Noted author Michael Lewis’ latest book, The Fifth Risk, describes a vast array of things largely unknown to the public that our federal government does to protect us and advance our interests on an incredible array of fronts. Those fronts range from food safety and weather forecasting to investment in risky but highly important technological development outside what the private sector will fund. The “fifth risk” of Lewis’ title is the risk of governmental failure in critically important work such as this.
Here’s a brief summary of some of that crucial work focused on only three departments (and excluding the military and law-enforcement agencies because we’re all already well aware of what they do):
Half of the Energy Department’s annual budget is devoted to “maintaining our nuclear arsenal and protecting Americans from nuclear threats.” That includes keeping track worldwide of sources of material that could be used to make nuclear weapons. A quarter of its budget goes to on-going clean-up to prevent ground and water contamination of “unholy, world-historic messes” left behind by nuclear weapons manufacture. The department’s mandate also includes detecting cyber intrusions into our electric grid, something the Russians are known to be working on aggressively. The remainder of the department’s budget goes to a variety of key research programs in basic science — including one that supervises potentially game-changing but risky investments in new technology from a $70-billion loan fund. Thus, the Department of Energy is both “a powerful tool for dealing with the most alarming risks facing humanity” and an engine for driving forward cutting-edge technological progress.
The Agriculture Department provides $70 billion annually in food-stamp funding dispensed through state agencies and school lunch and breakfast programs for needy children. It maintains its own (and funds others’) science labs that have increased food yields enormously over a century. It conducts meat inspections as part of its “responsibility for the safety of all meat; the FDA handles all other food” and takes preventative measures against the use of genetic engineering as a weapon of mass destruction (e.g., creating a new microbe) and preventing other food-based risks (like creating a test to cull bird-flu-sickened chickens that was hugely effective). It operates a bank with $220 billion in funds to provide investment aid for new inventions like the retractable needle and to give huge financial support to local needs especially in rural America for everything from clean water to Internet access.
A George W. Bush appointee admiringly termed the Commerce Department “the Department of Science and Technology,” and Lewis calls it “the Department of Information.” Trade matters for which it is probably best known form only a small part (around 10%) of its portfolio. It also has under its umbrella the Patent and Trademark Office, and it conducts our national census. Accounting for fully half of its budget is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA has planes, satellites, 159 high-resolution Doppler radar sites, and the forecasting tools (created by it) that have done so much to advance weather prediction. Together these weather-forecasting innovations constitute what has been described as “one of the major intellectual achievements of the twentieth century” without which, among many other things, “no planes would fly.” (What we typically see in AccuWeather and on the Weather Channel is this information being further analyzed, or simply regurgitated, from this continuous governmental sourcing.
“NOAA also regulates the fishing industry and mapped the ocean floor” and “does more to protect Americans than any other agency except for Homeland Security and the Department of Defense.” Quoting another Bush appointee, “All of this data would never have existed if not for the government infrastructure that collects it. … They just don’t give themselves enough credit,” and that’s a point that Lewis makes across all of these agencies with such an impact for the good and yet about which we know so little.
What happened when the Trump teams took over these cabinet-level departments? Interest in planning in these crucial areas fell by the wayside as those who had no desire to understand this work took over. Data has been “disappearing across the federal government” in settings where “if we don’t have data, we’re screwed.”
At its heart, what Lewis sees is a struggle “between the people who were in it for the mission and the people who were in it for the money” including folks who directly profit in their private businesses from subverting public functions.
There are many ways to shut down what you don’t value.