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domingo, 14 de outubro de 2018

Quem manda no governo? Book review NYTRBooks

Um problema que logo será também brasileiro...


Michael Lewis Wonders Who’s Really Running the Government

Secretary of Energy Rick Perry at an energy facility in Maryland earlier this year.CreditCreditCliff Owen/Associated Press
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By Joe Klein

By Michael Lewis
221 pp. W.W. Norton & Company. $26.95.

Michael Lewis is the poet laureate of computer-driven data analysis. He has written a series of wildly successful and eminently readable books about the Information Age revolutions in two fields of American obsession, finance and sports (with clever side-trips into behavioral psychology and economics). He has done this in a breezy, pellucid manner, with a rare talent for explaining abstruse concepts — say, collateralized debt obligations — so that even I can understand them. His technique is deceptively simple: The stories are told through sketches of brilliant, eccentric people, experts in their fields, who tend to speak in the same effervescent, colloquial way that Lewis writes. You can’t help liking them. Now, though, Lewis has taken on his most difficult challenge: He has chosen to apotheosize three obscure government agencies — the Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Commerce. In “The Fifth Risk,” his heroes are federal bureaucrats.
Why these departments? Well, they are enormous data collection and analysis factories. And Donald Trump either doesn’t care about them or understand what they do, or doesn’t like what he imagines he understands, and has sent minions intent on crippling their work. Lewis believes that essential government functions like protecting nuclear waste (Department of Energy), food safety and feeding the poor (Agriculture) and predicting the weather (Commerce) are under threat. Early on, he introduces us to John MacWilliams — a classic Lewis character — a former investment banker with expertise in the energy sector who is cajoled by Barack Obama’s splendid energy secretary Ernest Moniz to go to work for the government. “Everything was acronyms,” MacWilliams recalls. “I understood 20 to 30 percent of what people were talking about.” But the people were impressive. “There were physicists everywhere. Guys whose ties don’t match their suits. Passive nerds. Guys who build bridges.” And they certainly weren’t in it for the money.
MacWilliams’s job at the D.O.E. was risk assessment. Lewis is a risk assessment junkie — whether it’s the risk of investing in ballplayers (“Moneyball”) or mortgage-backed securities (“The Big Short”). At the D.O.E., the risks are potentially cataclysmic — preventing dirty bombs from exploding at the Super Bowl, tracking nuclear weapons so they don’t get lost or damaged (they’re called “Broken Arrows”), preventing plutonium waste at the government’s facility in Hanford, Wash., from leaking into the Columbia River. Lewis asks MacWilliams to list the top five risks. The first four are predictable: Broken Arrows. North Korea. Iran (that is, maintaining the agreement that prevents Iran from building a nuclear bomb). Protecting the electric grid from cyberterrorism. But the fifth, most important risk is a stunner: “program management.” Hence, the title of this book.
How does The Times approach books about political subjects? Editors explain the process here. ]
Lewis defines it this way: “The risk a society runs when it falls into the habit of responding to long-term risks with short-term solutions. … ‘Program management’ is the existential threat that you never really even imagine as a risk. … 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.”


It is myopia. It is the absence of leadership. It is democracy without citizenship. Enter Donald Trump. It should be said that government has never been all that good at seeing around corners, and there are vast stretches of the federal bureaucracy that are not populated by geniuses. Lewis does not defend the Post Office or the Department of Veterans Affairs (although there are brilliant practitioners doing innovative work for veterans amid the fatty mass of unmotivated bureaucrats). But penicillin was discovered by the Department of Agriculture (and fracking, by the way, in large part by the Department of Energy). The incredible advances in data collection by the National Weather Service have made it possible for us to know ahead of time, with a fair amount of certainty, where hurricanes like Florence are going and at what strength. Thousands of lives have been saved over the years. There are government programs like food stamps — Lewis profiles the director of the program and his obsession with fraud — that have pretty much abolished hunger in the United States. And D. J. Patil, President Obama’s chief data scientist, observes that it was data compiled by the Department of Health and Human Services that enabled journalists at ProPublica to discover the spike in opioid prescriptions that presaged the current addiction crisis. These are details of implementation that tend not to concern the current administration.
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Actually, it’s worse than that. Donald Trump appointed the former Texas governor Rick Perry as energy secretary. Perry, who once said he wanted to abolish the department (he also wanted to abolish Commerce and Education), is a figurehead, his role “ceremonial and bizarre.” According to Lewis, Perry didn’t ask for a briefing on any D.O.E. program when he arrived. The real work of sorting out the department was given to Thomas Pyle, a lobbyist funded by the carbon-addled Koch Industries and ExxonMobil. Trump’s goal was to rid the place of Obama supporters and climate change analysts, and to aggrandize the oil and coal sectors. Pyle was followed by a group of young ideologues called the “Beachhead Team.” Lewis quotes Tarak Shah, chief of staff for the department’s $6 billion basic-science program: “We had tried desperately to prepare them … but that required them to show up. And bring qualified people. But they didn’t. They didn’t ask for even an introductory briefing. Like, ‘What do you do?’”
This is an enormity in Lewis’s algorithmic world: “After Trump took office, D. J. Patil watched with wonder as the data disappeared across the federal government.” The disappearing data concerned phenomena that the Trumpers opposed, like climate change or food safety regulations, or that they didn’t care about, like poverty, or stuff that they assumed were government boondoggles, which was most everything not involving the Pentagon. They cut funding for data collection across the board.
Lewis has spent his career writing from an ironic middle distance. He is deft, not didactic. He doesn’t proselytize or offer solutions to fix our ailing democracy, which makes “The Fifth Risk” all the more effective as a call to arms — especially to his natural audience of (mostly) guys who like sports and moneymaking. At a moment when the president of the United States is under frontal assault, Lewis takes a more oblique route. He doesn’t bother with Trump’s flagrant character deficiencies; he is horrified by the practical effects of the president’s ignorance. And so he deploys his skills to make the history of the National Weather Service’s ability to predict hurricanes — and its difficulty in predicting tornadoes — into a page-turner. “If a hurricane is another night in a bad marriage,” he writes, “a tornado is a blind date.” A metaphor lurks here: Donald Trump is a tornado, witlessly devastating the world that Michael Lewis has come to love and chronicle.
But there is more than lost data at stake. “The Fifth Risk” raises the most important question of the moment: Have we grown too lazy and silly and poorly educated to sustain a working democracy? We live in a moment when tribal bumper stickers — both left and right — pass for politics, when ignorance and grievance drive policy. The federal government exists at a level of complexity most people just can’t be bothered to understand. We have little idea what it does, only the vague sense that it doesn’t do anything very well. Michael Lewis has taken on the task of rectifying that misconception, and he has done so with refreshing clarity — and a measured sense of outrage — which makes this his most ambitious and important book.
Joe Klein’s books include “Primary Colors,” “Woody Guthrie” and, most recently, “Charlie Mike: A True Story of Heroes Who Brought Their Mission Home.”
A version of this article appears in print on , on Page 14 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Who’s in Charge?Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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