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‘Paradoxically, Trump May Illustrate the Importance of the Government by Screwing It Up’

In his new book, Berkeley scribe Michael Lewis marvels at the work of the federal government—and the threat the Trump administration poses to it.

 

This is "Think Tank," an occasional series of conversations with Bay Area power players, conducted by San Francisco editors. Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Name: Michael Lewis
Occupation: Journalist
Age: 57
Residence: Berkeley

San Francisco: Your new book, The Fifth Risk, explores the federal agencies that have been either gutted or ignored under the Trump administration. What is the threat to the country posed by the mismanagement of our federal government?
Michael Lewis: When you ask people to imagine the risks if the federal government completely went away, most people can name things like a pandemic, a nuclear bomb, a terrorist attack, or the aftermath of a hurricane. But there’s this whole host of other—and probably, as a group, more likely—risks that people don’t think about because they’re hard to imagine. Like mass malnutrition because the Department of Agriculture doesn’t give a shit anymore. The fifth risk is the one that people don’t think about, and it’s the most likely one to bite you. And inside that portfolio are these glacially slow-moving problems, like climate change or cleaning up a nuclear waste site, that the government is uniquely suited to manage.

The massive projects our government handles—from collecting global weather data to storing nuclear arms—really are awe-inspiring.
When I started roaming around the federal government getting these briefings that the Trump administration didn’t bother to get, I was blown away by the scope of what’s being taken for granted. Take the Hanford Site, and what will be a $50 billion cleanup of plutonium in Washington State. I mean, if that’s done badly, it’s catastrophic for the Pacific Northwest. And that’s like this tiny sliver of a sliver of the federal government.

Is Trump an active player in the devaluing of large-scale public projects, or is he a symptom of a nation that no longer trusts its government?
He’s both symptom and cause. There’s no way this society elects anybody like him if it had maintained an appreciation of its government. However, now that he’s there, he’s also the cause. Even a mostly inept, government-suspecting Republican like George W. Bush put a lot of effort into trying to manage the place. The level of malice and neglect that Trump and his crowd have brought into the enterprise is unprecedented. And it creates a vacuum, which gets filled by people with very narrow financial interests. The people he’s let in are the ones who see ways to exploit it for their private gain at the public expense.

If, in November, Democrats win back the House, is this trend even reversible?
What I worry about is this cycle that we’ve been in since Reagan, where people get elected by trashing the federal government. The revelation to me was that we still have a vast amount of talent, ambition, and idealism at work in the place. If the Trump administration was to succeed in killing all that, that’d be devastating. Paradoxically, he may illustrate the importance of the enterprise by screwing it up.

So, like, when FEMA is nowhere to be found, we’ll all maybe figure out how important FEMA really is.
Here’s a weird analogy: If you want young, ambitious talent to flood into a place, one trick is to destroy it. Hurricane Katrina did for New Orleans what 100 years of civic propaganda couldn’t: It opened up all this opportunity for people to come in and do stuff in a place where not much had been getting done. If a nuclear bomb goes off in the Texas Panhandle because the Department of Energy didn’t manage [the arsenal] well, I suspect you’ll have a bunch of young physicists who’ll start getting interested in how to manage nuclear weapons.

This is all pretty heavy stuff. Do you see any cause for optimism?
I think Trump is going to pass like a bad meal, and we’re going to all wonder what that was all about. What’s not depressing is that there’s still some meaningful fraction of our society that’s mission driven, not money driven, and waiting to come flying back into the government once this moron’s gone. So I didn’t write this book feeling depressed, but rather with a feeling of wonder. Like, look how interesting the people who deal with this institution are.

 

Originally published in the October issue of San Francisco 

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