The Fifth Risk - Michael Lewis

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The United States government might be the most complicated organization on the face of the earth. Its two million federal employees take orders from four thousand political appointees. Dysfunction is baked into the structure of the thing: the subordinates know that their bosses will be replaced every four or eight years, and that the direction of their enterprises might change overnight—with an election or a war or some other political event.

Michael Lewis uncovers some of the hidden complexities of the US government in this book, taking examples from the Department of Energy (half of whose budget goes towards maintaining the nuclear arsenal, namely waste from before), the Department of Commerce (which is misnamed, it should really be the Department of Data), and the Department of Agriculture (whose $200B bank funds rural development).

And why the book is named so:

In early May of 2017 a tunnel at Hanford, built in the 1950s to bury low-level waste, collapsed. In response, the workers dumped truckloads of dirt into the hole. That dirt is now classified as low-level radioactive waste and needs to be disposed of. “The reason the Hanford cleanup sucks—in a word—is shortcuts,” said Carpenter. “Too many goddamn shortcuts.” 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. “Program management” is not just program management. “Program management” is the existential threat that you never really even imagine as a risk. Some of the things any incoming president should worry about are fast-moving: pandemics, hurricanes, terrorist attacks. But most are not. Most are like bombs with very long fuses that, in the distant future, when the fuse reaches the bomb, might or might not explode. It is delaying repairs to a tunnel filled with lethal waste until, one day, it collapses.

Basically, the book is about short-termism and through reading it one uncovers how Trump might be the epitome (both indirectly (lack of preparation) and directly (continued ignorance)) of it. Honestly, terrifying.


Notebook for
The Fifth Risk
The Fifth Risk-W. W. NORTON (2018 )

Prologue: Lost in Transition
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Trump said he didn’t want a presidential transition team. Why did anyone need to plan anything before he actually became president? It’s legally required, said Christie. Trump asked where the money was going to come from to pay for the transition team. Christie explained that Trump could either pay for it himself or take it out of campaign funds. Trump didn’t want to pay for it himself. He didn’t want to take it out of campaign funds, either, but he agreed, grudgingly, that Christie should go ahead and raise a separate fund to pay for his transition team. “But not too much!” he said.
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The transition team now moved into an office in downtown Washington, DC, and went looking for people to occupy the top five hundred jobs in the federal government. They needed to fill all the cabinet positions, of course, but also a whole bunch of others that no one in the Trump campaign even knew existed. It’s not obvious how you find the next secretary of state, much less the next secretary of transportation—never mind who should sit on the board of trustees of the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation.
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The transition team made lists of likely candidates for all five hundred jobs, plus other lists of informed people to roll into the various federal agencies the day after the election, to be briefed on whatever the federal agencies were doing.
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At the end of each week Christie handed over binders, with lists of names of people who might do the jobs well, to Jared and Donald and Eric and the others. “They probed everything,” says a senior Trump transition official. “ ‘Who is this person?’ ‘Where did this person come from?’ They only ever rejected one person, Paul Manafort’s secretary.”
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There were hundreds of fantastically important success stories in the United States government. They just never got told. Max knew an astonishing number of them. He’d detected a pattern: a surprising number of the people responsible for them were first-generation Americans who had come from places without well-functioning governments. People who had lived without government were more likely to find meaning in it.
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He was disappointed with Barack Obama in some ways. President Obama had been slow to engage with the federal workforce. He’d appointed some poor managers to run some agencies. The fiasco of the rollout of HealthCare.gov was not an accident but a by-product of bad management. But Obama’s preparations to hand over the government had been superb: the Obama administration had created what amounted to the best course ever on the inner workings of the most powerful institution on earth. What could go wrong?
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It wasn’t just Chris Christie who’d been fired. It was the entire transition team—though no one ever told them so directly. As Nancy Cook later reported in Politico, Bannon visited the transition headquarters a few days after he’d given Christie the news, and made a show of tossing the work the people there had done for Donald Trump into the garbage can. Trump was going to handle the transition more or less by himself.
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“I was fucking nervous as shit,” Bannon later told friends. “I go,” Holy fuck, this guy [Trump] doesn’t know anything. And he doesn’t give a shit.’”
I. Tail Risk
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“The election happened,” remembers Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, then deputy secretary of the DOE. “And he won. And then there was radio silence. We were prepared for the next day. And nothing happened.” Across the federal government the Trump people weren’t anywhere to be found. The few places they did turn up, they appeared confused and unprepared. A small group attended a briefing at the State Department, for instance, only to learn that the briefings they needed to hear were classified. None of the Trump people had security clearance—or, for that matter, any experience in foreign policy—and so they weren’t allowed to receive an education. On his visits to the White House soon after the election, Jared Kushner expressed surprise that so much of its staff seemed to be leaving. “It was like he thought it was a corporate acquisition or something,” says an Obama White House staffer. “He thought everyone just stayed.”
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The United States government might be the most complicated organization on the face of the earth. Its two million federal employees take orders from four thousand political appointees. Dysfunction is baked into the structure of the thing: the subordinates know that their bosses will be replaced every four or eight years, and that the direction of their enterprises might change overnight—with an election or a war or some other political event.
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How to stop a virus, how to take a census, how to determine if some foreign country is seeking to obtain a nuclear weapon or if North Korean missiles can reach Kansas City: these are enduring technical problems. The people appointed by a newly elected president to solve these problems have roughly seventy-five days to learn from their predecessors. After the inauguration, a lot of deeply knowledgeable people will scatter to the four winds and be forbidden, by federal law, from initiating any contact with their replacements.
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A month after the election, Pyle arrived for a meeting with Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, Deputy Secretary Sherwood-Randall, and Knobloch. Moniz, a nuclear physicist who was then on leave from MIT and who had served as deputy secretary during the Clinton administration, is widely viewed, even by many Republicans, as understanding and loving the DOE better than any person on earth. Pyle appeared to have no interest in anything he had to say. “He did not seem motivated to spend a lot of time understanding the place,” says Sherwood-Randall. “He didn’t bring a pencil or a piece of paper. He didn’t ask questions. He spent an hour. That was it. He never asked to meet with us again.” Afterward, Knobloch says, he suggested that Pyle visit one day each week until the inauguration, and that Pyle agreed to do it—but then he never showed up. “It’s a head-scratcher,” says Knobloch. “It’s a thirty-billion-dollar-a-year organization with about a hundred ten thousand employees. Industrial sites across the country. Very serious stuff. If you’re going to run it, why wouldn’t you want to know something about it?”
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By the time I arrived in Washington, the first eighth of Trump’s first term was nearly complete, and his administration was still largely missing. He hadn’t nominated anyone to serve as head of the Patent Office, for instance, or to run the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). There was no Trump candidate to head the Transportation Security Administration, and no one to run the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The 2020 national census will be a massive undertaking for which there is not a moment to lose, and yet there’s no Trump appointee in place to run it.
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There might be no time in the history of the country when it was so interesting to know what was going on inside these bland federal office buildings—because there has been no time when those things might be done ineptly, or not done at all.
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The DOE ran the seventeen national labs—Brookhaven, the Fermi National Accelerator Lab, Oak Ridge, the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab, and so on. “The Office of Science in DOE is not the Office of Science for DOE,” said MacWilliams. “It’s the Office of Science for all science in America. I realized pretty quickly that it was the place where you could work on the two biggest risks to human existence, nuclear weapons and climate change.”
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A medical facility ordered a speck of plutonium for research, and a weapons-lab clerk misplaced a decimal point and FedExed the researchers a chunk of the stuff so big it should have been under armed guard—whereupon horrified medical researchers tried to FedEx it back. “At DOE even the regular scheduled meetings started with” You’re not going to believe this,’” says former chief of staff Kevin Knobloch.
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“Broken Arrow” is a military term of art for a nuclear accident that doesn’t lead to a nuclear war. MacWilliams has had to learn all about these. Now he tells me about an incident that occurred back in 1961, and was largely declassified in 2013, just as he began his stint at DOE. A pair of 4-megaton hydrogen bombs, each more than 250 times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, broke off a damaged B-52 over North Carolina. One of the bombs disintegrated upon impact, but the other floated down beneath its parachute and armed itself. It was later found in a field outside Goldsboro, North Carolina, with three of its four safety mechanisms tripped or rendered ineffective by the plane’s breakup. Had the fourth switch flipped, a vast section of eastern North Carolina would have been destroyed, and nuclear fallout might have descended on Washington, DC, and New York City.
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Fracking—to take one example—was not the brainchild of private-sector research but the fruit of research paid for twenty years ago by the DOE. Yet fracking has collapsed the price of oil and gas and led to American energy independence. Solar and wind technologies are another example. The Obama administration set a goal in 2009 of getting the cost of utility-scale solar energy down by 2020 from 27 cents a kilowatt-hour to 6 cents. It’s now at 7 cents, and competitive with natural gas because of loans made by the DOE.
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Politically, the loan program had been nothing but downside. No one had paid any attention to its successes, and its one failure—Solyndra—had allowed the right-wing friends of Big Oil to bang on relentlessly about government waste and fraud and stupidity. A single bad loan had turned a valuable program into a political liability. As he dug into the portfolio, MacWilliams feared it might contain other Solyndras. It didn’t, but what he did find still disturbed him. The DOE had built a loan portfolio that, as MacWilliams put it, “JPMorgan would have been happy to own.” The whole point was to take big risks the market would not take, and they were making money! “We weren’t taking nearly enough risk,” said MacWilliams. The fear of losses that might in turn be twisted into antigovernment propaganda was threatening the mission.
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His more general point was that managing risks was an act of the imagination. And the human imagination is a poor tool for judging risk. People are really good at responding to the crisis that just happened, as they naturally imagine that whatever just happened is most likely to happen again. They are less good at imagining a crisis before it happens—and taking action to prevent it.
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One hundred and seventy-seven tanks, each roughly the size of a four-story apartment building and capable of holding a million gallons of “high-level waste,” lay buried on Hanford’s tank farms. Fifty-six million gallons in the tanks are classified as “high-level waste.” What, you might ask, is high-level waste? “Incredibly dangerous stuff,” says Tom Carpenter, executive director of the Hanford Challenge, an organization that has monitored the site since the late 1980s. “If you’re exposed to it for even a few seconds you probably got a fatal dose.”
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The people who created the plutonium for the first bombs, in the 1940s and early 1950s, were understandably in too much of a rush to worry about what might happen afterward. They simply dumped 120 million gallons of high-level waste, and another 444 billion gallons of contaminated liquid, into the ground. They piled uranium (half-life: 4.5 billion years) into unlined pits near the Columbia River. They dug forty-two miles of trenches to dispose of solid radioactive waste—and left no good records of what’s in the trenches. In early May of 2017 a tunnel at Hanford, built in the 1950s to bury low-level waste, collapsed. In response, the workers dumped truckloads of dirt into the hole. That dirt is now classified as low-level radioactive waste and needs to be disposed of. “The reason the Hanford cleanup sucks—in a word—is shortcuts,” said Carpenter. “Too many goddamn shortcuts.” 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. “Program management” is not just program management. “Program management” is the existential threat that you never really even imagine as a risk. Some of the things any incoming president should worry about are fast-moving: pandemics, hurricanes, terrorist attacks. But most are not. Most are like bombs with very long fuses that, in the distant future, when the fuse reaches the bomb, might or might not explode. It is delaying repairs to a tunnel filled with lethal waste until, one day, it collapses.
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ARPA-E had since won the praise of business leaders from Bill Gates to Lee Scott, the former CEO of Walmart, to Fred Smith, the Republican founder of FedEx, who has said that “pound for pound, dollar for dollar, activity for activity, it’s hard to find a more effective thing government has done than ARPA-E.” Trump’s first budget eliminated ARPA-E altogether. It also eliminated the spectacularly successful $70 billion loan program. It cut funding to the national labs in a way that implies the laying off of six thousand of their people. It eliminated all research on climate change. It halved the funding for work to secure the electrical grid from attack or natural disaster. “All the risks are science-based,” said John MacWilliams when he saw the budget. “You can’t gut the science. If you do, you are hurting the country. If you gut the core competency of the DOE, you gut the country.” But you can. Indeed, if you are seeking to preserve a certain worldview, it actually helps to gut science. Trump’s budget, like the social forces behind it, is powered by a perverse desire—to remain ignorant. Donald Trump didn’t invent this desire. He was just its ultimate expression.
II. People Risk
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“I was like, Oh yeah, the USDA—they give money to farmers to grow stuff.” For the first time, he looked closely at what this arm of the United States government actually does. Its very name is seriously misleading—most of what it does has little to do with agriculture. It runs 193 million acres of national forest and grasslands, for instance. It is charged with inspecting almost all the animals Americans eat, including the nine billion birds a year. Buried inside it is a massive science program, a large fleet of aircraft for firefighting, and a bank with $220 billion in assets.
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A small fraction of its massive annual budget ($164 billion in 2016) was actually spent on farmers, but it financed and managed all these programs in rural America—including the free school lunch for kids living near the poverty line.
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When they heard that Joel Leftwich, the guy Trump wanted to lead his USDA transition team, had been a lobbyist for PepsiCo, they brought in a mini-fridge stocked with Pepsis. That was just the way they were at the USDA. They didn’t think: How the fuck can people paid to push sugary drinks on American kids be let anywhere near the federal department with the most influence on what American kids eat? Instead they thought: I hear he’s a nice guy! No one showed up that first day after the election, or the next. This was strange: the day after he was elected, Obama had sent his people into the USDA, as had Bush. At the end of the second day, the folks at the Department of Agriculture called the White House to ask what was going on. “The White House said they’d be here Monday,” recalled one. On Monday morning they worked themselves up all over again into a welcoming spirit. Again, no one showed. Not that entire week. On November 22, Leftwich made a cameo appearance for about an hour. “We had thought, Rural America is who got Trump elected, so he’ll have to make us a priority,” said the transition planner, “but then nothing happened.” More than a month after the election, the Trump transition team finally appeared. But it wasn’t a team: it was just one guy, named Brian Klippenstein.
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Just a couple of weeks before the inauguration, Klip was joined by three other Trump people. The four-person team made a show of sitting down with some of the roughly 100,000-person USDA staff to hear what they had to say. These briefings lived up to their name: the entire introduction to the USDA’s vast scientific-research unit lasted an hour. “At most of the federal agencies, there were no real briefings,” says a former senior White House official who watched the process closely. “They were basically for show. The Trump transition sent in these teams in the end just to say they were doing it.”
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Just before the inauguration, a Trump representative called the USDA and said he wanted the building to remain open, as he was sending thirty-something new people in. Why the sudden rush? Why force the government to turn on the lights and staff the cafeteria and go to the rest of the trouble to animate a federal building on a day no one was working? Even getting people into the building would be difficult, with snipers on the roof and the Metro station closed. A member of the Obama transition team wondered how the newcomers could have been vetted so quickly by the Office of Presidential Personnel. Nine months later, Politico published an eye-popping account about these new appointees. Jenny Hopkinson, a Politico reporter, obtained the curricula vitae of the new Trump people. Into USDA jobs, some of which paid nearly $80,000 a year, the Trump team had inserted a long-haul truck driver, a clerk at AT&T, a gas-company meter reader, a country-club cabana attendant, a Republican National Committee intern, and the owner of a scented-candle company, with skills like “pleasant demeanor” listed on their résumés. “In many cases [the new appointees] demonstrated little to no experience with federal policy, let alone deep roots in agriculture,” wrote Hopkinson. “Some of those appointees appear to lack the credentials, such as a college degree, required to qualify for higher government salaries.” What these people had in common, she pointed out, was loyalty to Donald Trump.
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In 2014, at the age of twenty-seven, he was put in charge of a team of experts overseeing the Department of Agriculture’s entire budget—along with the budgets of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Department of Energy, the Department of the Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency, and a couple of others. He’d been forced to get his mind fully around the federal department that had underpinned his childhood: it wasn’t easy. “Of all the budgets, it’s the weirdest,” he said. It was weird, first, because the USDA did so many different things. It was weird because so many Americans had no idea how much their lives depended upon it. And it was weird because of the sheer sums of money sloshing around the place, dispensed by government employees no one had ever heard of.
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“Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services.” He’d run the place right up until the Trump people finally arrived, in January 2017. In his job at USDA, Concannon had overseen for eight years the nation’s school-lunch program; the program that ensures that pregnant women, new mothers, and young children receive proper nutrition; and a dozen or so smaller programs designed to alleviate hunger. Together these accounted for approximately 70 percent of the USDA’s budget—he’d spent the better part of a trillion dollars feeding people with taxpayer money while somehow remaining virtually anonymous.
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But the facts of the program he ran for eight years are innocent: its average benefit is just $1.40 cents a meal. Eighty-seven percent of that money goes to households with children, the disabled, and elderly. “The idea that we are going to put these people to work is nonsense.” Able-bodied adults on food stamps are required to work, or attend job training, for at least twenty hours a week. The nation’s private food banks dispense about $8 billion in food each year, while $70 billion in food is provided through food stamps: private charity alone will not feed everyone who needs feeding. The problem with the program is not that people are cheating it. The problem with the program is that people who should be on it are not. Kevin Concannon had done a lot to fix it: He’d raised the participation rate of the poor people who qualified for it from 72 percent to 85 percent. And he’d reduced fraud rates to all-time lows. But the myths about the food-stamp program—that food stamps can be used in casinos, or to buy alcohol and tobacco, for instance—persisted.
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Virginia Tech, like most every college in the United States with “Tech” or “A&M” after its name, was established in the wake of an 1862 law passed by the same Congress that created the Department of Agriculture. In the middle of the Civil War, Lincoln had decided it was time to make U.S. agriculture more efficient: each person not needed on the farm was another person freed up to do something else. That’s why the Department of Agriculture was created in the first place, as a vast science lab. Endless statistics illustrate the astonishing effects that lab has had—it has changed the way we live. In 1872, the average American farmer fed roughly four other people; now the average farmer feeds about 155 other people. It’s not just people and plants that have become more productive. In 1950, the average cow yielded 5,300 pounds of milk. In 2016, the average cow yielded 23,000 pounds of milk.
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bacteria. The Department of Agriculture is responsible for the safety of all meat. The FDA handles all other food. An American killed by his spinach can justifiably blame the FDA, but an American killed by his steak is the responsibility of the Department of Agriculture. Cheese pizzas are the FDA’s problem; pepperoni pizzas are supervised by the USDA.
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We don’t really celebrate the accomplishments of government employees. They exist in our society to take the blame. But if anyone ever paid attention, they would note that Woteki’s department, among other achievements, had suppressed the potentially catastrophic 2015 outbreak of bird flu. They’d created, very quickly, a fast new test for the disease that enabled them to cull the sick chickens from the healthy ones. Because of their work, the poultry industry was forced to kill only tens of millions of birds, instead of hundreds of millions. In the early 1990s, the USDA had also dealt with the outbreak of ring-spot virus in papaya trees, when the papaya industry in Hawaii faced ruin and extinction. Inside the little box marked “Science,” the USDA helped genetically engineer a papaya tree that was resistant to ring-spot virus.
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The first time we spoke wasn’t long after Trump had nominated her replacement. His name was Sam Clovis. He had a doctorate in public administration from the University of Alabama but no experience in science. He’d come to prominence in 2010 as a Rush Limbaugh–style right-wing talk-radio host in Sioux City, Iowa. As Iowa chairman of Rick Perry’s 2016 presidential campaign, he’d ripped Trump loudly and righteously for having “no foundation in Christ.” Then he’d quit Perry’s campaign to become co-chairman of the Trump campaign, declining to address rumors he’d done it for the money. (“I’m not going to talk about how much money I’m getting paid,” he told the Des Moines Register. “It’s just not going to happen.”) His appointment as the USDA’s chief scientist felt like a practical joke to those who had worked there: this was the place that, back in the early 1940s, had taken Alexander Fleming’s findings and effectively invented penicillin. It had triggered the antibiotics revolution. It had coped with blights and outbreaks. The consequences of the science it funded—or did not fund—was mind-boggling. The person Clovis was replacing had taught at universities, worked in the White House, and, along the way, been elected to the National Academy of Sciences. “They are going to politicize the science,” said Woteki. “My biggest concern is the misuse of science to support policies.”
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If the Trump administration were to pollute the scientific inquiry at the USDA with politics, scientific inquiry would effectively cease. “These high-level discussions really worry me,” she says. Research grants will go not to the most promising ideas but to the closest allies. “There is already good science that isn’t being funded,” she said. “That will get worse.” Junk science will be used to muddy issues like childhood nutrition. Maybe sodium isn’t as bad for kids as people say! There’s no such thing as too much sugar! The science will suddenly be “unclear.” There will no longer be truth and falsehood. There will just be stories, with two sides to them.
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general. I pressed her for some real, specific concern. “They could increase the line speeds,” she said, without having to think. The USDA has big, fat, quite readable rule books to prevent meat from killing people. One rule concerns the speed of the poultry-slaughter lines: 140 birds a minute. In theory, some poor USDA inspector is meant to physically examine each and every bird for defects. But obviously no human being can inspect 140 birds a minute. No industry can kill nine billion birds each year without wanting to find faster ways to do it. In the fall of 2017, the National Chicken Council petitioned the USDA to allow for line speeds of 175 or faster. “It’ll make it even harder for inspectors to do their jobs,” says Woteki. (The petition, at least for now, stands rejected.)
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She couldn’t attract young people to work there. Once, she tried to estimate how many of the USDA’s 100,000 employees had been taught how to create a spreadsheet. Fewer than fifty people, she decided. “I was always very aware how we spent money. When I would use words like‘fiduciary duties’ or say,‘Those are not our dollars,’ they would say,” Are you sure you aren’t a Republican?’ But I was really sensitive to the fact that this wasn’t our money. This was taxpayer money. This was money that had come from some guy working for fifteen bucks an hour.”
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But the more rural the American, the more dependent he is for his way of life on the U.S. government. And the more rural the American, the more likely he was to have voted for Donald Trump. So you might think that Trump, when he took office, would do everything he could to strengthen and grow the little box marked “Rural Development.” That’s not what has happened. The Trump administration wanted to show early that it was serious about foreign trade. This desire expressed itself in the Department of Agriculture by a splitting of the little box marked “Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services” into two little boxes—one for farm programs and another for Foreign Agricultural Affairs, or trade. Oddly, at that very moment, Trump was removing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and costing American farmers an estimated $4.4 billion a year in foreign sales, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation. As there’s a rule against having more than seven little boxes on the USDA’s org chart, they had to eliminate one of the little boxes. The little box they got rid of was Rural Development. “I worked in the little box in the government most responsible for helping the people who elected Trump,” said Salerno. “And they literally took my little box off the organization chart.”
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And if you wanted to understand what was at stake inside these little boxes, you could not neglect the motives of the people who ran them. “You want to know what worries me most?” she says after I ask her the question I’d come to ask her. “I am absolutely convinced about one thing: there are conversations going on right now in New York and Washington between people in the Trump administration and Wall Street bankers about how to get their hands on the bank portfolio. Folks in banking: I’m sure they are nice people—they just can’t help themselves.” She’s worried that an only partially adequate tool for helping people who were raised in the country’s unlucky places will be turned into a source of profits for the biggest financial firms. She thinks that was why they eliminated her little box and moved the $220 billion bank into the office of the secretary: so they could do new things with the money without people noticing.
III. All The President’s Data
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One day someone will write the history of the strange relationship between the United States government and its citizens. It would need at least a chapter on the government’s attempts to save the citizens from the things that might kill them. The first successful tornado prediction was made on an air force base in Norman, Oklahoma, in 1948. The men who made it had been lucky: they wouldn’t be able to do it again. Knowing this, the government had taken the view that people were better off not being warned. The Weather Bureau, as it was then called, was banned from using the word “tornado.” It just frightened people, the bureau believed.
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them. It no longer shocked Kathy Sullivan to hear otherwise educated citizens say that they got their weather from the Weather Channel. Or some app on their phone. A United States congressman had asked her why the taxpayer needed to fund the National Weather Service when he could get his weather from AccuWeather. Where on earth did he think AccuWeather—or the apps or the Weather Channel— got their weather?
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Clearly, citizens didn’t understand their government.
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Since the end of the Second World War, weather data collection has become one of the greatest illustrations of the possibilities of global collaboration and public-spiritedness. Every day thousands of amateur weather observers report data to their governments, as do a lot of experts aboard commercial planes in the sky and on ships at sea. Every day, twice a day, almost nine hundred weather balloons are released from nine hundred different spots on the globe, ninety-two of them by the U.S. government. A half-dozen countries, including the United States, deploy thousands of buoys to collect weather from the ocean surface. Then there’s the data collected by billion-dollar satellites and fancy radar stations—in the United States alone, the National Weather Service maintains 159 high-resolution Doppler radar sites. The United States shares its weather data with other countries—just as other countries share their weather data with the United States.
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DJ went to Washington. His assignment was to figure out how to make better use of the data created by the U.S. government. His title: Chief Data Scientist of the United States. He’d be the first person to hold the job.
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Nobody understood what it did but, then, like so many United States government agencies, the Department of Commerce is seriously misnamed. It has almost nothing to do with commerce directly and is actually forbidden by law from engaging in business. But it runs the United States Census, the only real picture of who Americans are as a nation. It collects and makes sense of all the country’s economic statistics—without which the nation would have very little idea of how it was doing. Through the Patent and Trademark Office it tracks all the country’s inventions. It contains an obscure but wildly influential agency called the National Institute of Standards and Technology, stuffed with Nobel laureates, which does everything from setting the standards for construction materials to determining the definition of a “second” and of an “inch.” (It’s more complicated than you might think.) But of the roughly $9 billion spent each year by the Commerce Department, $5 billion goes to NOAA, and the bulk of that money is spent, one way or another, on figuring out the weather. Each and every day, NOAA collects twice as much data as is contained in the entire book collection of the Library of Congress.
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years.” The Forbes reporters were accustomed to having rich people mislead them about the size of their wealth, but nearly all of them had been trying to keep their names off the list. “In the history of the magazine only three people stand out as having made huge efforts to get on, or end up higher than they belonged,” said Alexander. “One was [Saudi] Prince Alwaleed. The second was Donald Trump. And the third was Wilbur Ross.” The scandal wasn’t that Wilbur Ross was hiding two billion dollars from the government, but that he’d never had the two billion dollars in the first place. Alexander wrote up his findings, after which, he says, “I got a bunch of calls from people who had worked with or for Wilbur Ross, to say how happy they were the truth finally came out.” The former number-three man at Ross’s old firm, who had worked with Ross for twenty-five years, spoke on the record. “Wilbur doesn’t have an issue with bending the truth,” he said. This was the man Trump had chosen to guard the integrity of the data on which our society rests.
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Six months later, in October 2017, the White House announced its selection: Barry Myers. Barry Myers hadn’t been anywhere near the Bush official’s list. He was the CEO of AccuWeather, one of the first for-profit weather companies.
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Floehr’s analysis uncovered two big trends in weather prediction. One was toward greater relative accuracy in the private sector—which of course was totally dependent on the National Weather Service data for its forecasts. The other was the astonishing improvement in all weather predictions. The five-day-out forecast in 2016 was as accurate as the one-day-out forecast had been in 2005. In just the last few years, for the first time in history, a meteorologist’s forecast of how hot it will be nine days from now is better than just guessing.
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After the Joplin tornado, the Weather Service set out to build an app, to better disseminate warnings to the public. AccuWeather already had a weather app, Myers barked, and the government should not compete with it. (“Barry Myers is the reason we don’t have the app,” says a senior National Weather Service official.) In 2015, the Weather Company offered to help NOAA put its satellite data in the cloud, on servers owned by Google and Amazon. Virtually all the satellite data that came into NOAA wound up in places where no one could ever see it again. The Weather Company simply sought to render it accessible to the public. Myers threatened to sue the Weather Service if they did it. “He stopped it,” said David Kenny. “We were willing to donate the technology to NOAA for free. We just wanted to do a science project to prove that we could.”
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In every agency there were questions to be answered. Most of the answers we have gotten have not come from government. They’ve come from the broad American public who has access to the data.” The opioid crisis was a case in point. The data scientists in the Department of Health and Human Services had opened up the Medicaid and Medicare data, which held information about prescription drugs. Journalists at ProPublica had combed through it and discovered odd concentrations of opioid prescriptions. “We would never have figured out that there was an opioid crisis without the data,” said DJ.
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Friedberg would need to predict not just the weather but how any given field responded to it. What kind of soil did it have? How well did it retain water? The question became: Where might he find this kind of data? Once again, the U.S. government had it. NOAA had forty years’ worth of infrared satellite images of all the land in the United States—again on tape drives in some basement. Plants absorb visible light and emit infrared light: you could calculate the biomass in a field by how much infrared light it emitted. Friedberg brokered a deal with Google, which had digitized the information and gave him access to it for free.
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cloud. In each of the six years from 2007 to 2013, Friedberg’s company used forty times more data than the year before. “All this data, it would never have existed if not for the government infrastructure that collected it,” said Friedberg. “There’s no private institution that on their own would have collected it. And without it we couldn’t have made predictions. We would never have had a business without that data. But by the time we were done, we could really quantify the effects of weather on farming.” In 2011 Friedberg decided to sell exclusively to farmers, and WeatherBill changed its name to The Climate Corporation.
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For the next few years he would spend half his time on the road, explaining himself to people whose first step was toward mistrust. “Farmers don’t believe anything,” he said. “There’s always been some bullshit product for farmers. And the people selling it are usually from out of town.” He’d sit down in some barn or wood shop, pull out his iPad, and open up a map of whatever Corn Belt state he happened to be in. He’d let the farmer click on his field. Up popped the odds of various unpleasant weather events—a freeze, a drought, a hailstorm—and his crops’ sensitivity to them. He’d show the farmer how much money he would have made in each of the previous thirty years if he had bought weather insurance. Then David Friedberg, Silicon Valley kid, would teach the farmer about his own fields. He’d show the farmer exactly how much moisture the field contained at any given moment—above a certain level, the field would be damaged if worked on. He’d show him the rainfall and temperature every day—which you might think the farmer would know, but then the farmer might be managing twenty or thirty different fields, spread over several counties. He’d show the farmer the precise stage of growth of his crop, the best moments to fertilize, the optimum eight-day window to plant his seeds, and the ideal harvest date. The fertilizer was a big deal to them. “The biggest expense farmers have is fertilizer,” said Friedberg. “They’ll spend a hundred bucks an acre on corn seed and two hundred bucks on fertilizer. And their net profit might be a hundred bucks an acre. If it rains right after you fertilize, the fertilizer washes away. So how do you decide when to plant and when to fertilize? I had guys come up to me after and say,‘You saved me four hundred grand last year.’” Farming had always involved judgment calls that turned on the instincts of the farmer. The Climate Corporation had turned farming into decision science, and a matter of probabilities. The farmer was no longer playing roulette but blackjack. And David Friedberg was helping him to count the cards. “For a lot of these guys it was like,‘My mind is blown,’” Friedberg recalled.
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“We thought we were in the insurance business, but we were actually in the knowledge business,” said Friedberg. “It went from being insurance to being recommendations for farmers.” That first year, in 2011, the Climate Corporation generated $60 million in sales, just from selling weather insurance to farmers. Three years later they were insuring 150 million acres of American farmland—the bulk of the Corn Belt—and teaching the farmers how to farm them more efficiently. Six years after venture capitalists valued David Friedberg’s new company at $6 million, Monsanto bought it for $1.1 billion.
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After Trump took office, DJ Patil watched with wonder as the data disappeared across the federal government. Both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior removed from their websites the links to climate change data. The USDA removed the inspection reports of businesses accused of animal abuse by the government. The new acting head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Mick Mulvaney, said he wanted to end public access to records of consumer complaints against financial institutions. Two weeks after Hurricane Maria, statistics that detailed access to drinking water and electricity in Puerto Rico were deleted from the FEMA website. In a piece for FiveThirtyEight, Clare Malone and Jeff Asher pointed out that the first annual crime report released by the FBI under Trump was missing nearly three-quarters of the data tables from the previous year. “Among the data missing from the 2016 report is information on arrests, the circumstances of homicides (such as the relationships between victims and perpetrators), and the only national estimate of annual gang murders,” they wrote. Trump said he wanted to focus on violent crime, and yet was removing the most powerful tool for understanding it.
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“The NOAA webpage used to have a link to weather forecasts,” he said. “It was highly, highly popular. I saw it had been buried. And I asked: Now, why would they bury that?” Then he realized: the man Trump nominated to run NOAA thought that people who wanted a weather forecast should have to pay him for it. There was a rift in American life that was now coursing through American government. It wasn’t between Democrats and Republicans. It was between the people who were in it for the mission, and the people who were in it for the money.
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The relationship between the people and their government troubled her. The government was the mission of an entire society: why was the society undermining it? “I’m routinely appalled by how profoundly ignorant even highly educated people are when it comes to the structure and function of our government,” she said. “The sense of identity as Citizen has been replaced by Consumer. The idea that government should serve the citizens like a waiter or concierge, rather than in a‘collective good’ sense.”