Great journalism is an art form. First and foremost it has to be factual. The magic is in the telling.
Michael Lewis, of course, is the author who wrote the best-selling books that later became the hit films The Big Short, The Blind Side and Moneyball. In The Big Short, for example, he explained how an artificially-created housing boom led to the financial crisis of 2008, but he did it by telling the stories of a few odd ducks who saw disaster looming, bet on it happening (despite their sense of moral outrage) and made billions of dollars when it did. That’s part of Lewis’s genius: finding great characters to tell a ‘truth stranger than fiction’ kind of story. Who better than Michael Lewis to explain the Department of Energy and the U.S. Department of Agriculture and why they’re important to our safety and future well-being. He tackled the D.O.E. in the September pages of Vanity Fair. Two months later he was back in the magazine with an equally long piece on the U.S.D.A.
Reading both articles, two truths emerged:
- Government agencies have huge staffs and even bigger budgets. Despite the fact there’s a big power change in Washington every four to eight years, the agencies are mostly staffed by career civil servants who keep their jobs when the new guy moves into the Oval Office. The people at the top almost always change–Secretary, Deputy-Secretary, etc.–but the worker bees tend to stay in the hive to continue their important work.
- To change an institution for the better, you first have to understand what you’re changing. Rules are meant to be broken, but why break them just because you can? Or before you’ve bothered to read the rules and tried to understand if they were put in place for a good reason?
The D.O.E. is a $30 billion operation that employs about 110,000 people. Even assuming there might be a few dozen or hundred too many, it would be nearly impossible for every new administration to fire and replace such a large staff. Which begs the question, what exactly are they doing and is their work still relevant? As explained by Lewis, most people don’t understand what all the agency does, including brainy new hires when they first report to work. About half the agency’s annual budget goes to maintaining and guarding our nuclear arsenal. Two billion of that is spent hunting down weapons-grade uranium and plutonium that’s “loose in the world” before terrorists can get their hands on it. Sounds relevant to me. Particularly when I learned that the agency has hunted down enough of this dangerous material in the last eight years to make 160 nuclear bombs.
Other worries? Our nation’s electrical grid. The D.O.E. is in charge of protecting it, even though they don’t run it. A patchwork of regional utilities provide our electricity, and these companies don’t have a coordinated plan in place in the event of–use your imagination. Last year the D.O.E. counted 500,000 cyber-intrusions into different parts of the U.S. electrical grid. They expect more in the future but at least their people are experienced and on the lookout. The agency has many other worries, but I’m going to jump ahead to the “The Fifth Risk,” as defined by a guy named John MacWilliams. He left when President Trump took office, but until then he was the Chief Risk Officer, a position created for him by former Secretary of Energy Moniz, a nuclear physicist who looks a bit like Einstein. MacWilliams is no slouch either. He’s an odd duck character only in the sense that he once quit Goldman Sachs to try writing novels. He graduated from elite schools, quit a top NY law firm to become an investment banker, then quit that, too, because he didn’t care for Wall Street. He ended up making a lot of money by starting an investment firm that focused on energy. When he took the D.O.E. job, excited to serve his country, he was surprised to discover what he knew about energy wasn’t all that much, comparatively speaking. The worker bees he met were “so impressive.” Physicists all over the place. “Guys who build bridges.” If there were overpaid bureaucrats who didn’t do anything, he never ran into them. He peppered the worker bees with questions. It took him about a year to begin to understand the scope of the agency and how much could go wrong.
“The Fifth Risk” involves the waste left over from the nuclear weapons we began creating during WWII and continued making until 1987–the end of the Cold War. Most of it was made in a large desert area in eastern Washington state. The government paid poor people to move out and started making plutonium. The stuff was hard to make and even harder to dispose of. When production stopped, the state was stuck with a huge toxic waste site: 56 million gallons of dangerous residue buried in tanks underground are the worst of it. “If you’re exposed to it for even a few seconds you probably got a fatal dose,” an executive monitoring the site told Michael Lewis. The good news is that the D.O.E. sends $3 billion to the site each year to pay for clean-up of the radioactive mess left behind: the equivalent of a massive underground railroad chugging its way towards the nearby Columbia River. How long will it take to clean up? MacWilliams estimates “a century and a hundred billion dollars.” At least. It is Lewis who explains the worst-case scenario. “…the federal government loses interest in it and slashes the D.O.E.’s budget–as President Trump has promised to do.”
The problem with slashing their budget is that the new administration has spent a miniscule amount of time getting to know what the Department of Energy does, according to the people Lewis interviewed. Instead of descending on the agency in large numbers the day after the election–as most new administrations have done in the past–nobody showed up. The staff had been preparing for the handover for a year. They had no idea who’d win the election, but that wasn’t what was important. The work was important. One month after the election, one person stopped by for an hour. A former oil industry lobbyist who didn’t ask any questions or take notes. Later he did ask for a list of employees who’d attended climate change meetings in the past. An official at the time said it reminded her of McCarthyism. When Lewis interviewed former Chief Risk Officer MacWilliams five months after he left the D.O.E., he was the first person to do so since the election. Nobody in the new administration had ever talked to MacWilliams about what he did for the agency or what he was worried about. Former Texas Governor Rick Perry is the new Secretary in charge, but once when he was running for President himself, he said he wanted to eliminate three government agencies. When he got to the third–the Department of Energy–he couldn’t remember its name. It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that he spent only minutes with his predecessor–Moniz, the nuclear physicist–getting up to speed.
“There is another way to think of John MacWilliams’s fifth risk: the risk a society runs when it falls into the habit of responding to long-term risks with short-term solutions. . .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.” Michael Lewis in his Vanity Fair article, “The Fifth Risk.”
As a citizen, I’m thankful to Michael Lewis for all this insight. Whom I voted for has nothing to do with it. Presidents will come and go, but, really, the agencies were created for we the people. To help keep us safe. To improve the quality of our lives. If something a new administration does or doesn’t do defies rational thought, I want to know about it.
Nobody tells the story as well or as thoroughly as Michael Lewis. Here’s a link to the full article:
I welcome your thoughts. Next time I’ll tackle some key things I learned about the U.S. Department of Agriculture.