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Book Review: "The Fifth Risk", by Michael Lewis

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 existental 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.

Years ago, when I volunteered at a local hospital in my hometown for high school service hours, I read on CNN that 39 Special Operations troops lost their lives in a helicopter crash. I was pretty concerned at the time because special forces troops can take twenty years to train and the loss would severely set back America’s capabilities in prosecuting terrorists. By contrast, the lady at the front desk couldn’t have cared less. “Oh. Well I’m off to buy some sunglasses.” Those were her exact words, burned into my mind. I think that was my first taste of what the average American thought of their government. It was, as this book states, a waiter-customer relationship rather than a collective-good relationship. In good times, it works; in bad times, not so much.

This book, written at a time of heightened awareness towards our government, deftly deflects some of that precious political capital towards the unseen and unspoken risks of our future. It’s not what we can see that destroys us. We can face what we see. It’s what we can’t see that kills us.

From the extremely sophisticated Metcalf sniper attacks highlighting just how vulnerable our electrical grid is, to trespassing at the Y-12 nuclear weapons storage complex demonstrating the ease of nuclear terrorism on U.S. soil, to the notion that for-profit weather forecasters like AccuWeather make nonsense predictions for money beyond the information they recieve from the National Weather Service (I honestly thought they just served ads…), the depopulation of the civil services responsible for those issues and the politicization of those governmental shells left behind produce unquantifiable risks shrouded in the fog of war. This should be the primary concern of every American (and really, every citizen of any nation where this happens).