The Economic Crisis – Ignorance, Incompetence and Idiocy The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis: Part I of a Review

Two recent headlines:

  1. Trump threatens year-long shutdown for his wall as GOP support begins to fracture;
  2. Millions face delayed tax refunds, cuts to food stamps as White House scrambles to deal with shutdown’s consequences.

This past Friday, President Trump warned that the partial government shutdown could go on for months or even years. Further, Trump insisted that he had the power to declare a national emergency to build the wall without Congress under the National Emergency Act of 1976 since, as one authority opined, “it puts no limits on a president’s ability to declare an emergency.” Alternatively, Trump could act under the prerogative of the president, an interpretation which insists that whatever a president does, because he does it, is legal – a move you would understand if you saw the movie Vice and John Yoo offering that legal opinion to Dick Cheney in the Bush Jr. administration.

Trump’s threat is particularly dangerous because, even for Republican leaders, he has proven to be a totally unreliable negotiating partner, reneging on deals he just made 24 hours earlier. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, has stayed out of the fray and the efforts to declare a truce via a short-term funding bill since Trump reversed himself last month on precisely this, though last evening he accused Sen. Chuck Schumer of reversing his support for a physical barrier – no longer a wall. Schumer had supported fencing and continues to do so. He did not reverse himself.

As usual, in the course of such bluster, Trump lied yet again: previous presidents told him that they wished they had built a wall themselves. Not one did. He lied again in his address to the nation yesterday evening.

  • Our southern border is a pipeline for vast quantities of illegal drugs including meth, heroin, cocaine and fentanyl…The border wall would very quickly pay for itself, the cost of illegal drugs exceeds $500 billion a year.” The stream totaled $193 billion according to the 2015 surgeon general’s report. That pipeline runs largely through legal crossing points; a wall would not close it. Further, fentanyl and opioids largely come from China via the postal service.
  • “The wall will also be paid for indirectly by the great new trade deal we have made with Mexico.” !?!?!?
  • “In the last two years, ICE officers made 266,000 arrests of aliens with criminal records, including those charged or convicted of 100,000 assaults, 30,000 sex crimes and 4,000 violent killings.” The charges of 55,233 of the 266,000 were pending and not convictions. The vast majority were for nonviolent offences, such as illegal entry and mainly traffic violations. Data tracks the number of charges, not the number of persons charged. In the state with the strongest legal enforcements, Texas, charges against illegals ran to almost 900 convictions (not convicted persons) per 100,000 illegals. Assuming 12 million illegals in the U.S., most of whom are overstayers, the estimated number of illegal convictions would be 108,000.
  • “Over the years, thousands of Americans have been brutally killed by those who illegally entered our country and thousands more lives will be lost if we don’t act right now.” The conviction and arrest rates for illegal immigrants, which included the charges of illegal entry not applicable to native born Americans, were lower than those for native born Americans. The libertarian Cato Institute suggests 50% less.
  • “Last month, 20,000 migrant children were illegally brought into the United States, a dramatic increase.” In 2014, 68,541 arrived; in 2016, 59,692 arrived.
  • “These children [presumably all 20,000] are used as human pawns by vicious coyotes and ruthless gangs.” Overwhelmingly, the children come with their families.
  • “The federal government remains shut down for one reason and one reason only: because Democrats will not fund border security.” DT said he would take full ownership of the shutdown; the Democrats offered $1.3 billion to fund border security, not DT’s wall.
  • “A young police officer in California was savagely murdered in cold blood by an illegal alien that just came across the border.” The Newman police officer killed in an encounter with a suspected drunk driver at 1:00 a.m. was Cpl. Romi Singh. Yesterday, the Republican National Committee featured the 26 December killing of Singh in a 90 second video. Paulo Virgen Mendoza, 32, was charged. He had a record of previous convictions. On this charge, he is innocent until proven guilty. No evidence was offered that he “just came across the border.”
  • “In California, an Air Force veteran was raped and murdered and beaten to death with a hammer by an illegal alien with a long criminal history.” The problem was more one of the failure of removal rather than illegal entry. For this brutal assault against 64-year-old Marilyn Pharis, Vîctor Martînez, an illegal alien previously convicted of sexual assault, was convicted. The offence took place in 2015.
  • “In Georgia, an illegal alien was recently charged with murder for killing and beheading and dismembering his neighbor.” The reference was to the murder in November of Robert Page, 76, in Clayton County. Christian Ponce Martînez was charged with the murder. Page’s wife, Lulu, was upset that Trump used the case of her husband’s murder to advance the argument for his wall and said that, although she favours protecting U.S. citizens against dangerous illegal or legal migrants, she did not know what could be done to stop the actions of a single individual.
  • “In Maryland, the MS-13 gang members who arrived in the United States as unaccompanied minors were arrested and charged last year after viciously stabbing and beating a 16-year-old girl.” I am not sure which case DT was citing. There have been many murders and disappearances in the U.S. in which member of MS-13 gangs have been involved. A 15-year-old boy, Javier Castillo, was murdered on Long Island. MS-13 gang members threaten law and order. Most victims have been other unaccompanied minors whom the gang tries to recruit. These unaccompanied minors mostly arrived from Central America between 2011 and 2014, with a peak of 137,000 in 2014. Since, on humanitarian grounds, they cannot be returned to the Central American countries from which they fled, they remain in the U.S. They are asylum claimants, not illegals. The problems result from failures to process and adjudicate claims in a timely manner, failures in integration, failures in law enforcement. The result, unaccompanied minors are doubly victimized. Both the murderers and the murdered are unaccompanied minors.

The illustrations are grisly. They are included to instill fear not to enhance our understanding let alone arrive at rational policies to deal with the causes. The lies tumbled out of the president’s mouth, one after the other. Then he shifted to misleading assertions about his immigration proposal addressing many other issues – better equipment, improved technology, more agents and judges, better medical support and humanitarian assistance personnel – with which no one in Congress disagrees. The issue is the wall, the $5.7 billion wall and not repairs, improvements and some extensions of existing walls.

At the same time, DT expressed no empathy for the 800,000 unpaid federal employees. He expressed no understanding of the effects of the shutdown on cafeteria service and maintenance workers and on small contractors but also on even larger obligations, such as preparing for the 2020 census, tax refunds and food stamp programs under the Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Assistance Food Program. All have very negative effects on the economy, not only on those who directly depend on the funds, but on the retailers where those funds are spent.

Why the wall? It is a matter of national security we are told. Nonsense. Federal employees are responsible for minimizing risks for the following, all examples of national security:

  • Inspecting nuclear plants
  • Tracking nuclear material world wide
  • Ensuring through the use of food stamps that American children do not go hungry
  • Hundreds of Transportation Safety Administration workers at major airports nationwide are off the job because they can’t afford to get to work since salaries are not being paid in their category
  • Three deaths thus far in unsupervised national parks.

The primary issue in the end is neither the wall nor Trump’s partial shutdown of the government. These are but symptoms of an underlying disease. The issue is that Donald Trump does not believe in governance at all and operates to undermine and disrupt it. Shutting down part of the government is just an instance of a long-term pattern in place even before Donald Trump was inaugurated as evidenced in the material Michael Lewis has put forth in his book, The Fifth Risk.

The five top risks are:

  • Managing nuclear materials worldwide
  • North Korea
  • Iran
  • The electrical grid
  • A failure in governance.

And the last embraces and underpins them all.

In the prologue, Lewis documents in detail how Donald Trump failed to prepare for governing the United States,  not only when he was running to be the Republican nominee, when a candidate should start preparing to run the government, not only when he was running to be president when a candidate should put plans in place to run the government, but in the crucial time period between his election and taking office when the president-elect should prepare to implement those plans and adopt them to the way government actually works. Trump ignored and shut down all three stages of preparing to assume office.

Former Governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, largely viewed now as a humiliated messenger boy for Donald Trump, did notice the lack of preparation very soon after Trump was nominated, did offer his services voluntarily to head a transition team to prepare to take the reins of government if elected, and did prepare a large volume to guide the administration when it actually won the election. “He (Christie) went to see Trump about it. Trump said he didn’t want a presidential transition team. Why did anyone need to plan anything before he actually became president? It’s legally required, said Christie.” (18)

Fuck the law. I don’t give a fuck about the law. I want my fucking money.” (21) Trump did not want to pay the costs of the people needed to undertake the planning taken from his campaign funds. The government provided the space and paid for the operating costs. When Christie agreed to find the funds outside of the president’s fund to finance the preparations, Trump allowed the preparations to go forward under the guidance of a small six-person transition team that included three of his children. Christie prepared lists of people who could be candidates to fill the top 500 positions that Trump would have to name. (The total was over 1200.) Then, The Donald tossed the plan into the wastebasket when he received it.

Donald Trump never wanted a transition team or a plan in the first place. Any serious concern with a plan produced was out of the question. For if you want to destroy government, operating by the seat of your pants rather than planning is the way to proceed.

The book provides illustration after illustration of Trump’s disregard for the necessities of government. These are juxtaposed with short stories about the brave and articulate people who contribute to good governance from outside and within the administration. The first is the story of Max Stier. He had created “Partnership for Public Service.” According to Max, “The basic role of Government is to keep us safe,” (25) This is Stier’s baseline rather than headline principle. The advantage of turning a baseline and all that precedes it into a Trump headline is that substance is totally disregarded.

A short list of substantive actors in government to enhance the security of American citizens include:

  • Frazer Lockhart – organized the first successful nuclear factory cleanup
  • Eileen Harrington – developed the Do Not Call Registry
  • Steven Rosenberg – pioneered immunotherapy for incurable cancers.

The personnel throughout the civil service are many and the risks are myriad:

  • Wars
  • Terrorist attacks
  • Hurricanes
  • Financial crises
  • The Opioid crisis that kills more Americans each year than died in the peak year of the Vietnam War
  • The fear of a massive cyber-attack.

Max Stier insisted that a bungled transition becomes a bungled presidency. I would contend that a bungler as president leads to a bungled transition and a super-bungled presidency. Trump not only threw the transition report in the wastebasket, but fired Christie and his whole team. As Stephen Bannon himself commented, “Holy fuck, this guy [Trump] doesn’t know anything. And he doesn’t give a shit.” (12)

Instead, Trump formed a “Landing Team” led by an energy lobbyist, Thomas Pyle, for the Department of Energy, a part of government that spends thirty-billion dollars a year and employs 100,000 employees. His job? Get rid of the climate change people. Pyle did meet with Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, Deputy Secretary Sherwood-Randall and Knobloch Moniz, a famous nuclear physicist. Pyle had no interest in what they had to say. And they had no interest in providing him with the list he wanted. They were not going to be strong armed by a new form of McCarthyism.

Lewis goes on to show that in department after department which had prepared briefing books and orientation briefings, there were always repeated no shows and, if someone finally appeared, the interaction was perfunctory and short. If people did turn up, they were confused and disoriented. They were not only know-nothings, but considered that everything that government did was stupid, carried out by even more stupid people.

The Landing Team did manage to obtain the list of the 20 brightest and highest paid research scientists in the labs overseen by the Department of Energy (DOE), only to use that list to delete their email addresses so they could not easily communicate with one another. “About half of the DOE’s annual $30 billion budget is spent on maintaining and guarding our nuclear arsenal,” (43) The department monitors nuclear power plants around the world to ensure they are not producing weapons-grade material and tracks the transfer of nuclear materials.

Six months after his inauguration, only Rick Perry had been confirmed and in position. When he was a candidate to be the Republican nominee, he wanted to eliminate the DOE, but, of course, he had no idea what it did. But he did manage to destroy many excellent programs in the DOE. The DOE “provides low-interest loans to encourage risky innovation in alternative energy and energy efficiency…There are now thirty-five viable utility-scale, privately funded solar companies – up from zero a decade ago.” (5) The techniques of fracking, that led the U.S. to once again become self-sufficient in fossil fuels, were developed in the DOE over twenty years. Pyle focused his destructive efforts on intelligence, research and energy innovation. He could have done much worse. Fortunately, since taking up his position, “his role has been ceremonial and bizarre.” (48)

The real damage, however, is the intelligence cleansing of the DOE, in fact, in all of the agencies of governance. People capable of making decisions are driven out and young people who combine creativity, brains and initiative are not attracted to join the civil service. In Canada, we witnessed the destructive effects of that process under the Stephen Harper administration. That is the biggest security risk of all. In military terms, it means replacing soldiers with zombies, retiring officers and inhibiting any potential leaders from joining, while, at the same time, gutting the research funds for developing new weapons. The reality: “Government has always played a major role in innovation.” (64) The real issue: government is not taking enough risk nor managing the risks we face nearly well enough – the dangers to the electrical grid for example.

In Hanford county in the State of Washington where Trump won by 25 points, “a massive underground glacier of radioactive sludge is moving slowly but relentlessly toward the Columbia River.” (71) As John MacWilliams noted, the fifth risk is “the risk the society runs when it falls into the habit of responding to long-term risks with short-term solutions.” (75)

Why do Trump’s policies do so? Here are three reasons:

  1. Ignorance
  2. Incompetence
  3. Idiocy

And the worst of these is idiocy, actions that are not just notably stupid, but are absurd, asinine, fatuous and imbecile. Lewis ends Part I with the following:

“Trump’s first budget eliminated the ARPA-E altogether. [the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy that funded the annual innovation summit that brought together experts in technology to facilitate synergy and new developments] It also eliminated the spectacularly successful $70 billion loan program. It cut funding to the national labs in a way that implies laying off six thousand of their people. It eliminated all research on climate change. It halved the funding for work to secure the electric grid from attack or natural disaster.” (80)

Shutting down the government is not just a bargaining chip. It sums up Donald Trump’s approach to governance. Trump ended his address last evening with the biggest lie of all. “When I took the oath of office, I swore to protect our country. And that is what I will always do, so help me god.”

 

To be continued.

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