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The Fifth Risk, Michael Lewis

"Anyway, when I had asked him for the fifth risk, he had thought about it and then seemed to relax a bit. The fifth risk did not put him at risk of revealing classified information. "Project management," was all he said.


"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. Still, many of the problems our government grapples with aren't particularly ideological, and the Obama people tried to keep their political ideology out of the briefings. "You don't have to agree with our politics," as the former senior White House official put it. "You just have to understand how we got here. Zika, for instance. You might disagree with how we approached it. You don't have to agree. You just have to understand why we approached it that way.""

p. 37

"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."

p. 68

"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. It is the aging workforce of the DOE--which is no longer attracting young people as it once did--that one day loses track of a nuclear bomb. It is the ceding of technical and scientific leadership to China. 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."

p. 75

"Here is where the Trump administration's willful ignorance plays a role. If your ambition is to maximize short-term gain without regard to the long-term cost, you are better off not knowing the cost. If you want to preserve your personal immunity to the hard problems, it's better never to really understand those problems. There is an upside to ignorance, and a downside to knowledge. Knowledge makes life messier. It makes it a bit more difficult for a person who wishes to shrink the world to a worldview."

p. 77

"His point is that, while actual fraud is relatively rare, "instances of fraud attract huge media attention and can have big effects--like Surfer Dude." Surfer Dude was a guy in San Diego who claimed on Fox News that the food-stamp program gave him the cushion he needed to surf all day. The network at it up. And that was the problem: the distorting media coverage of any cheating creates political resistance to the entire enterprise. No one in the Trump administration was likely to ever come right out and say: "We want to let kids and old people go hungry." But, obviously, they might run the program so ineptly that it lost political support. And then kids and old people would go hungry."

p. 99

"What' striking about Kevin Concannon is what he decided, for whatever reason, he didn't need. He could have named his price with the drug- and food-company lobbies, and yet he'd never taken a job in the private sector. He claims never to have felt the slightest interest in that kind of work. "I've done all right," he says when I ask him, more or less, why he's not rich. "I've always had enough. I've never felt the need to go over to the other side and make three times the amount of money. If you like what you do, you just keep doing it.""

p. 106

"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."

p. 123

"El Reno has been her turning point. "It struck me: How could we think we could help people without understanding people?" she said. "The way we have approached things is by learning about the threat. We've ignored the people being threatened." She thought that impact based warnings were intellectually dishonest: How could you warn about the impact of a storm whose force you would only be able to discern after the fact? She was also pretty sure that people knew what a tornado could do to them. The people in Alabama and Mississippi knew. So did the people in Joplin. Their problem, as she saw it, was a different sort of failure of the imagination. People could not imagine that all those tornadoes that had wound up hitting other people could instead have hit them. The sirens had become fake news. The government needed to find ways to make the news feel real."

p. 208

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