Ignoring the Bureaucracy Isn't the Same as Dismantling It
The tweeter & tariffer-in-chief Donald Trump had a bad week post election with presidential historian Douglas Brinkley telling the Washington Post , “Trump needs adulation, so heading into the midterms, holding these rallies, he was cheered and it became narcissistic fuel to his engine,” Brinkley said. “After the midterm, it’s the sober dawn of the morning.”
DC heads are going to roll, it’s only a matter of whose and when. “He was frustrated with the trip. And he’s itching to make some changes,” said one senior White House official. “This is a week where things could get really dicey.”
“Really dicey” as opposed to just “dicey?” Michael Lewis would say the Trump Administration has made the nation’s security “dicey.” In his new book “The Fifth Risk,” Lewis quotes Steve Bannon, who was assigned to fire transition team head Chris Christie, as saying “I was f—ing nervous as s—t. “I go,” ‘Holly f—k, this guy [Trump] doesn’t know anything. And he doesn’t give a s—t.’” [NB: expletives removed by Mises editor.]
Remember, Steve Bannon is a big Trump fan. Freshly elected Trump, on election night, turned to Christie and said, “Chris, you and I are so smart that we can leave the victory party two hours early and do the transition ourselves.”
Lewis chronicled his days at Solomon Brothers in the brilliant “Liar's Poker,” the genius of Billy Beane in “Moneyball,” the gutsy resilience of a group of old ball traders in “The Big Short,” and the heart warming story of gentle giant Michael Oher in “The Blind Side,” to name just a few of Lewis’s best sellers.
This time, Lewis manages to find diligent, creative federal government employees (he had two million to choose from) to tell the story of Trump’s transition, or lack thereof. The thesis is, we are all at risk due to the President’s neglect. Legions of earnest federal workers were ready to smoothly hand over the monstrosity that is the federal government, and, well, no one showed up. Or in the case of the Department of Commerce, doddering Wilbur Ross turned up one day, but was not interested in what the department he was Secretary of actually does, said so, and left.
And, while Lewis is convincing in his description of how brilliant and dedicated the government worker subjects of his narrative are, what the book illustrates, most clearly, is the government is involved in much more stuff than it is supposed to be. Way, way, way beyond, for instance, security for its citizens.
Lewis cheerfully tells the reader, “Every Tesla you see on the road came from a facility financed by the DOE (Department of Energy). Its loans to early-stage solar energy companies launched the industry.” He writes that the program earns a profit (one wonders what the DOE pays for the funds it lends out). However, picking and financing the Elon Musk's of the world should not be the government’s business.
The author reveals the story of a pair of 4-megaton hydrogen bombs breaking off a B-52 in 1961. One bomb disintegrated and the other was one switch from being detonated, which would have destroyed much of eastern North Carolina, “and nuclear fallout might have descended on Washington, DC, and New York City.”
To clean up toxic waste left over from Cold War bomb making will cost trillions and take hundreds of years. Meanwhile, the Trump administration is willfully ignorant, according to Lewis, in order to focus on short-term gains. “Knowledge makes life messier,” he writes. “It makes it a bit more difficult for a person who wishes to shrink the world to a worldview.”
The Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a budget of $164 billion, has a bank that lends, has a large fleet of planes for firefighting, and subsidizes apartment rents, hospitals and who-knows-what-all in rural America. According to Lewis, USDA employees play a drinking game where someone throws out an obscure function and the bureaucrats guess as to whether the USDA does it. Lewis provides the example of shooting fireworks at airports to scare away Canada geese gathering too close to runways. You win if you said, “of course the USDA does that!” Lewis writes (really), “Americans have no idea how much their lives depend upon it [the USDA].”
I just remember the old joke, “I saw the guy at the USDA crying today? Why? Because his farmer died.”
The aforementioned Department of Commerce is really the Department of Data. At this point, Lewis offers the similarities between the Commerce Secretary and the President. They both made huge efforts to get in the Forbes 500 and, as one of Ross’s top employees said on the record, “Wilbur doesn’t have an issue with bending the truth.”
Much of Lewis’s narrative about Commerce is about weather forecasting and tornados, which was very interesting for this reader from Kansas, which “has a third more tornadoes each year than Oklahoma,” but is a third bigger and has a third fewer people. Lewis gives many of the old wives tales about twisters that have proven not to be true, like, tornadoes won’t cross a river, or a hill or will always follow a highway, and never strike an indian burial group. What does all of this have to do with government? The control of historical data and attempts to privatize weather forecasting.
Some prominent libertarians claim Trump is the most libertarian president in decades. They might read “The Fifth Risk” and say “see, he’s gutting this agencies through neglect. He’s playing 4D chess, yada, yada, yada.”
However, wouldn’t a competent libertarian president do more than just ignore the vast bureaucracy, and take steps to dismantle it. If the government has a monopoly on essential services and information, wouldn’t a conscientious libertarian president put people in place to take steps toward privatization of those services?
Let the argument begin.