Great Risks Beyond Our Imagination

We should fear most the risks we cannot easily imagine, and in complex systems, the greatest risk may be responding to long-term risks with short-term solutions.

That is a key lesson from Michael Lewis’ 2018 book, The Fifth Risk, although the lesson is almost overshadowed in this absorbing account of what the Trump Administration does not understand or wants to dismantle within the federal government. In a series of case studies based in the departments of Energy, Agriculture and Commerce, Lewis illustrates how much is at stake when governments fail to engage in foresight.

After quizzing John MacWilliams, chief risk officer for Obama’s Department of Energy, Lewis observes that “people are really good at responding to the crisis that just happened”. (Consider how many government programs and policies are informed by hindsight.) “They are less good at imagining a crisis before it happens—and taking action to prevent it.” The real problems are the less detectable, systemic risks; he offers as examples neglecting repairs to critical infrastructure, letting the skills or age of a workforce impair an agency, and failing to fund research to inform innovation or save lives.

These stories are compelling and alarming and make a strong case for good government and capable public servants. Fortunately, the US has a law that requires each prior administration to extensively brief the next administration. But as the last transition proved, there is no requirement that any administration use this information or practice responsible program management.  

Lewis intensifies our awareness that elections have consequences and not only for the obvious policy differences we can imagine. Politics and elections tend to force governing into short-term thinking and solutions when the problems we need to solve are complex and require long-term vision and investment.  

As we move into the next election cycle, we need candidates with the courage and imagination to help us understand the real risks in our complex world and the complex systems required to manage them. We need elected leaders willing to understand and use the awesome capabilities and talented public servants within the US government to seek the long-term solutions our children and grandchildren will need.