It started with a search for audiobooks. I am trying to run more (at all) as we get into spring here, and I’ve found that I am too picky about podcasts. There are only a couple I reliably like, and that adds up to maybe two hours of content a week.
My preferred drug in podcasts is, I guess, interpretive digestible reporting*(?) so I tried to dig up some unfamiliar-to-me titles from authors who maybe sorta fit into that category. We’ll see how this strategy goes but let’s just say I’ve got several Michael Lewis and Erik Larson back-catalogers queued up over the next couple of weeks.
Anyway it turned out I had The Fifth Risk on my physical bookshelf already, and it was a quick read. So I read it, quickly.
The hook for this book is the transition of government from Obama to Trump. This is history thankfully receding in the rearview mirror at this point, but you may vaguely remember that Chris Christie was the head of Trump’s transition team, until suddenly he wasn’t, and then a bunch of stuff happened for four years.
The federal government is a huge organization, and it consists of both political appointees and career workers who stay with departments from administration to administration. So the typical transition will look something like a corporate takeover from November (the election) to January (the inauguration / handoff): the old team wraps up projects and documents ongoing work as best as they can, while the new team comes in and learns the ropes, gets briefed on big priorities and risks so they can make their own assessments about work that needs to be prioritized, etc. And basically, after the election in 2016, no one from the Trump team shows up to actually get briefed or do any prep work leading up to their takeover.
Lewis interviews a bunch of people from the Obama years, both political appointees and people who are just working along, building careers in service in various departments. These people are really interesting! There’s Kathy Sullivan, an oceanographer-turned-astronaut, and DJ Patil, a dyslexic data fanatic.
He also delves into what’s actually in various departments, which made me feel incredibly ignorant, and also like why didn’t I hear about any of this in school? I would easily take a unit on this over the Teapot Dome or Smoot-Hawley. Or would I? I remember the funny names but not what either of them actually were. Anyway my point is that NOAA (the national weather service) is in the Department of Commerce and in fact is over half its budget, and I would not have guessed that in a million years.
There’s one amazing anecdote where Arun Majumdar, head of ARPA-E (a fundamental research sponsor that underwrites early-stage energy-related projects) goes to dinner with some people from The Heritage Foundation. They had just published a draft budget that eliminated the department entirely, and he knew that they would be majorly influential in constructing the actual budget. While they’re at dinner, a woman he’s talking to catches on — oh you’re like DARPA, DARPA invented Kevlar, Kevlar saved my son’s life in Iraq — and ARPA-E reappears in the next budget! Like, is that how we govern? By dinner conversation? What if she had a tummyache that night and Majumdar talked to a different lady? Argh.
Anyway … in the end what was really missing for me with this book was closure. We learned (a subset of) what the various departments would have briefed their successors on, we learned that very little of that knowledge transfer actually happened, and my question is, and then what happened? I know what happened over the whole administration of course, but was the transition part instrumental? Do we usually spend too much time on it? Too little?
Given how I came to be reading this book, it almost feels too neat to say this but — this might have been better as a podcast. Do a different department every episode, and interview people about what they would have liked to tell their successors and their perception of how things went afterward. I’d listen to it. But reading it as a book — the ending feels less like an ending and more like, after a while, the text just stops.
*You’re Wrong About, ye olde Reply-All, sometimes Freakonomics but I don’t trust them to be intellectually honest … YWA is the only podcast I reliably like, and even then miss me with the book club eps. Recommendations welcome!