Michael Lewis is a prolific author. He writes on many subjects. A few examples:
“The Big Short.” “Liar’s Poker.” “Moneyball.”
His latest effort, “The Fifth Risk,” had a chilling effect on this reader. Why?
Because it underlines a couple of factors threatening the American democracy and points out one I hadn’t conceived possible.
1. Lack of understanding of how the “political” side of government works;
2. Lack of knowledge of the difference in goals and methods between appointed (political) and career (employees) in the government at all levels, particularly the federal level;
3. Lack of understanding of how the government affects the life of the average person; and
4. The idea that “it can’t happen here” because it has never happened here (perhaps the scariest of all when it comes to the preservation of a democracy).
What Lewis concentrates on in this book is the federal level; but what he says of the federal level is true of the state and local levels as well.
Regarding point No. 1: We don’t teach civics or “Problems of Democracy” any more. Apparently more room is needed for STEM. All well and good, but STEM teaches people how to do things, not why. The extreme example would be the brilliant student who learns to create a thermonuclear device but has never weighed the effects of doing so.
The abysmal lack of knowledge of how passage of legislation works at all levels has resulted in the replacement of the truism that “politics is the art of the possible” with the Big Lie that “they’re all crooks.”
Regarding point No. 2: Lewis is quite clear on this subject when he describes the knowledge of the departments they would head on the part of Trump appointees — zero. This dawns on the electorate when they observe the likes of Rick Perry, Ben Carson, Scott Pruitt, Wilbur Ross and Sonny Perdue, among others. Because of their abysmal lack of knowledge and political agendas they do indeed display massive incompetence and a waste of the taxpayers’ money (though not a waste to their patrons who put them there). The people, unfortunately, falsely assume this is true of the federal employees working diligently in the respective areas of the government. The vast majority of these employees are people to whom the actual mission of these departments is their major reason for being there. Most of the mid-level people in these federal departments could do far better financially in the private sector, but they have a sense of mission and a deep commitment to their country.
Regarding point No. 3: On the local level folks take for granted that if you call the police they will come, not knowing if this is the call that will get them a flag-draped casket; that if your house is on fire the firefighters will try to save it without being able to determine in advance if there are any substances in it that will put them in the ground instantly or 20 years from now. Schoolteachers take what they are given (a wide range of backgrounds and abilities) and, often at financial cost to themselves, increase the children’s skills and understanding.
On the state level, the drive from Salem to Gloucester would be a lot longer if you were totally dependent on locals to create a road network. Left to themselves without regional systems such as sewerage districts, the people of the cities and towns might find themselves up to their hips in it or paying through the nose to get rid of it on a community by community basis.
The most misunderstood is easily the federal government. We have all probably seen the drooling yahoo who demands that the federal government “stay away from my Medicare” (or Medicaid). Countless yahoo mayors tout rural schools, hospitals and public safety facilities without ever mentioning that the architectural approval and funding came directly from the federal government. People fly safely around the nation without pausing to think about the air traffic controllers who make it happen. People sleep more soundly because things like immunotherapy (National Institutes of Health employee), cleanups of contaminated nuclear sites (Department of Energy employee Frazer Lockhart’s design) and even the “Don’t Call” registry exist (Thank you, FTC employee Eileen Harrington) because of these talented, dedicated people.
Lewis’ last point, however, scared the bejeebers out of this reader. That point was the “it won’t happen here because its never happened here” explanation of many folks who have ignored warnings of the U.S. Weather Service given sufficiently in advance of tornadoes, hurricanes, forest fires and floods. “Why should I believe (despite all indicators) that it would happen here this time?”
What concerns me about this way of thinking is the peril currently posed to American democracy by forces both outside and inside America. “Der Fuhrer” started out as a joke to most Germans. Mussolini was considered a loud-mouthed fool until he was “Il Duce.” Castro overthrew a government after being considered a clown. All of these people intentionally made truth a relative thing and played on the prejudices and grievances of people.
Of course, the end of democracy could never happen here because it never has. Right? Right?
Brendan Walsh is a resident of Salem.