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  • Writer's pictureShelly Albaum

Fifth Risk, by Michael Lewis

I am recommending Michael Lewis's new book, The Fifth Risk, to anyone who will listen:

​​Like all Michael Lewis books (e.g., Flash Boys, The Big Short, Moneyball), The Fifth Risk is fun and engaging -- and who besides Michael Lewis could make the federal bureaucracy into a page-turner? It is worth it just for that.

And the book is going to get a LOT of attention in the future, since Barack Obama has purchased the right to make it into a movie for Netflix, so you can brush up now for future cocktail chatter.

But the reason I am recommending The Fifth Risk is because I think it is one of the most essential books for citizenship and democracy -- it absolutely should be required reading for anyone who ever intends to vote.

The great paradox of democracy is that if every citizen spent the time necessary to become an expert on every candidate and every policy, they would get nothing done with their lives.

So part of the problem of democracy is one of inadequate information and uncertainty -- how does a citizen make smart decisions from an inevitable position of ignorance?

But part of the problem of democracy, too, is understanding the role of citizens in a democracy -- what are our actual responsibilities to each other?

It's fairly obvious that it is not the responsibility of every passenger on the airplane to climb into the cockpit and grab the controls. Nonetheless, passengers in a democratically run airline would have a legitimate interest in and ought to be able to influence safety standards, route maps, schedules, service levels, fares, and more, even if they don't know how the baggage sorting system works.

Here is a telling line from the book:

"The sense of identity as a Citizen has been replaced by Consumer. The idea that government should serve the citizens like a waiter or a concierge, rather than in a collective good sense."

That sentence is attributed to space shuttle astronaut Kathy Sullivan, who went on to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Most Americans couldn't name the NOAA, and they'd be even more startled to learn that it was a part of the Department of Commerce.

The Fifth Risk teaches us about Kathy Sullivan's adventures in the NOAA, and what happens when someone like the CEO of AccuWeather gets put in charge of the National Weather Service instead. [SPOILER: They might take all the government weather data that taxpayers have already paid to create and make it difficult or impossible to access it without paying again to corporations like AccuWeather.]

And we learn about unsafe radioactive nuclear waste sites that give public tours, how many birds-per-minute can be processed by a slaughterhouse, the efforts to prevent America's rural small towns from turning into ghost towns, and much, much more. I promise that The Fifth Risk is interesting EVEN THOUGH it involves the federal bureaucracy.

But most of all we learn that the millions of things that the millions of federal employees are doing are really important to our daily lives, and if we entrust those responsibilities to people who do not know or care about the important things our government does to make civil society possible, we will suffer in more ways than we can imagine.

Read it, then tell a friend to read it, then spread the word.

If you don't like it when people engage in risky behavior, like drunk driving, or playing with matches in a dry brush canyon, then you REALLY need to know what is risky behavior in a democracy, so you can spot it and object.

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