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Michael Lewis: Trump's Approach To Government Shows 'Neglect And Misunderstanding'

Oct 2, 2018
Originally published on October 2, 2018 5:24 pm
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The federal government under President Trump is the subject of the new book "The Fifth Risk" by my guest, journalist Michael Lewis, who's also the author of the best-sellers "Moneyball" and "The Big Short," which were adapted into films, and "The Undoing Project."

Lewis looks at Trump's government by focusing on three departments - energy, commerce and agriculture. If you're thinking that this is about boring bureaucracy, consider that, as Lewis points out, the government manages a portfolio of risks that no private person or corporation was ever able to manage ranging from forecasting and warning about hurricanes - the National Weather Service is part of the Commerce Department - to preventing the accidental explosions of our own nuclear weapons, one of the Energy Department's many responsibilities.

Many essential positions in the Trump administration remain unfilled, and some of the key positions, Lewis says, are filled by people who are uninformed about what areas they're supposed to be overseeing while others have conflicts of interest or political views that make them antagonistic toward the department or agency they're leading. Lewis started writing about this in articles published in Vanity Fair.

Greg Miller, welcome to FRESH AIR. Is there a story that you helped break that you consider the most consequential story of candidate or President Trump and his administration?

GREG MILLER: Well, I mean, there are several stories. Obviously many stories that The Washington Post broke that I had a hand in one way or another obviously working very closely with some terrific and amazing colleagues here. I think the one that jumps out for many people is the story that said that former national security adviser Mike Flynn had not been honest about his conversation with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. We wrote the story saying that he in fact had discussed the lifting of sanctions on Russia in those conversations and then lied about it to the White House, to news organizations, including our own, and to the American public.

And this was the sort of - just one of many huge stories that we broke during that time. And a couple others that I was involved in include the revelation that the CIA had reached a secret conclusion that Russia was not just trying to disrupt the election what was - but was trying to help elect Donald Trump. And then later when Trump was in office, I broke several stories about his rough conversations with foreign leaders - we had the transcripts of some of those calls - and the story about his revealing of highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister.

GROSS: Oops. It looks like we're having a technical problem there, and we played the wrong tape. So we are now going to hear my interview with Michael Lewis. Sorry about that.

Michael Lewis, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Explain what "The Fifth Risk" is.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Short answer is it's the risk that you fail to imagine. It's while you're worried about what you're worried about, it's the thing that's actually going to come and kill you. And the longer answer is, when I'm working on this book about the federal government under Trump, I come to see the federal government as really a portfolio of risks that are being managed.

And as I'm wandering around the federal government trying to figure out what these risks are, over and over again when I'm asking people in the Energy Department or the Agriculture Department or even the White House to name kind of the top risks on the tip of their minds, they all come up with kind of three or four, and then they can't think of the fifth. So I thought that's the moment where the mind fails to imagine what it needs to imagine.

GROSS: Since your book is about the federal government under Trump, focusing on the energy, agriculture and commerce departments, why did you name it "The Fifth Risk" now that you've explained with "The Fifth Risk" means?

LEWIS: Well, it was a response to what I'd found about how the Trump administration had gone about taking over the federal government. What kind of lights a fire under me is when I discovered that the Obama administration had spent the better part of a year and thousands of people's lives preparing essentially the best course that had ever been created in how to run the federal government or what was going on inside the federal government and that this course was meant to be delivered to whoever won the election the day after the election - starting the day after the election.

And they were expecting hundreds of people to roll in to receive these briefings, and nobody showed up. Nobody - in many cases, when I go get these briefings, I'm the first person to have got them. And I thought, well, this enterprise that's managing all these risks it imagines but we as a society don't spend much time thinking about. It's being neglected, ignored and is operating on the basis of ignorance. So I thought, what happens when you do that across a big portfolio of risks like the federal government runs? And what happens is you amplify the risks. You increase the probability of these risks actually causing problems.

GROSS: So you write about three different departments - energy, agriculture and commerce. In all three or at least in two of the three, data has been removed, and the public can no longer access it. Can you give us some examples across the agencies of data that's been removed?

LEWIS: Yeah, so this is a theme. You know, trying to - wants to tease out some of the themes of the Trump administration. And one of the themes is it's going dark, or it's got a very loose or sometimes hostile attitude towards the data the government is supposed to collect and make available. Just a couple of the examples - in all three agencies, anything having to do with climate was removed. And then in several cases, it was kind of odd removal of data.

So for example, the Department of Agriculture had data on its website about cases that the government had brought against people who had abused animals - I mean, circuses and ranchers and so on and so forth. And that gets taken down. And I think kind of like - you look at the specific instances of what happens, why it's happened. And in almost every case, there's some Trump supporter or Trump appointee who has some narrow financial interest in the removal of the data.

GROSS: You don't write about the Environmental Protection Agency, but this seems to fit with one of the themes that you write about in your book. The office at the EPA that gives scientific input to the presidential administration, the Office of the Science Adviser - the plan is - according to an anonymous source that The New York Times reported on, the plan is to eliminate that job altogether. Does that fit into the themes that you've seen in the three departments that you write about?

LEWIS: Well, you know, it's funny because the broad impulse of the Trump administration has been just not to fill the jobs. I mean, the top 700 jobs in the administration - half of them are still unfilled. And the ones that are filled are filled often very oddly by people who don't have the expertise for the job. So I would say the broader pattern is one of just general neglect and misunderstanding. Look; there's no question that Trump has been specifically hostile to environmental regulation and to the idea of climate change.

And it's pretty clear that the reason he's hostile is he's got - he's backed by fossil fuels people. And where - you do find places in my stories where you can see the hand - that hand at work either removing climate change data from websites or filling jobs that would be specifically addressing climate and the environment with people who are totally inappropriate for the job.

So for example, in the Agriculture Department, the chief scientist, the person who's in charge of distributing the $3 billion a year the Agriculture Department distributes to - for basic research, this research is done now almost entirely to find ways to adapt the food supply to climate change. I mean, it's absolutely critical. It's not going to be done in the private sector. They handed this job to a right-wing talk show radio host who had backed Trump in Iowa. I mean, it's just - that kind of thing is going on throughout the administration.

GROSS: You had spoken to FRESH AIR's Dave Davies about a year ago after your second article on how Trump is running the federal government was published in Vanity Fair. And with Dave, you focused on the departments of Energy and Agriculture. You've added in your book the Department of Commerce, so I want to take a look at that. And you write that the Department of Commerce has very little to do directly with commerce, and it's in fact forbidden by law from engaging in business. You say that the Department of Commerce should really be called the Department of Information or the Department of Data. Why?

LEWIS: Because that's what it does. It's - you know, inside of the Department of Commerce, you have the census, for example, which is the best picture we have of ourselves as a society. You have the - a collection and assimilation of all the economic statistics. And above all, more than half the budget of the department is spent gathering weather and climate data. I mean, the National Weather Service is inside the Department of Commerce.

And one of the great opportunities that exists with the federal government is the better use of the data it collects. All of a sudden we're able to parse the data in a way and use that data in ways we've never been able to use it. And that's seemingly something that the person that Trump put in charge of the Commerce Department, Wilbur Ross, is not interested in. He sees the job as kind of like chief trade negotiator, which is odd because we have a chief trade negotiator.

GROSS: And one of the big, like, data pools that the Commerce Department is responsible for is the U.S. census. And the head of the Commerce Department, Wilbur Ross, is now involved in a lawsuit pertaining to a question on the census. I don't know if this is definitive or not, the question on the 2018 census, whether it's on there or not.

LEWIS: Well, there's still argument about whether they're going to insert on the census a question of establishing whether the person who's replying to the census is a citizen. What it will do is queer the responses to the census.

GROSS: Let's talk about why 'cause a lot of people will be afraid to answer that question.

LEWIS: Will be - people will be afraid to answer the question, or people will be suspicious of the motives of the census takers.

GROSS: Right. And a lot of immigrants live with somebody who isn't here legally. So even if you're here legally, if you know someone who isn't, you might be afraid to say that you're an immigrant.

LEWIS: I think at this point, there are even people who are here who are legal who are fearful. So actually, let's back up a second. They haven't even begun to prepare this for the census. I mean, the real problem with the census is that it's way behind schedule, and it hasn't been budgeted for. So there's some question whether they're going to be able pull off the census in the first place. But then how you pull it off is another question. And they're inserting this - they're inserting a question that seems designed to dissuade especially Latinos from answering it.

GROSS: And what are the consequences if Latinos are underrepresented in the census?

LEWIS: For starters, you don't get a picture - a correct picture of the correct congressional districts. So where districts need to be redrawn because of shifting in the population, they won't be redrawn. Of late, one of the things we've learned is just how valuable the data that the government collects is. Researchers have been doing things with this data that they've never been able to do before. And so for example, we wouldn't know that there was an opioid crisis in the country if the data on prescription drugs had not been made available and not been parsable. If we don't have a picture of what the society looks like, there's all sorts of misunderstanding of the society that will occur.

GROSS: So the people suing Wilbur Ross, the plaintiffs, include over a dozen states and big cities who say that he acted improperly in trying to add this question about, are you a citizen - that he acted improperly in trying to add that to the census. And these states and cities fear their political representation will be calculated incorrectly because they will be misrepresented in the census if this question discourages immigrants from answering.

So Wilbur Ross - did you - were you surprised at the choice of him to head the Department of Commerce since, as you say, Commerce has more to do about data? And I don't want to sound ageist here, but data and how it's collected and how it's interpreted has - is changing so rapidly. And I have no idea if he's kept up with what data means anymore.

LEWIS: Well, we know he was falling asleep in meetings where he was supposed to be learning about the department. And I know that the people who tried to explain to him how the department worked came away - and these were Republicans who were brought in to try to explain how the department worked to him - found that he was really utterly disinterested in anything but trade. So even if he wasn't 80, he just wasn't particularly interested in the mission of the department.

And added to that, what became very curious is that the exposure of his finances I think put him in a bad order with the White House. You know, he had to declare his financial holdings when he was nominated for the job. And it turned out he had $2 billion less than the Forbes rich list had calculated him having. And Forbes launches this investigation and discovers that he had been lying to the Forbes rich list all along, which then apparently caused Trump to think a lot less of him. But he - you know, he is an odd choice. He's a very odd choice because what that department really needs is someone who's really comfortable with technology.

GROSS: Well, if you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Lewis, and his new book is called "The Fifth Risk." And the book is about the federal government under President Trump. And the book looks at the energy, agriculture and commerce departments. We're going to take a short break, then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ROOTS' "ADRENALINE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Lewis. He's best known for his books like "Moneyball," "The Big Short" and "The Undoing Project," all of which have been best-sellers. His new book, "The Fifth Risk," is about the federal government under Trump, and it examines the energy, agriculture, and commerce departments.

You know, I'm wondering. There's so much attention being paid to what's happening in the White House and to the Mueller investigation and now to the Kavanaugh confirmation story. And not as much attention is being paid to what's happening on the Cabinet level, on the department level. And I'm wondering if there's a lot of action happening in the department level, like, the three departments you write about - you know, agriculture, commerce, energy - that most of us aren't paying that much attention to even though it's being reported on. But it's not - it never seems to be, like, the sexiest story.

LEWIS: It never will be. And that's the problem. I mean, it's like we're a society of distracted drivers. We're not paying attention to the thing that matters most. There is this enterprise that is not a true enterprise. The society - we don't - doesn't function without the government. Government is - it's been subjected to decades and decades of abuse and scorn, and it's collected rust. And this guy has come in with a sledgehammer and is having at it. And nobody's paying much attention because it's a slow-moving story.

And this to me - you know, one aspect of "The Fifth Risk" is the government - a lot of the risks that the government manages are very long-term, slow-moving risks. Climate change would be one of them. Income inequality would be another, cleaning up, you know, horrible toxic waste sites that can pollute rivers and ruin lives another.

There are all kinds of examples of very slow-moving problems that are dealt with in a slow way, but they require a long-term approach. And on top of this enterprise has been thrust this very short-term attitude. I mean, the myopia of the Trump administration is incredible and kind of living from news cycle to news cycle. And the public has gone along with it. And that's the frightening thing to me.

GROSS: And you see a lot of action happening at the department level with that kind of level of government where things are being undone, where positions aren't being replaced, where people are being appointed who aren't really appropriate for the position.

LEWIS: And people - and they're people who have the ability to dismantle critical functions of the government, who also have a financial incentive to do so because they have some conflict.

GROSS: So let's get back to the Commerce Department, which you write about in "The Fifth Risk." The Commerce Department includes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, N-O-A-A, NOAA. And you say 60 percent of the Commerce Department is really NOAA. First of all, what's it doing in the Commerce Department (laughter)?

LEWIS: It's a really good question. So it's even more than 60 percent. It's 65 percent or so of the budget. It goes to this one thing. NOAA eats the Commerce Department.

GROSS: And this includes the...

LEWIS: Yep.

GROSS: ...National Weather Service, by the way.

LEWIS: The National Weather Service is a - National Weather Service is the biggest part of NOAA. And how did it get there? Back in the '70s, Nixon was contemplating a reorganization of government. And he was going to put the NOAA in the Department of Interior. And the secretary of interior at the time came out against the Vietnam War. And Nixon got ticked off and just shoved it in the Commerce Department as an act of vengeance.

So it's there. It doesn't much matter that it's there except that people don't know it's there. And it is - it's the single most important institution within the Commerce Department. And it does - it eats most of the resources. And what it does is absolutely critical. And into this place, Trump has put the most really - about the worst person you could possibly put to run it.

GROSS: You're talking about Barry Myers, who is the CEO of AccuWeather. That sounds actually like a good fit. He runs a weather prediction service.

LEWIS: Well, so here's the problem. Typically the person who runs NOAA has a science background. And Barry Myers is a lawyer. But let's leave that to one side. NOAA is a giant science operation. The problem is that the National Weather Service, which has been a fabulously successful operation - I mean, people don't pay much attention to it, but weather prediction has gotten generally dramatically better over the last few decades. We can predict the paths of hurricanes, and we can give tornado warnings faster than we used to be able to give them. And, I mean, just the, you know, the daily forecast has gotten better.

All of that saves lives and property. That's the mission of the National Weather Service - to save lives and property. To do it, it has to communicate with the public. It has to let - and has to be good at communicating with the public. And Barry Myers has been on a two-decade mission to prevent the National Weather Service from communicating with the public so that AccuWeather can do it instead. And that's how AccuWeather gets paid. And so he has had bills introduced in Congress to essentially forbid the National Weather Service from doing anything but warning right in advance of a weather event that might kill you.

And the problem with this is that - well, in the first place, it's the data that is required to generate weather prediction is all paid for by the taxpayer. I mean, these billion-dollar satellites that are hovering over us, the radar - the network of radar stations across the country - the National Weather Service spends the bulk of its money accumulating the data that it then makes available for free to companies like AccuWeather so that they can go and, you know, advertise the weather. There's no real reason why the taxpayer should have to pay for this twice.

GROSS: My guest is Michael Lewis. His new book is called "The Fifth Risk." We'll talk more after a break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF KYLE EASTWOOD'S "FROM RIO TO HAVANA")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with journalist Michael Lewis, author of the best-sellers "Moneyball" and "The Big Short," which were adapted into films, and "The Undoing Project." His new book, "The Fifth Risk," looks at the federal government under President Trump.

It seems to me you're - in your book, you're basically saying you could predict some of the problems that the federal government was going to have under President Trump by looking at the transition and looking at the Trump candidacy. So let's go to there.

The first chapter is about the transition before Trump was even elected because the transition process is supposed to start with each candidate. Each candidate is supposed to be preparing at some point as if they were going to become president so that they're briefed and they're up to speed if they do become president. So the first sentence in your book is, Christie noticed a piece in The New York Times. That's how it all started. What was the article Christie noticed, and what did this article start?

LEWIS: So there was a piece in The Times that described a meeting that had occurred between the Obama administration and all of the remaining presidential campaigns. So it was Hillary Clinton's campaign, Trump's campaign. This was before the Republican primary was over. There were four or five of the campaigns, and it had sent representatives. And the reason this had happened was by law, the outgoing administration is required to prepare for the transition. And by law, anybody who's likely to get elected - the candidates of the two major parties - are required to prepare to receive the briefings. And Christie saw this, and he saw that the person the Trump campaign had sent knew nothing about government. And so he called Corey Lewandowski, who was running the campaign, and said, look; I'll go do if no one else will because we really need someone who understands government to get involved.

GROSS: It surprised me that after learning that the Trump administration had nobody who could fill this role and didn't seem to care very much about filling this role that Christie was still so in support of Trump and wanted to run their transition.

LEWIS: I think there are a couple of things going on at once. One is, as Christie makes quite clear, but as other people have pointed out, Trump didn't run to win. He didn't have an acceptance speech on the night of the election. He was running for - to - as an exercise in brand building. And so his whole attitude towards preparing to be president was, why bother? And when people told him he had to spend money - either his money or campaign money - to build a transition team, he'd become furious. And when he heard it was millions of dollars, he'd scream. At one point, he said to Christie, you know, if we win, you and I can leave the victory party two hours early and figure out everything we need to figure out about the government. So...

GROSS: He said, because we're both so smart.

LEWIS: Yeah. Well, that - he's - that's right. So this is another theme that underlines all of this in the Trump operation - the presence of rich people - Trump and especially - and Jared Kushner. There is this sense that they both think that because they're rich, they must be smart. But the combination of not wanting to spend the money, not actually thinking he's going to win and not being really interested in the subject at all leads Trump to neglect the transition effort.

But this is where it gets curious. Christie does wrangle a few - raise a few million dollars to abide by the federal law. And he builds, actually, I think, a quite good transition. They had hundreds of people who were really qualified to go into the various departments and receive the government from the Obama administration. So the Obama administration has built this great course in how the government works. It's, you know, hundreds of briefing books that had been compiled over the past year. And it's not an ideological briefing. You give the same briefing whether the Democrat or the Republican wins. And it really is just explaining how they dealt with problems so you understood. So this is how we dealt with the Zika virus, so if you have another pandemic or a threat of a pandemic, here's how you might do it. You might disagree with how we did it, but this is how we did it.

And an awful lot of what's supposed to go on there is just that - this is - these are the problems; this is what this department does; this is how you do it. And Trump took all those people who were meant to receive those briefings and fired them the day after the election, so he had nobody to go into these places to receive the briefings.

GROSS: Why did he fire them?

LEWIS: Great question. The simple, short answer is that Jared Kushner told him to and that Jared Kushner did not like the idea of Chris Christie running the operation because Chris Christie as a prosecutor in New Jersey had put Kushner's father in jail. But that really doesn't explain it, I don't think, because there was no reason Trump had to listen to Kushner, and there's also no reason you couldn't have just fired Christie and kept everybody else on board.

I think what happened was that a number of people who were in Trump's ear - and especially Michael Flynn, who wanted to be the national security adviser - were left off the lists of people who were going to get important jobs in the government. And they were left off the list because the transition team had vetted all these people and found problems with them. So some of those problematic people wanted important jobs in government, and they persuaded Trump to get rid of this operation that was going to forbid them from having them. I think that's what happened.

And then coupled with that is that - was Trump's total disdain for and indifference to the government. I mean, if he had any awareness of the complexity of the operation he was about to have to run, he'd have been terrified to get rid of the people who were going to help him do it. But he really - I think he really thought, I just don't need to know about that.

GROSS: So was there, like, a last straw for Chris Christie that got him fired?

LEWIS: I think what happened was this - that they allowed Chris Christie to build this transition team because Christie explained it was the law; they had to do it; they didn't have any choice. Trump paid it no attention, didn't take it seriously, was irritated whenever he heard money was being spent. But no one really focused on it because no one thought it was ever going to be used. They didn't think they were going to win. So Jared Kushner, although he oversaw it kind of closely and made sure that Christie wasn't doing anything he didn't approve of, didn't ever really imagine that Christie was going to be in a position of real authority because Donald Trump was not going to win. The minute it became real, they focused. I think it - he was never going to be allowed to do the job because it - but they never thought the job was going to be done.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Lewis, and his new book is called "The Fifth Risk." And the book is about the federal government under President Trump, and the book looks at the Energy, Agriculture and Commerce departments. We're going to take a short break. Then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOAM WIESENBERG'S "DAVKA")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Lewis. He's best known for his books like "Moneyball," "The Big Short" and "The Undoing Project," all of which have been best-sellers. His new book, "The Fifth Risk," is about the federal government under Trump, and it examines the Energy, Agriculture and Commerce departments.

After President Trump was inaugurated, he sent in what you described as a small landing team led by Thomas Pyle, the president of the American Energy Alliance, which you describe as, you know, a group funded with millions of dollars from ExxonMobil and Koch Industries that basically represents their point of view. So what was the landing team, and what was Pyle tasked with doing?

LEWIS: So landing team is a grand phrase for what arrived at the Department of Energy because it was really just Pyle, and he didn't show up until a month after the election. And he would have been, in theory, tasked with receiving, you know, hundreds of hours of briefings from people in the Department of Energy who had prepared them. But he - what he did instead was met for about an hour with a couple of people in the secretary's office and listened politely and didn't take notes. And the people who were running the Department of Energy had the impression that he had no interest in what they had to say.

GROSS: One of the things he did as part of the, quote, "landing team" was send a list of 74 questions he wanted answers to - 74 questions to the Department of Energy. What were some of the questions?

LEWIS: He wanted lists of names of anybody in the department who had attended meetings that were associated with climate change. He was trying to identify people who might be hostile to the fossil fuels industry, I think. So the department didn't actually respond by giving him the list of names. But he - the bigger point was, he came in what they interpreted as a hostile spirit, signaling that the new administration was not - did not approve of the various attempts the Department of Energy was making to wean us from fossil fuels. And it is, you know, part of the Department of Energy's mission to engage in and fund basic research in alternative energy.

GROSS: So, you know, your previous book about the science of risk and about trying to kind of quantify, in a way, how the human mind works when it's assessing risk - that book was called "The Undoing Project." Do you feel, in a way, that your new book could have been called "The Undoing Project" because, in some ways, departments, you know, in the Trump administration are getting undone because there aren't a lot of people to replace the people from the Obama administration yet? And some of the people who have been put in positions to run those departments are antagonistic toward those departments.

LEWIS: So yes, but there's actually a direct connection between "The Undoing Project," my last book, and this one. And it's what got me into this book in the first place. One of the insights that drops out of the work of the psychologists Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who were studying the way people judge risk, is that when you change the odds, people don't sense it, especially with catastrophic risks. If you take something that - there's a one in a million chance of it happening and change it to 1 in 10,000, people don't feel that. And I was thinking of that when Trump came in and approached the federal government the way he did because one way of thinking of the federal government is it's this vast portfolio of risks, many of them potentially catastrophic risks - the risks of a pandemic or the risks of a nuclear accident or the risks of a terrorist attack or, you know, one after another.

And many of these are not risks that most people are thinking about - the risk that the nuclear waste site in Hanford, Wash., leaches plutonium into the Columbia River and poisons the whole Pacific Northwest. And I thought Trump's approach is effectively taking lots of, you know, one-in-a-million or one-in-a-hundred-thousand risks and making them more likely, making them all more likely because he's putting people in charge of the risks who don't know anything about it. And the society doesn't feel it. Kahneman and Tversky showed you that people don't really feel this. And that insight is what got me going in the first place.

GROSS: So you used to work on Wall Street way back in the day. And you wrote about that experience in your first book, "Liar's Poker." Last month marked the 10th anniversary of the financial collapse of 2008. The market has more than recovered over that time. But some people are starting to say, hm, this might be another bubble. How are you interpreting - having written a book recently about risk and having, you know, been - having written about the financial crisis, what you've done, I'm just wondering what your thoughts are about whether - where we are now in terms of financial stability and world markets.

LEWIS: Well...

GROSS: That's a big question (laughter).

LEWIS: Well, it is a big question. I mean, if you're asking me to predict the bad things going to happen next...

GROSS: Well, I know that's not really your job, but...

LEWIS: No, it's not my job. But, you know, if I - I would love to have one outlandish prediction on the record, not that I think it's going to happen. But it's the sort of thing that if it does happen, I think a lot of people will go, oh, my God; that's exactly where we were headed all along. Assuming Donald Trump remains president for a while, I think there's at least the possibility of the risk that he will try to default on the American debt selectively. Like, he'll say, the Chinese are trying to sell their treasury bonds, and it's causing disruption in the treasury bond market; they stole all that money in the first place from us; we're not going to pay the Chinese back.

This is a longer way of saying that I think the risk now in the financial system is political risk. The banks are much better capitalized and better regulated than they were 10 years ago. I don't think there's going to be directly a banking crisis, but I think there could be a crisis in faith in the dollar and in U.S. credit worthiness. Our deficits are exploding. We have a president who has a history of defaulting on debt. He's riled up lots of emotions, hostile emotions to foreigners who hold the debt. That wouldn't shock me, and that would trigger a financial crisis, so...

GROSS: Why would it figure - trigger a financial crisis?

LEWIS: Well, because the dollar is the world's reserve currency. Lots and lots of people hold it, assuming it's going to be more or less stable. There'd be a flight out of the dollar. U.S. Treasury bonds are the benchmark for a riskless asset in the world. It's what everybody kind of measures themselves off of. It's assumed to be, you know, better than gold. If that is called into question, then Treasury bonds are going to collapse, and the interest rate at which the U.S. government can borrow is going to skyrocket.

This is a doomsday scenario, and I'm just kind of playing with it a bit here. But if you ask me to, like, predict what might trigger the next financial crisis, I think it's - I would predict it's some sort of political event, and it would be that sort of thing. And if that happened - you know, it's fun when you predict things. It's fun to sort of predict things where - when they happen, they make sense of a lot of things that have happened leading up to it. I think a lot of people would say, oh, my God; we should have seen that coming.

GROSS: My guest is Michael Lewis, and his new book is called "The Fifth Risk." And the book is about the federal government under President Trump. And the book looks at the Energy, Agriculture and Commerce departments. We're going to take a short break. Then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF YO LA TENGO SONG, "WEATHER SHY")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Lewis. His new book "The Fifth Risk" is about the federal government under Trump.

A lot of the government is often dismissed as being bureaucracy that slows down anything - it slows down and often prevents anything from getting done and that it's just, like, layers and layers of bureaucrats, of, like, managers and - so...

LEWIS: Yeah, just lazy, stupid people. Right.

GROSS: So has your understanding of, like, our bureaucracy changed through writing these stories?

LEWIS: Oh, my God. So I didn't know what I was going to find when I started knocking on the door of the Energy Department or the Agriculture Department or the Commerce Department. And I turned out having exactly the same experience that political people have when they're appointed to these jobs running these places and have these - some preconception but vague preconception of what the bureaucrats are like.

This happens over and over again, that - a new administration comes in. They have kind of contempt - vague contempt for the people who are there. And four years later, they walk out and say those are the most amazing people I've ever worked with. I expected to be briefed and be - you know, be kind of informed by these people. I did not expect to be inspired by them. The kind of person who is still working in our government despite all the abuse the government takes is a mission-driven person. They're not paid well. They're there 'cause they're interested in the task. The people in the National Weather Service are people who have had a passion for the weather since they were little kids.

The people in the Department of Energy are scientists who've had a passion for their particular science since they were little kids. Essentially it's - essentially what they are - all these people are firefighters in spirit. And there's something really moving about groups of people who are doing what they're doing not for money but for mission. They have a purpose in life. And it just jumps off the page. I mean, it jumped - it's jumped into my mind dealing with them. And so I came away from it thinking, wow, I can't believe we as a society have treated this slice of our society - these kinds of people, who are really the best among us, as badly as we have.

And, yeah, the structure's screwed up. That's what's screwed up. It's not the people who screwed up. It's screwed up that it takes 106 days on average to hire someone new in the federal government, or that you don't know your budget when you're planning, or that you make a slightest mistake and you become public enemy No. 1. But you do something really great, and no one pays any attention. All that's really screwed up, but that's not their fault. That's our fault. And that's what sort of needs to be fixed because in a way what we're doing is wasting the greatest spirits in our society.

GROSS: Well, Michael Lewis, great to talk with you again. Thank you so much.

LEWIS: Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Michael Lewis' new book is called "The Fifth Risk." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Tamara Jenkins, who wrote and directed the "Slums Of Beverly Hills" and the "Savages." Her new movie, "Private Life," stars Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti as a couple in their 40s trying to have a baby through any means necessary - IVF, adoption, egg donor. I hope you'll join us.

We'll close today's show with a song from one of my favorite moments of my career. But it's with great sadness that I'm going to play this for you. The person who made this moment possible died last week, Sydney Goldstein. Sydney was famous in San Francisco's arts and literary world for, in 1980, founding City Arts & Lectures, a series of onstage readings, lectures and interviews that she ran until retiring last year. Her series became a model for cities around the country.

One of the things she loved to do was to book a guest and then find an interviewer she felt would be a good match. She loved Rosemary Clooney and knew I did, too. So when she managed to book Clooney for a concert and interview in 1997, Sydney invited me to be the interviewer. What a privilege to share a stage with Clooney, and what a wonderful, generous performance she gave.

Another time Sydney and I worked together was when the annual Public Radio Conference was held in San Francisco. And City Arts and FRESH AIR co-produced an event for our fellow radio folks. It was an onstage interview with the great magician and magic historian Ricky Jay. Sydney was part of the radio community. She produced a radio version of City Arts & Lectures that was broadcast on KQED in San Francisco as well as over a hundred other public radio stations around the country.

Although we lived on opposite coasts, Sydney and I became friends. Sydney changed my life in several ways, and so did a couple of people she introduced me to. But I want to thank her not just for being a friend and colleague but for all she contributed to the world of arts and culture, the boost she gave writers and the thousands of interesting evenings she gave audiences. Count me as one of the very many people who mourn her loss. I send my deepest sympathies to her family. Here's one of the songs Rosemary Clooney performed onstage that night at City Arts & Lectures. Thank you for everything, Sydney.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY")

ROSEMARY CLOONEY: (Singing) Going to take a sentimental journey, going to set my heart at ease, going to make a sentimental journey to renew old memories. I got my bag. I got my reservations - spend each dime I could afford. Like a child in wild anticipation, I long to hear that all-aboard. Seven - that's the time we leave at, 7. I'll be waiting up for heaven, counting every mile of railroad track that takes me back. Never thought my heart could be so yearning. Why did I decide to roam? I'm going to make this sentimental journey, sentimental journey home. I never thought my heart could be so yearning. Why did I decide to roam? I got to make this sentimental journey, sentimental journey home, sentimental journey home, sentimental journey home.

(APPLAUSE)

CLOONEY: That was wonderful. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL EVANS' "SOMETIME AGO")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL EVANS' "SOMETIME AGO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.