Monday January 18, 2021
'We Should Have a Deeper State': Michael Lewis on Trump, Presidential Transitions and the American Attitude Toward Government
One of the few podcasts I subscribe to is Michael Lewis’ “Against the Rules,” where he takes seeming dull topics (refs, coaches) and dives so deep and wide that they immediately become fascinating.
At the end of November, a special episode became available—a half-hour interview conducted by Axios’ Niala Boodhoo, in which Lewis talks about presidential transitions. His previous book, “The Fifth Risk,” is about what the incoming Trump team didn’t do in 2016, and now the topic was what the outgoing Trump folks were trying to prevent the incoming Biden team from doing. But the conversation is more than that. I’ve said it before and I’ll repeat it forever: “The Fifth Risk” is the answer the Democrats never gave to Ronald Reagan’s anti-government rhetoric. It’s the conversation we need to be having.
I’d give you a link to his Axios interview but I can no longer find that full episode online. It’s no longer on his site, for example. But there is a 10-minute version here. That will do for now. If you find the longer version, let me know.
In the meantime, I took part of the weekend to transcribe the longer version—which I'd already downloaded to my phone. Feel free to pass it on.
How did you get interested in this whole idea of presidential transitions in the first place?
I got interested the day after Trump was elected and Steven Bannon announced they were going to toss all the books prepared by the Obama administration in the garbage can, and Trump fired many hundreds of persons, his transition team, carefully assembled by Chris Christie. Then I kind of asked: What is this thing they decided not to show up for?
Our government is different than the government in other democracies. Even though it gets accused of being a deep state, it’s actually quite a shallow state in some ways. That we have more than 4,000 political appointees who come in to actually run the thing. So there’s not a permanent leadership in the same way there are in other civil services. And the problem is continuity. You don’t have a continuity in management or leadership. So you’ve got new people who come in to run this whole thing. And they often have no idea what it is they’re taking charge of.
So let’s take an example. This is what really piqued my interest in writing “The Fifth Risk.”
Rick Perry had been a presidential candidate who got on stage and said, during a presidential debate, that he was going to eliminate three departments of the federal government. He couldn’t remember their names but he said he was going to do it. Afterwards he remembered their names, and one of them was the Dept. of Energy. Now Donald Trump, after he’s elected, picks Rick Perry to be in charge of the Dept. of Energy—which he said he was going to eliminate. At which point, Rick Perry admits he actually has no idea what goes on in the Dept. of Energy. And lo and behold, what goes on in the Dept. of Energy is they manage the nuclear arsenal. Among other things. I mean, things that are just critical to the society. At which point, Rick Perry backpedals furiously and says, “This place is absolutely critical and we’re going to keep it, and I’m going to run it.”
But now you see there’s a problem, right? You’ve got a guy who clearly doesn’t know what he’s running. And if he doesn’t show up to listen to what the people going out have been through for the last four or eight years, or listen to the civil service about what the problems are? You’ve got incompetence and ignorance just waiting to cause trouble.
You spent so much time talking to these people about how they were preparing for a transition [in 2016]. Can you give us a sense of what that involved?
Sure. So any place you went in the government, you could find things that were being done that if they weren’t done would be very disturbing to the American people. They just don’t pay attention to what’s going on in these places. When people think transition they think the White House. They don’t realize, “No, it’s actually the entire federal bureaucracy, the entire federal government, is being handed over.” And by law. There’s actually a law that requires the administration to prepare for this moment of handoff.
The Bush administration, for example, had been very, very diligent in preparing to hand the government over to the Obama administration and Obama was very grateful for how they did that. Obama could get up to speed on the problems they were dealing with—like, for example, a global financial crisis. The Obama administration had done the same thing for the Trump administration. So there are these briefing books—let’s say you’re taking over the nuclear arsenal. There’s a dude, in a room, who’s been managing the nuclear arsenal. It does require management. You don’t want the bombs going off when you don’t want them to go off, and you want them to be able to go off when you want them to go off. You have, among other things, billions of dollars of projects in nuclear waste cleanup underneath you. You have complicated problems you are managing. And there are these books that you’ve created to explain to the people who are going to take over from you how you’ve been doing it.
What happened four years ago that was so peculiar was that I, a journalist, could walk into any one of these departments, find something that was actually critical—like the feeding of 30 million schoolchildren every day—and be the first person to receive the briefing on how this was done. There was no interest from one side to the other. Now the situation is reversed. The outgoing administration has no interest in handing over to the incoming administration. It’s a different problem, right? And I’m watching it from a distance rather than reporting on it now, but it is a different kind of problem, and there are maybe more workarounds here than there were the last time.
I wonder if we can play some audio for you, to get you back to four years ago. And this is the moment of the handover between Pres. Obama to Donald Trump.
Obama: I’ve just had the opportunity to have an excellent conversation with president-elect Trump. It was wide-ranging. We talked about some of the organizational issues in setting up a White House. We talked about foreign policy, we talked about domestic policy. And as I said last night, my no. 1 priority in the coming two months is to try to facilitate a transition that ensures our president-elect is successful.
So that’s a different spirit, right? That’s the spirit of someone actually trying to operate in the spirit of the government and make sure that bad things don’t happen because the incoming administration wasn’t prepared by the outgoing administration.
So now we have a slightly different situation, where the president, uh, well, he doesn’t even want to acknowledge that he lost, for starters, but beyond that seems intent on withholding as much as possible. A couple of things come to mind when I’m watching this happen.
There are obviously just facts you need to know that may be classified that you can get access to. That may be a problem for the Biden administration. But there are a lot of little, practical things. I saw one the other day. The Biden administration is going to have to manage the pandemic. I was in the office of a friend over at the University of California, San Francisco, the other day; and in his office, he had, I don’t know, 10,000 of these Abbott Lab rapid Covid tests—take 15 minutes to do it. He had them because the federal government had bought the first 150 million of these things, and not knowing what to do with them had shipped them off to the states on a per-capita basis. And the states didn’t know what to do with them. They didn’t even know if they worked, so they sent them to UCSF to test them. And in fact they do work very well. Now it’s one little piece of the Covid response. There are a thousand things like this. The Biden administration probably doesn’t even know those things are out there, or where they are, or what the state of play with them is, or how they might be used. If you have 150 million rapid Covid tests, there are obviously smarter places to put it than others—places where you get more leverage out of them. But you can’t even think of them unless you have been briefed.
I wonder how much of the chaos we’re seeing now you think stems from … not just from the 2016 transition, but as you explored all this, the folks that were coming in from the Trump administration really seemed to have the attitude that the way the government is run now is just wrong, and people are doing things wrong, and it doesn’t make sense to listen to the people who have been doing it wrong for however long they’ve been doing it.
But the minute you got into any kind of specifics, it just broke down. I mean, it’s wrong how the nuclear arsenal is being managed? Please explain. And in many cases they weren’t actually proposing a different policy, they were just proposing to be more negligent in the way they managed it. Now, obviously, there were strains to this government. Yes, it was true there were things in the federal government they just wanted to shut down—like, for example, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But there were other places—like, for example, managing a pandemic, or managing the nuclear arsenal, or managing nuclear waste cleanup, or distributing school lunches, which they didn’t propose to get rid of, or running the National Weather Service, or collecting taxes—that they weren’t proposing to do away with. In fact, they weren’t proposing to do anything differently. But even in those cases they showed no interest in getting briefed.
The third strain was, there were cases—and the Weather Service is an example of this—where there were private companies that had an interest in making it difficult for the government to do its job so they could extract more profit from the marketplace.
It was a hodge-podge of things, it wasn’t one ideology at work. And on top of it all, there was a president who was perfectly happen to govern in ignorance. In fact, in a funny way, he elevated it to a principle. And to the extent that he kept everyone as in the dark and confused as he was, we were all playing on the same field.
But he seemed to operate almost from a position that he already knew everything. That’s what he’d said to Chris Christie, who had managed his transition team. When Christie said, “You know, this is a big thing, Donald, it’s a 2 million-person operation you’re gonna have to run and you’ve never run anything bigger than your own company,” [Trump] said, “Chris, everything you and I need to know about running the government we can learn by taking an hour away from the victory party.”
Now if that’s your attitude, I mean, really the only way you’re going to proceed is to not pay much attention to it. Because in fact it’s an enormously complicated task. It’s not like it’s easy for anybody. In some ways, the job is undoable. You come in cold. You’ve got to appoint 4,000 people to run this whole operation—get many of them confirmed by a Senate that is hostile to you. Very hard to hire and fire people in the federal government. Everyone knows you’re there at most eight years. It’s a management challenge in the best of times. When you throw into that the people that are handing it off to you are going to obscure from your view everything you need to know to manage it well? You’re just asking for trouble—you just don’t know what the trouble is.
I think in many ways “The Fifth Risk” is kind of like this love letter to bureaucracy and the federal government. There’s so many stories of relationships of people that you met. I think that people don’t think that the National Weather Service is there to provide tornado warnings or hurricane warnings.
They take the progress for granted. Your weather forecasts are so much better than they were a generation ago, and they’re better than they were a generation before that. And there’s a reason for that. And the effect of that is huge. The effect on commerce, the effect on human life, the ability to pinpoint where the hurricane is going to hit land. This is a relatively recent phenomena. And it’s driven entirely, or almost entirely, by the government’s work in the area.
Now there’s been help from the private sector, but the government is the center of the collection and analysis of the weather data that led to the progress in weather prediction. And we just take it for granted. We don’t think, “Huh, who did that? Who were the people who threw themselves into that enterprise?” And when you dig into it, you find it was the woman who, as a 10-year-old girl, was traumatized because in a hurricane a tree fell on her house and she said “I want to make sure that doesn’t happen to other people. I’m going to learn how to predict the weather.” You find these very curious characters who were drawn to the mission. And sometimes the stories are quite moving.
There’s a guy in the book named Arthur Allen, who was laid off during the government shutdown, who was in the Coast Guard, who basically invented a way to predict the way objects drift at sea—depending on the object: if you’re on a life raft or a life preserver or an 18-foot sailboat. And this enabled the Coast Guard to find thousands of people who were lost at sea that they never would’ve found otherwise. This is a guy who saved thousands of lives, and he did it without anyone asking him to do it, just because he got an interest in it while working at a government job. And he got laid off as an unnecessary worker during the government shutdown.
There’s story after story that doesn’t get out there, because the government isn’t allowed to market itself. It doesn’t promote itself—unlike every other sector of society. The book? Yes, it is a bit of a love letter. It didn’t start that way. It started with me just wondering: What happens if people who are going to run this place don’t show up to learn what happens inside of it? And I was shocked by the caliber and the passion of the people I met. A side effect of [the current transition], and a side effect of the entire Trump administration, is to send a signal to those people: You stuck your neck out for this society and we’re going to chop your head off. Or: We don’t honor what you did for us. And that to me is a great shame. That, to me, is the biggest shame of the Trump administration.
Do you think that is reflected in the fact that he lost the election? If you look at polling, how people felt about the way coronavirus has been handled, that was a significant factor in how people voted.
I was betting when I was working on the book that his managerial ineptitude was much more important than people were crediting, and that something would happen. I didn’t know what it was. But one way to frame the federal government is a manager of a portfolio of risks—and some of these risks are existential risks. Something always happens, right? You never know what it is. The presidents don’t get to sit there and coast for four years. Something happens. And when it happens, [Trump] would be unprepared to manage it because of his approach to the enterprise—and because his approach to the enterprise is reflective of deeper problems.
But: Yes, I think he lost the election because of his approach to government. People might not quite put it that way, but put it another way: Let’s say he was a Mussolini who could actually make the trains run on time; that he actually had management ability. Along with everything else he’s got—anti-democratic impulses, all that—that he could make the trains run on time, that he could actually a pandemic effectively. He’d still be president. He’d have won. So, yes, it wound up being his Achilles heel: not paying attention to the enterprise he was supposed to manage.
Now we’re in this in-between period and we’re also seeing a lot of firings: the Defense Secretary … these are important roles. I wonder just sort of what implications you think this period has—not just thinking about President Trump obstructing President-Elect Biden—but also the people who are here.
Well, I don’t know what it means for Trump to fire someone right now. I don’t know if they’re really fired. They’re fired for two months? I don’t know. They could come back. What effect would it have on me if I was in one of these enterprises? It would be just to lay low until the guy is gone. Because why attract attention to yourself? You might be the next one to be fired. But I don’t think it would stop me from having the conversations I’d need to have with the Biden administration—the stuff I felt they needed to know. So I assume a lot of people feel that way. Seems like the natural way to feel. I could be wrong about this. I think of these kind of managerial moves he’s making now as farce and theater. They’re not going to make much of a difference. You’re removing people from jobs for a couple of months. It just seems like noise and distraction.
I wonder if we can end by cutting through that noise and distraction by you just sharing what are the most important things you’d like to be seeing happening. Even if they’re not happening, what should be happening?
I think if we back away from this? And asked “What should we all learn?” We really shouldn’t be at the mercy of one man like this. And there shouldn’t be 4500 people to be appointed by the president to run the civil service—we should have a deeper state. We should have upper-level management positions at all of these agencies that are permanent civil service. We should convert a lot of political positions to civil service positions. So that the transition is less critical; that the expertise at the top stays—much of it; and every department has its Tony Fauci. So the handoff is just not as big a deal.
Think of what the Biden administration is having to do. How much easier it would be if it was 200 people they needed to put in. And only at the very top. And underneath the very top, you had these people who actually knew what was going on in the enterprise; who were actually managing it. My takeaway is we need to reform the government so it would be easier to manage; and it looks more like other enterprises in society that are successfully run.
I think Trump supporters—people who voted for him because they said he’s a businessman and knows how to run a company, and he will clean up the swamp—would agree with you. So what would you say to those people about the government has been run, not just for the past four years, but needs to be reformed in the way that you’re talking about?
You just explain it. You know, the problem is: It’s not explained. If you look very broadly at Trump’s support, what’s the first two things you notice about it—aside from race and gender. You notice where they live. It’s rural. Rural America is the most dependent on the American government of any part of America. Rural America, above all, would welcome a better-run federal government because they’re at the mercy of it. You just explain how. It’s a civics and public education problem. We don’t have that conversation. We shout at each other a lot. I think someone willing to teach, and lead by teaching, absolutely can deliver this message.
So you wrote the book a few years ago: I’m wondering what stories have stayed with you. You mentioned a few. Are there any more?
The person of whom I would think “You would need one of him in every department”: John Mcwilliams, who is the first person I go to see at the Dept. of Energy. He’s just out of the Dept. of Energy when I started this book. And he was a private sector guy. He was a guy that lots of people who hate the government would still find ways to admire him. He made millions of dollars as a private equity person. He knew the energy sector really well. He was a successful investor and money manager. And he was brought in as a risk manager in the Dept. of Energy. His job was to run around the whole place and figure out what are the risks we’re managing. And he stopped at 138. Every one of them seemed terrifying when you sat down and talked to him. He knew nothing about the government when he came into the job. He came away shocked—shocked—by the talent that was inside the Dept. of Energy, and by the energy and ambition, which was just directed at something other than making money. But also shocked by the fact that no one had put names to these risks. Some of the risks are quite slow-moving—like the risk of underinvesting in science and technology. Long-term science projects are being funded by the Dept. of Energy that won’t be funded by the private sector. The future of the economy is being funded, in part, by the Dept. of Energy.
He’s interesting as a person. But that character intrigues me as someone who we could use everywhere in the government. And then have that person explain, publicly, what it is we need to be thinking about and worrying about.
What’s at the top of the risk list?
The top of the list is whatever you’re not thinking about. Because you never know what’s going to happen. I promise you, you and I sit down in four years, some things will have happened that we could never have imagined. But someone in the government is in charge of imagining it and thinking about it and preparing for it, and making a slightly better response to it.
We should’ve been able to guess that we would be crippled by a bug. Right? Some people said some things about it, but it wasn’t at the top of mind four years ago—that we’re all going to be cowering in our homes because there’s this new cold virus going around. There’s a similar unimaginable thing on the horizon. We would do well to buttress the people in the government whose job it is to prepare us for those things.
We didn’t do it in this case. Quite clearly, we didn’t do it in this case. Beyond that, we didn’t empower them after the fact. Trump did things that gutted our ability to respond to this thing, but it was much more what he did after this thing was upon us that was so disturbing. Even now, we’re arguing if government is a solution to the problem. Even now, we alone, in the world—think about this—we alone in the world are fighting about whether or not we should wear masks or congregate in large numbers.
This is the thing to me that’s unbelievably bewildering and telling. We are the inventors of pandemic planning. The Center for Disease Control was in effect the World Health Organization. We have the leading scientists, we’re leaders in medicine, we should be the A team in responding to a pandemic. That we have four-and-something percentage of the world’s population and 20-and-something percentage of the world’s deaths is a spectacular indictment of our relationship to our government. There’s no other explanation than that for our failure. We should be winning the pandemic and we’re losing it.