump’s USA (the parallels with the Australian government’s cuts to CSIRO and the lack of action on predictive reports going back four decades are not hard to find). Like so much that has been written about the USA under Donald Trump, there are events described here that make Dan Brown read like a realist, and George Bernard Shaw like an optimist. Lewis might have thought that, after profiling scammers and bankers in Flash Boys and The Big Short, he was well-tuned to the dangerous depravity of those without ethics – but then came Trump.

Like so much that has been written about the USA under Donald Trump, there are events described here that make Dan Brown read like a realist, and George Bernard Shaw like an optimist.

Trying to fathom what’s going on within Trump’s chaotic government and what the consequences are, Lewis chose to look at the systematic destruction of the vast, knowledgeable, mostly effective but very cumbersome American public service since the 2017 election. He focuses on, for example, the crucially important Department of Energy and a data agency within the Department of Commerce known as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA – an acronym of which the Biblical echo is pertinent).

As he points out, these agencies may sound sort of dull and they usually only come to public attention when things go wrong, but the thousands of people who work there and the billions of dollars budgeted to keep them running are vital to the analysis of, preparation for and response to everything underpinning what makes society function. Water, for instance, and electricity. Agriculture, and weather forecasting. 

Some of the people we meet in The Fifth Risk are all too (in)famous. But Lewis’s book is not just about the Mike Pences and Steve Bannons, or even the Donald Trumps, whose “budget, like the social forces behind it, is powered by a perverse desire – to remain ignorant”. It’s about seriously brilliant people, both scientists and managers, whose expertise enables innovation, prevents disaster, improves lives. Right now, in Australia, these are the kinds people we urgently need to be nurturing, as we try to catch up on knowledge about escalating problems.

Lewis is brilliant at delivering just the right amount of background so as not to overwhelm the reader.

Lewis is brilliant at delivering just the right amount of background so as not to overwhelm the reader. He’s also brilliant at extracting the meaning from the information, in ways that deliver useful – and terrifying – lessons for us here in Australia

What, then, is the “fifth risk”? Lewis comes to that towards the end of the first part of the book, following a terse description of what happened between the 2016 election and Trump’s inauguration, a time when the public service was expecting to work super-hard to provide information to the incoming government.

Instead, they were ignored: Trump made it clear he didn’t want experts. And the dismantling of the civil service continues. “Anyone who wants a blunt, open assessment of the risks inherent in the United States government now has to leave it to find it,” writes Lewis, and then heads off to talk to John MacWilliams, who had been appointed by the Obama government, Chief Risk Officer in the Department of Energy (DOE), a new role created in response to recognition that networking data and information would greatly improve governmental management.

MacWilliams is a lawyer-investor-bureaucrat. Lewis asked him with deliberate truculence (imagining himself an incoming department head in need of information) to list the top-five biggest risks that the enormous and vital DOE dealt with. The first four listed “in no particular order” are nuclear weapons, North Korea, Iran, electricity failure: which brings him to the fifth, and compared to the first four, it sounds relatively benign: “program management”.

MacWilliams’s fifth risk is “the existential threat that you never really even imagine as a risk”. Some risks are obvious, things like pandemics, hurricanes, terrorist attacks and bushfires. But “most are like bombs with very long fuses that, in the distant future, when the fuse reaches the bomb, might or might not explode”. His examples include poorly prepared nuclear waste dumps, or a department decimated of problem-solving and organisational talent, or the “ceding of technical and scientific leadership to China”.

In Australia, what now appears to be an astonishingly slow recognition of the inadequacy of reliance on an under-resourced volunteer force for emergency response to bushfires may well be a failure of program management. “It is the innovation that never occurs, and the knowledge that is never created, because you have ceased to lay the groundwork for it. It is what you never learned that might have saved you.”

In the second chapter of The Fifth Risk, Lewis tells us about some of the people whose expertise has been ignored by the Trump government, people whose abilities are matched by their ethical decency and desire to make things better for more people. They were, before Trump, heading up sprawling bureaucracies, such as the Office of Management and Budget and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and overseeing billion-dollar budgets for programs such as the now unravelling food stamp program, a mainstay for rural communities.

Trying to fathom what’s going on within Trump’s chaotic government … Lewis chose to look at the systematic destruction of the vast, knowledgeable, mostly effective but very cumbersome American public service.

Post-inauguration, it was more important for the Trump-appointed administration to punish the former Obama-appointed experts and bureaucrats than to learn from their successes. Ongoing inquiries being handled previously by credentialled staff at, for example, USDA, disappeared from government websites. Files requested under Freedom of Information were delivered with “completely blacked-out pages”.

Which brings us to NOAA, and tornadoes. Right at the time in history when it looks like data collection has made it possible to forecast with increasing accuracy the incidence of tornadoes, the information is disappearing from erstwhile public access and increasingly controlled by AccuWeather, a company set up by the man Trump nominated in November 2017 to take charge of NOAA, Barry Myers. (Myers eventually withdrew, in November 2019, citing health concerns.)

The background on all this is beautifully presented. It reads often like a thriller, fast-paced, building towards moments of tension, then into the dramatic scene that brings us to a climactic moment. There’s scientific information (such as why you can’t detect a tornado on radar), there’s social psychology (why don’t people react to warnings?), and there are elegant summations about the potentials being released by data collection. This blend of information, description and analysis is akin to such books as Robert Kenny’s Gardens of Fire and Chloe Hooper’s The Arsonist: information that’s accessibly, imaginatively, thoughtfully and unflinchingly written.

The final pages of The Fifth Risk describe how a storm-watcher, sensing a shift in the way information was coming out of the Storm Prediction Center in the government’s Weather Service, decided to send out a tornado warning just a little earlier than he would normally. Warnings that prove unreliable can do damage. In this instance, the May 2017 tornado that hit Beckham County Oklahoma had terrible impact but caused only one death. But here’s the punchline of this unnerving book: the woman who had made the changes at the Weather Service that made it possible for them to innovate and improve, to collect previously unsorted data and feed the resulting information to the storm-watcher, who then used his experience to trigger the tornado alert that allowed thousands of people to take shelter in the nick of time, is no longer working there: her role was “interfering with the profits of AccuWeather”.

An alternative title for this book could be “Ignorance”. While it is unfathomable that the leadership of a nation built on knowledge would actively work against it, writing such as this works against allowing that to happen. Describing one of the programs cut by the Trump administration, Lewis explains what he thinks is the “reasoning”, if it can be called that, behind this destructive mindset. It is painfully relevant right here, right now:

“If your ambition is to maximise short-term gain 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.”

Michael Lewis’ The Fifth Risk ($22.99) is out now through Penguin Press.

3 responses to “Strategic ignorance: Michael Lewis’s The Fifth Risk has terrifying lessons for Australia

  1. Brilliant book and equally brilliant review. The destruction of Australia’s civil service from Howard on but increasingly through Abbott, Turnbull and now Morrison is setting us up for – has in fact already set us up for the conflagrations and other climate change disasters currently overwhelming us – just to-day letters from three friends evacuating their homes or just returned to singed homes/destroyed cars – south coast and Canberra environs! Heaven Help Us All!

  2. Oh, and all praise for Trump from our just retiring ambassador to Washington DC the spiv Joe Hockey and the “suppositorty-of-wisdom”Tony Abbott and the hallelujah Hawai’i holidaying Scott Morrison. What does that tell us in light of The Fifth Risk! Disaster is staring us all in the face!

  3. It’s a question of ideology. Generally speaking, the right wing believes that governments should be smaller, and the left wants government to keep expanding into every aspect of our lives, taking care of everyone and everything from the cradle to the grave.
    So if Trump is dismantling empires & expertise in favour of smaller government and trusting the private sector to get things done, that is what the people voted for and it should be a surprise to no one.
    Such political doctrine may shake the worldviews of Rosemary and Michael, but that’s ok, nobody expects balanced journalism from this website..

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *