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How to break the federal government with Michael Lewis: podcast & transcript

Chris Hayes talks with author Michael Lewis about how Trump's election has impacted U.S. federal agencies and civil servants.

What is the most devastating impact President Donald Trump has had on the highest office? His lies and rhetoric and bigotry have all had a poisonous effect on our national discourse. But when it comes to his destruction of norms, those are only the ones most visible to the public. What about the destruction of norms going on behind the scenes, disrupting the most critical work necessary for running the federal government?

Michael Lewis, the prolific author of "The Big Short," "Moneyball" and other books, turned his attention to the engine rooms of government in the aftermath of President Trump's election. His latest book, "The Fifth Risk," chronicles not only the crippling of federal agencies under the Trump administration, but also the dedicated and tireless work of civil servants who show up every day, no matter what.

Hear more from Michael Lewis on his new podcast, "Against the Rules with Michael Lewis."

MICHAEL LEWIS: I just had surgery on my hip when he was elected. I was stuck in bed, and I was being given these opioids, I was in this horrible state of mind, thrashing around, thinking, “Aside from my hip, why do I feel the way I do?” And it was because of this sense that Trump was a risk-loving person and an ignoramus. He was being given this enterprise. And I started thinking about all the different ways he might kill me.

CHRIS HAYES: Hello, and welcome to "Why Is This Happening?" with me, your host, Chris Hayes. I was just sitting here a second ago talking to Tiffany Champion about what exactly we should do here for the intro, and I don't think we need a lot of introduction for today's guest, which you presumably know because you've read the thing on your little podcast app that says what it is, so there's not a big drum roll.

But we have Michael Lewis today, Michael Lewis. Michael Lewis, the man, the myth, the legend. Michael Lewis, probably one of the most well-known, best-selling and greatest nonfiction writers of our time. He's the author of a million books that you have may or may not read, or you've seen the Hollywood movie version thereof.

He wrote "Liar's Poker," which is his first big book about working on Wall Street when he was fresh out of college. He wrote "The Big Short," which was also turned into an incredible movie. He wrote "The Blind Side," or "Blind Side" ... What's the baseball one?


CHRIS HAYES: "Moneyball!" He wrote "Moneyball," which is an amazing book about Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics, also turned into a major motion picture.

And he's got a new book out that is the subject of part of our conversation, most of our conversation, which is about a topic that is in some ways I think a little un-Michael Lewis like, in that he has largely looked at the worlds of finance and sports, places where people are making these calculations about marginal utility and how to kind of game the system in some way, which I think is a recurring theme of his work.

This book, which is a great book and leads to I think a great conversation, as you'll hear, is about people who are kind of doing the opposite of that in some ways, which are just bureaucrats. It's a book about bureaucracy, bureaucrats, and civil servants. And at one level, you think, “A book about bureaucrats, bureaucracy, and civil servants doesn't sound like the sexiest thing in the world.”

But what Michael does a really good job of transmitting in the book, and I think in the conversation you're about to hear, is something that we talk about a fair amount on this show actually. We talked to Abdul El-Sayed about Medicare for All, we talked to Aaron Gordon about the subway system.

Making the stuff of government work, big public systems, the healthcare system, the subway system, the United States Department of Energy, making that stuff work is hard. It requires real dedication, expertise, institutional health, planning, vision, talent, energy, resources. And the dividing line in a lot of ways between societies that function and ones that don't is whether you can get that big public stuff right.

And when you think about Donald Trump and the threat that Donald Trump represents to the American way of life, the American project in some ways, that I think is a discounted and under-recognized part of what is so problematic. We think about his rhetoric, we think about the lies, we think about the gaslighting, we think about the bigotry and the racism, we think about the scapegoating, we think about the demagoguery. And all of that stuff which really has a poisonous effect in our national discourse, and our national character, and the nature of our politics. We think about the destruction of norms, the way that he attacks the Justice Department, the independence of the Fed, and all this stuff.

But the basic, gut-level work of running the federal government is something that gets a lot less attention, but might be the most devastating thing that he's doing poorly. And because that stuff is so invisible, because it's so remote, and because the work, the daily work, of a project as large as the American federal government is so hard to get your head around, I think it's really difficult to think about what exactly is happening to the vital common wheel that we all share together in the era of Donald Trump.

And that makes up the subject of this book. It's a reported piece about, in a very granular sense, what does it look like to be a civil servant bureaucrat in a random agency under Donald Trump? The answer is not awesome. But it's more broadly a profound meditation on what the stuff is of good government, what does it look like? What does it look like to serve the public, to go to work every day as a scientist in the Department of Energy, or someone who's managing a nutrition program in the U.S. Department of Agriculture?

Driven by your mission, trying to make things work for the American citizens as much as possible. And what has happened when you get someone at the top who just doesn't give a flying F at all. In fact, either doesn't care or wants to rip it down, or can't be bothered to turn away from "Fox and Friends" for a few minutes to even know what the hell the government he runs is doing.

The answers are both humorous and horrifying, in equal measure, and Michael Lewis is an amazing, amazing raconteur just generally. Every time that I get to talk to Michael I'm always delighted. He is a writer's writer, and he is a beloved and admired writer, but he is also just a great, great conversationalist and a great storyteller. And I should note, he has a podcast called “Against the Rules,” which is fantastic. So if you like this conversation, you can listen to that. But now you're in for a treat. Michael Lewis.

CHRIS HAYES: Why are you doing a podcast? You're like America's best-selling nonfiction author.

MICHAEL LEWIS: I always between books would do something else. You just didn't know it, and mostly what I would do between books is write screenplays, either TV pilots or film scripts that never got ...


MICHAEL LEWIS: They all got bought. I got paid for it and it's paid for our family's health care for 20 years, but none of them have gotten made. I always did this kind of palate cleanser, and I did it also because I just thought writers can get themselves in this mindset where they feel they have to write another book ...


MICHAEL LEWIS: And the publisher's right on you afterwards and they're ready to get you going again, and I just always feel that the book is going to be better if I start all over again, start completely fresh as if I've never written a book before and give myself at least the option of not writing books. In this case I did it by doing a podcast.

CHRIS HAYES: That's smart. I am for the first time in my adult life working on a fictional TV pilot and have found it so great and fulfilling, particularly as a break from the news cycle and the news.

MICHAEL LEWIS: But you're not getting a break from the news cycle and news. You're doing that too.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. But when I'm focusing on that, I'm focusing on that. I'm not focusing on the, you know, on whatever dumb thing the president tweeted.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Yeah, but you still don't give yourself a chance to completely tune out.

CHRIS HAYES: No, God no.


CHRIS HAYES: No. What I'm trying to say is I want to switch jobs with you, Michael Lewis, but I'm not a good enough writer to. By the way, I think it's very funny that you wrote this book "The Fifth Risk" on bureaucracy because it reminded me of my thinking in reading it, we'll talk about that one and talk about sort of government more broadly. But my thinking in reading it was the late great David Foster Wallace's final book called "The Pale King," which was sort of cobbled together by his editor, but which is about the IRS.


CHRIS HAYES: And kind of about the IRS and boredom and in some ways it was like one of the greatest writers of our time attempting to take the most challenging subject and see if he can make it gripping. I feel like there's a little bit of that with you in this book, which is like: "Well, I'm Michael Lewis. I'm going to write about the bowels of the federal bureaucracy and make it a page turner." Which you succeeded in doing.

MICHAEL LEWIS: There's a little truth to that.

CHRIS HAYES: I know. You were showing off, is my point.

MICHAEL LEWIS: It would have been much more impressive if I'd done it before Donald Trump became president. Right?

CHRIS HAYES: Right, that's true.

MICHAEL LEWIS: If I had done this during the Obama administration then you could stand up and cheer, but because Trump just electrified this material.


MICHAEL LEWIS: He's made it so interesting that for the first time, I think it's true, for the first time in my writing career. "Moneyball" might have been a slight exception, even though I'm done with the book, I'm not really done with the material. The material just, it's still so good I may come back to it because the federal government is of no interest whatsoever unless the person running it is bent on destroying it.


MICHAEL LEWIS: Or bent on not managing it. All of a sudden when it faces this existential risk it becomes interesting. It's like your parents aren't interesting until they get unhealthy.

CHRIS HAYES: Jesus, that's dark.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Well, but when you're a kid ...

CHRIS HAYES: That's right.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Well, they're furniture.

CHRIS HAYES: That's right, you take them for granted.

MICHAEL LEWIS: You take them for granted.

CHRIS HAYES: Right because ...

MICHAEL LEWIS: You take them for granted.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. The point is that is a really profound metaphor, right, because the parents are there and particularly when you're a kid, right, they have the duty. They're there to sort of provide safety. They're there to sort of create the conditions for your exploration, development and flourishing, and to the extent that's happening, yeah, they're like the furniture. They're the frame. They're the platform upon which it happens.

But people who are obviously in homes that are extremely dysfunctional, violent, addled by addictions, things like that, or who go from a home that is not that and then becomes it because of some crisis, all of a sudden you realize just how central, right, that basic premise is. The same way with government. When it's functioning, it's there as a kind of frame within which your life functions and when it falls apart it suddenly becomes the thing at the center.

MICHAEL LEWIS: This is all true and at the same time the moment the parents become good literary material is when they become bad parents.


MICHAEL LEWIS: When they become dysfunctional, so that's what's happened. All of a sudden the parent is dysfunctional and he's made this material interesting. I can't get away from it. I keep spotting things in the newspaper or hearing things that have got me reeled, kind of being reeled back in. It's funny, also what always happens with the books is that when the hardback's done, Norton calls our publisher ...

CHRIS HAYES: Our publisher.

MICHAEL LEWIS: ...calls me up and says, "You've got to write something new for the paperback." I always say, "Yeah, yeah, yeah."

CHRIS HAYES: Come on, what a chore.

MICHAEL LEWIS: I'm not going to do it. I already said what I have to say and every now and then there's a little epilogue to write, usually about whatever kerfuffle the book caused. In this case I'm spoiled for choice. In this case I actually want to do it. I actually want to write another piece of this thing because the material just keeps coming. So anyway ...

CHRIS HAYES: So the book is about what the government does, the federal government particularly, but I think in a broader existential sense it's about what government does. You keep returning in the book to the learning curve in which people from the outside, whether they're from the business world or they're coming into a new administration view the bureaucracy as basically this drab lump of idiots who don't know what they're doing and then come to appreciate it. I'm curious: Talk about your own arc in what you thought about the federal government, the Department of Energy and the various parts of civil service and what you came away thinking.

MICHAEL LEWIS: It's true to say that up to the moment that Trump's elected, I'd spent about as much time thinking about the federal government as I spent thinking about my parents when I was 12 years old. I didn't think about it that much. I guess if you had asked me what I thought about people who work in the government I'd have thought it was kind of a sleepy place and a place where people who were risk averse and they're probably doing something useful, but not that interesting.

What I found, and it wasn't an arc, it was that the minute I started in on this project. You got to remember where I started. I started with the Energy Department. I was almost picking these things randomly but the thing that caught my eye in the first place was that Rick Perry had been named Secretary of Energy and I did remember Rick Perry when he was a presidential candidate getting up on stage and saying he was going to eliminate these three departments to shrink the federal government. He couldn't remember the name of the Energy Department even though that was the one he was going to cut.

Image: Rick Perry
Energy Secretary Rick Perry testifies before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee during a hearing on the President's budget request for Fiscal Year 2020, Tuesday, April 2, 2019.Patrick Semansky / AP file

I just thought of all the people on the planet to put in charge of the Energy Department, he's got to be the worst. He's demonstrated to the American people that he knows nothing about it and then he himself admitted after Trump nominated him that he knew nothing about it and he was so sorry he had said what he said because now he thought that it was worth keeping, so that was my hook. I thought all right, we now know someone's going to be running this place who has no business running this place.

What is the place he's running? What is the Energy Department? It is generally true that the names of the various government departments don't tell you very much about what they do, and when I found out the Energy Department was actually the Department of Nuclear Weapons, where they were tended, where they were tested, where the mess they created was cleaned up, where people resided who were hunting down loose nuclear materials, well, then it became really clear that this was an important place.

But the people, the first person I really sat down with there was the guy who ... the guy had just left. John McWilliams was the Chief Risk Officer several years during the Obama Administration. He laid out for me two things. One was this little place that I had paid no attention to was managing existential risks, but secondly, that he — who had spent his career making lots of money in the private sector, first at Goldman Sachs and then as a private equity person — he'd made it in the world, when he collides with the Energy Department. And after about six months he thinks these are the best people he's ever worked with.

And that just shocked me. Over and over again I found that. There's a big chunk of the government that is a science project and the Energy Department is a big chunk of that chunk. So then I wandered around the Energy Department and I talked to people who worked in the Energy Department. Everybody loved the Energy Department, they devoted their lives to the Energy Department. And I thought, how come I didn't know any of this?

The reason I didn't know any of this is that the government is the one institution in America that doesn't promote itself, it's not really allowed to promote itself. It's the opposite of Trump. Trump, his whole life does very little and is bragging, is puffing himself all about it and the government is doing all these things that are keeping us alive and never says a word about it.

CHRIS HAYES: Well, it's funny. I've had that same experience in various interactions with various civil servants at various levels of the government, particularly the federal government. Just for whatever reason I remember when I was younger and working on a project with the census, that had to do with census data, and I would call up the census folks and just get someone on the hold who would just talk to me for ...

I was just some dude in the Bronx at a nonprofit trying to put together a website that could use their data well and they would just talk to me for 45 minutes to help me. And some pleasant, mission-driven, extremely knowledgeable person on the other line who just really was committed on that day to making sure that I could get access to the census data in the best way.

MICHAEL LEWIS: So I would say if I was going to list the several traits that the people I met in the government tended to have, one was that that they were very mission-driven. They were not money people. If they were money people they wouldn't be in the federal government. Most everybody I talked to, and I talked to dozens and dozens of people, could have been making more money in the private sector, so they were attracted to the mission.

Second, they are risk-averse generally. They don't like publicity. The way their life is lived, everything's downside. Only bad things could happen.

CHRIS HAYES: That's right. That's right.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Nobody is going to celebrate your achievement. All they're going to do is ridicule you for some mistake you made, and all attention is just like to be avoided. They are the people who are walking around the streets of Washington with umbrellas when there's a 20 percent chance of rain. They're just always protecting against the downside. The third thing that was interesting was just how many of them were first generation Americans or second generation, people who had come from places, whose families had come from places, where there was a really dysfunctional government.

It's a bit like kids who were raised in a really dysfunctional family can become parents who are highly functional because they know what it means to be in a dysfunctional family. There was a big thick strain of new Americans in the government doing things that they could be paid a lot more outside of the government. I kept running across that.

CHRIS HAYES: You just talked about risk aversion and one of the more I think sort of novel, profound frameworks inside the book is about the government and risk. The title of the book is "The Fifth Risk," and what really struck me is you talk about the federal government as kind of a risk aggregator and risk manager and I never think, I don't think I've thought of the government that way. I thought of it in a bunch of different ways, but tell me about that, that conception of what the government does. It's fundamentally interfacing with risks that we cannot deal with outside of it.

MICHAEL LEWIS: So I take that angle because of Donald Trump, because my source of interest in this was his election. I can remember, I just had surgery on my hip when he was elected. I was stuck in bed and I was being given these opioids and I was in this horrible state of mind and I was kind of thrashing around thinking aside from my hip, why do I feel the way I do? It was because this sense that Trump was a risk-loving person and an ignoramus.

He was being given this enterprise and I started thinking about all the different ways he might kill me if he was president. Then I thought, actually, this is going to take you to how I got to this conception, the government is a risk-controlling enterprise or a risk-managing enterprise. Then I thought well, what if we had a way to measure all the deaths that Donald Trump was responsible for as president?

We could create something like a death clock and put it in Times Square where it would just scroll every time someone died because they didn't have health insurance that they would have had without him, every time some foreign adventure went wrong or if the suicide rate goes up, or whatever it is. I actually poked around with this for a while with data scientists figuring out if this could be done in any intellectually respectable way and then decided it couldn't.

But my mind was floating. It was in this space of what's the risks of having this person run this thing? Then when I started interviewing people in the government it became clear this was a perfectly legitimate way to view the government. At its very basic level the government's job is to keep us safe. It does lots of other things. You can view the government in lots of other ways. You can view it as a service provider. You can view it as an employer, but at its very basic level its job is to keep us safe.

When you wander around it you start to appreciate how many things there are to keep us safe from. The things that pop to mind when you're thinking of that are very vivid things, vivid risks, nuclear terrorist attacks or pandemics or natural disasters, all of which the government is responsible for defending us from.

But if you poke around some more and think about things a bit more broadly, there are all these other risks that are equally existential, like the risk of inequality getting so bad that the society crumbles and there is revolution, or the risk that we don't invest our agricultural science sufficiently, so that we don't have a food supply in 30 years. So on and so forth. So I'm kicking around these thoughts.

At the same time, the book I'd written before "The Fifth Risk" was all about the way human beings have trouble evaluating risk. And it was about two psychologists, Amos Tversky and Danny Kahneman their work on this subject. One of the insights that drops out of Kahneman and Tversky's work is that people don't assess risk well, but in addition, they're not really sensitive to shifts in extreme risks. So if you take something, there's a one in a million chance of happening, and you shift it to a one in 100,000 chance of happening, people don't register that as, "Oh it's 10 times more likely."

You could think of the government, as this manager of a basket of one in a million risks, but they've got a million of them, and that you can think of Trump and his neglect, mismanagement, ignorance, et cetera, as a machine for ratcheting up the likelihood of a lot of unlikely bad things happening.

CHRIS HAYES: You know it's funny you say that, because when you said this to me, when I'm sort of reading the book and thinking about risk in this way, something snapped into focus for me in a way that hadn't before, which is about why people don't like regulation and why they get mad at the government, and it's because of the asymmetry of the perception of risk.

So here's an example. I was working out with a trainer in the park, and we had put a band around a tree limb to do some like TRX pole, okay?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Let me just stop you for second. You, Chris Hayes, television personality are in z park, with z band and a trainer? Where can I watch this?

CHRIS HAYES: I was in Prospect Park, and it was a lovely day out.

MICHAEL LEWIS: All right. All right.

CHRIS HAYES: I wanted to work out by my house, and so we put a TRX band around the limb of a tree, and it was sturdy, and no way it would've broken. A park bureaucrat came by, park worker, who again, mission-driven, takes seriously their job. Didn't have to do this, right? They could've just kept going, stopped and was like, "You can't do that. You've got to take that off the tree." Now in the moment, I'm thinking to myself, screw you dude, that's crazy, The risk of this tree limb falling is like one in 1,000. I just know it's sturdy enough.

But the thing is from the government's perspective, there are hundreds of thousands of limbs in the park system in New York City, and if you let people hang stuff off trees, you will break a lot of them. From their perspective, they're on the other side of the big number. Right? So the asymmetric perception of that risk is, I run the whole Parks Department of New York City. I recognize that if enough people put stuff on tree limbs, they will snap off a lot of tree limbs. Me as the individual, I'm thinking, well, it's a one in 1,000 chance. What's your problem?

That's basically all regulation. Every time you've got to jump through a hoop or deal with a regulation, you're thinking yourself, come on dude. It'll be fine, but it's not going to be fine from government’s perspective.

MICHAEL LEWIS: And no one's helping you see the world through the eyes of the regulator.


MICHAEL LEWIS: No one sees the world through the eyes of the regulators.

CHRIS HAYES: Literally no one but them.

MICHAEL LEWIS: It's like no one sees the world through the eyes of a referee. It's the same thing, that everybody's on the referee. Both sides think the referee is against them, and nobody imagines themselves into the head of the referee. But without the referee, the game can't be played.

CHRIS HAYES: That's exactly right. So you've got this sort of baked in asymmetry, that I think is part of what is cultivated, right? When people talk about the red tape and the bureaucrats and the government, it's like this obstacle, is that they're managing these risks that we just are bad at. It doesn't mean that they're getting it right, but just there's this sort of just inherent asymmetry and gap between our individual understanding of the risks and their understanding of the risks, as they go about managing them.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Yes. I think that's absolutely right. That's one source of friction. The other source of friction is that, even when a normal person could understand why a regulator wouldn't let them do X or Y, they still want to do X or Y, like pour their pollution into the Sacramento River or whatever it is. They're irritated because they can't do whatever they want, even if it's actually harming other people. So for every you, there's some numb skull out there working out on a tree branch that's too thin to be worked on, who doesn't mind snapping the tree.

CHRIS HAYES: Doesn't care, that's right.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Just doesn't care.

CHRIS HAYES: There's nefarious actors who just don't care about whatever the external cost is, and it's the job of the government to sort of keep them in line and patrol it.

MICHAEL LEWIS: That would be interesting to know if those people, or your kind, was more upset with the government. I bet those people, or at least are as much a source of the anti-government fervor.

CHRIS HAYES: Oh, totally. I just think that the reason that the anti-government fervor can get its talons is people is because they have these interactions.

MICHAEL LEWIS: I think that's right.

CHRIS HAYES: You know what I mean? Where they're going through it, and they're thinking like, oh man, eye roll at what you have to do. Then again, the Chicago fire. It's like, try to deal with the buildings department in New York City. It is a massive pain in the ass. But you know what the other option is? The Chicago fire. No, really. That's what you get. It's like one or the other. You choose a bunch of the red tape and pain in the ass, or you burn down your whole city. When the fire happens, it's like, "Man, why didn't anyone think of this?"

MICHAEL LEWIS: I think New York City has in the last decade or so, overhauled its building inspection unit. They've kind of Moneyball-ed fire inspection, where they've gotten really smart at using fewer resources. There are many other examples of this, of the government actually being really clever at what it does, without anybody having any sense that it's gotten better or even thinking. Because you're right, all anybody sees is someone telling them no.

CHRIS HAYES: There's a built-in tension here between what the government does and how the public perceives it, but I want to talk about what happens specifically when you throw Donald Trump into the mix. Let's get into that right after this.

CHRIS HAYES: So you've got this situation where the government has this job, and you've got these people that are the civil servants, right? The sort of permanent government. Then you've got the leadership that comes on, and what happens when you've got these people that are mission-driven and talented and industrious and take seriously their work? They're human. They make mistakes, but generally pretty on the ball, and you've got Donald Trump and his clown car drive up to the building and spill out. What happens?

MICHAEL LEWIS: The clown car is pretty good. It's a clown car filled with substitute teachers.

So, what happens? First, you're giving the clown too much credit, because in this case he didn't even drive his car up to the building. In many cases, they were supposed to be there the day after the election, getting these briefings about what people did inside the Energy Department or the Department of Agriculture, and they just didn't show up, didn't show up to the point that last August, when I was finishing the book, I was still getting briefings on unbelievably important subjects that no one had ever heard.

CHRIS HAYES: Be like, "Well, we can't tell the president, but we can tell Michael Lewis. And, you know, we’ll probably put it in the book.”

MICHAEL LEWIS: No, who I'd go see, to hear the briefings would say things like, "I'm so grateful, so grateful you're here, because I wanted to give this to someone. I wanted to tell someone what I knew."

So the clown car didn't actually get to the building, but to the extent people wandered into the buildings, they wander in. It's haphazard. The story is very messy. There are a few people in the Trump administration who really were where they should be, and things are okay. But the bigger story, the more common story was Trump knew nothing. The starting point was Trump wasn't some diabolically clever Ayn Randian, who was going to dismantle the government piece by piece in a systematic and intelligent way, and leave us with a libertarian America.

He just couldn't be bothered and thought, oh, it's all dumb. He told Chris Christie, who was supposed to be running his transition team, and who he fired right after the election, "Don't bother building the transition team, because you and I can leave the victory party two hours early and learn everything we need to know to run the federal government." This two million-person enterprise.

CHRIS HAYES: Oh, my God. That quote is pretty great.

MICHAEL LEWIS: So I interviewed people close to Trump, and nobody said anything but he's a barbarian. He's a barbarian and he's an idiot about this stuff. He just doesn't know anything, and he doesn't have any much interest in learning about it. So that's what's at the top. When that's at the top, all of a sudden you've got this very mission-driven enterprise, with someone who's got no interest in the mission.

What rushes in? Who's going to show up to work for that administration? What they have in common, and the people who do show up, is they have some narrow financial interest in whatever the enterprise is. So it's people who are there to make money, either from the enterprise or to make money by preventing the enterprise doing what it's supposed to be doing. So you have people who are actively obstructing the enterprise.

So how do civil servants respond? They're funny, because they really are rule followers, and they really are order followers. Our government is not like, our democracy is not like any other democracy on Earth. Most other democracies have this permanent civil service that actually runs the thing. We are this odd duck that has 4,000 political appointees who aren't just decoration. They're meant to be running the government, and when those people aren't there, it is a bit like the teacher didn't show up for the classroom.

Yes, the permanent civil service, in places they motor on, doing just what they were doing before. Which is funny because effectively what they're doing is carrying out Obama administration era orders, because no other orders have been given. Or they're faced with someone like Mick Mulvaney at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, who basically says, "Stop what you're doing."

CHRIS HAYES: Right. Throw it in reverse, basically.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Throw everything in the garbage can. Get rid of the lawsuits. Leave the banks alone. Let them do whatever they want to do to the consumers. Or the EPA, same sort of thing happened there. So it's different case-by-case. The intriguing ones are the complicated financial ones, where the person who showed up and said to Donald Trump, "I want the job of being Secretary of X or Director of Y, Trump says "You gave to me. You're my supporter. Sure."

CHRIS HAYES: You just saddle up. You sidle up next to him with at omelet bar, and while he's ordering his omelet, you say, "How about Secretary of Labor, Don?"

MICHAEL LEWIS: There's a character named Barry Myers, who at any moment now is going to be put up to a vote. His nomination is being put to a vote on the Senate floor. I can't believe it's coming to a vote, but it's coming to a vote.

Barry Myers asked to be Head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which I'd never heard of when I got into this project, but I've since come to think of is one of the fascinating things the government does. It's where all the climate data is. The National Weather Service is inside it, and Barry Myers is the CEO of a private weather company, or was the CEO of a private weather company called AccuWeather, which most people probably know of.

The Weather Service is this phenomenally valuable enterprise. Thanks to the Weather Service and the data its collected and the intellectual work it's done, your weather forecasts are many times better than they used to be. Your likelihood of not hearing about a storm or a hurricane or a tornado is much lower than it used to be. It saves lives. It saves property. It's filled with all these people who were traumatized, and they're used by some weather accident and have decided they wanted to devote their life to make sure no other people were traumatized by weather accidents. It's a lovely, interesting place. The way progress happens there is they collect billions of dollars of data a year, make it freely available to the public, so private weather geeks can hack away at it and find patterns and get better and better and better at understanding the weather.

Barry Myers, for the last 20-something years, has been on a mission to prevent the National Weather Service from communicating directly with the American people, because he says that when they do, it undermines AccuWeather's ability to make profits from giving the American people the weather.

CHRIS HAYES: He's literally the guy that founded the enterprise that sells the thing, that the government provides for free, right? Just direct competition. It's like, hey, we've got this. Everyone could use our API. You can build an app. You can get it. Here's the public information about the storms and everything. He's like, "What if we prioritize that, and what if I got rid of my one competitor?"

MICHAEL LEWIS: Right, but it's more complicated, because he can't do it on his own. He still needs the taxpayer to give him billions of dollars of data a year, in order to provide weather forecasts. So in addition to severing the communications channel between the National Weather Service and the American people, he would like to make sure the weather service’s data is selectively provided to a handful of private companies. You talk to people who are in the private weather sector, people like Weather Channel, and they say, "He's an outlier even in our community 'cause we all understand the value and the importance of the government."


MICHAEL LEWIS: And we wouldn't have our businesses without it. The idea that you're going to have to essentially pay if you don't want to die when the tornado because nobody's going to tell you when the tornado's coming or when the hurricane’s coming. I mean, it's insane. And he's like the wrong guy.

CHRIS HAYES: Your phone has an alert and it's like, "Warning, huge storm coming your way." And you click through on your phone and then there's a paywall.

MICHAEL LEWIS: That's right.

CHRIS HAYES: And then it's like the Apple ones. Okay, here's my face I.D. $7.99? Okay, fine. When's it hitting? Oh, Jesus, an hour?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Yes and you can have the platinum plan, right?

CHRIS HAYES: You can get it two hours ahead of time.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Or where an AccuWeather van can will come up and evacuate you and AccuWeather Emergency Management Services. And this is the logic to who ends up in the Trump administration. Nobody who's actually qualified for the job and is there for the mission of the job is of any particular interest to Donald Trump. The person who's gonna bang through Trump's door to get that job is someone for whom it's worth a lot of money.

CHRIS HAYES: Well, there's basically two categories and I think you talk about this in the book. And one thing that's interesting is written sort of based on that first year. Obviously things have happened since then that I think have borne out a lot of the basic theses that show up in the book but as someone who covers this every day, there's sort of two options. There's malign attention, so that's Mick Mulvaney. Mulvaney is like an ideological warrior to wants to dismantle the CFPB and actually kind of knows a thing or two about it and goes in there. Or a kind of neutral neglect.

MICHAEL LEWIS: That's Rick Perry.

CHRIS HAYES: Rick Perry at DOE or Ben Carson at HUD. I remember when Ben Carson was up at HUD, I know a lot of people in the housing world and my father was a housing organizer and I know a lot of people in the housing and these are people who have worked for various presidential administrations and worked with HUD on a whole bunch of stuff, and they were kind of breathing a sigh of relief about Ben Carson because the thought was, well, the guys doesn't know anything about housing. It's better than Scott Pruitt, right? These two guys are both being a denominator of assigned time. It's like Scott Pruitt wants to destroy the EPA. Ben Carson just doesn't know anything about it. The thought is well, we'll get Ben Carson in there. Hopefully, he'll just let the lower level staff kind of run the place, which has largely been more or less what has happened.

Image: Trump Attends White House Opportunity And Revitalization Council Meeting
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, Labor Secretary Alex Acosta and others attend the inaugural meeting of the White House Opportunity and Revitalization Council in the Cabinet Room at the White House April 4, 2019.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images file

I think it has been a less dismantling operation than other places and so it's really weird. The best you can hope for is essentially the Rick Perry/Ben Carson model as opposed to the Scott Pruitt/Mick Mulvaney one.

MICHAEL LEWIS: So, I'll turn your two categories into three. I think absolutely there's a Rick Perry/Ben Carson model, which is they don't know enough. Not only do they not know enough to be dangerous, they don't particularly care.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, they don't care. They just don't care.

MICHAEL LEWIS: They're there for the position. They're there so they can get their picture taken and so they can kind of feel important and all the rest. They don't have any particular attachment to the purpose of the enterprise. But then, the category of malign actors, Scott Pruitt's different from Barry Myers. Scott Pruitt didn't actually know all that much about the EPA and it saved the EPA. I have friends that worked at the EPA that said, "Thank God he doesn't know more." Barry Myers is the third character. He really knows how the National Weather Service works. He's been in their kitchen for 20 years and he knows how to disable it in ways that you and I will never see. And that's the character who's the most dangerous.

CHRIS HAYES: So, here's my thesis about the Trump administration. We are lucky there are not more people like Barry Myers. Basically, I think that this administration has been terrible in many ways and I think one of the things we can't perceive is they've taken a lot of one and a million risks and turned them into one in a hundred thousand or one in ten thousand risks and we can't perceive that. But in the main, the way that I say it is we are so lucky he doesn't have a Dick Cheney, which is to say there's really no one in that enterprise who has the knowledge, connections, the wiles, the cunning, to do the level of damage that Dick Cheney was able to do and again that was post 9/11. It has been the absence of that, that has been one silver lining, saving grace. And it comes from the top, which is that all he wants to do is watch Fox News and yell at the screen.

MICHAEL LEWIS: And be paid attention to.

CHRIS HAYES: He just wants you to pay attention. He doesn't actually want anything out of the government. Dick Cheney was the opposite. Cheney wanted no one to pay attention and was driving over to the CIA to meet with mid-level analysts to brow beat them into producing the intelligence he wanted.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Right. I mean, the closest thing he probably has to Dick Cheney is Jared Kushner, who doesn't know anything. Right?

CHRIS HAYES: A very special boy.

MICHAEL LEWIS: No, it's funny. These were people, when I first got into the story, there were people who had been in the Obama White House who watched the Trump people come in to replace them and there wasn't a malice about it, they were saying Jared Kushner said things like, "Where's everybody going?" When they were up and leaving, he thought that basically it was a corporate takeover and Obama and maybe a couple of other people left but basically the entire infrastructure of the White House would just stay. They didn't understand it at that level.


MICHAEL LEWIS: And so, you're right, there's only so much damage they could do but then as a result there's only so much good they can do too. I mean, I have heard tell of really worthy initiatives Jared Kushner would like to undertake but how he would ever get anything done, I do not know. And Trump himself, if you just twist the dial a little and if he doesn't come in at such a hostile angle, you could easily see Donald Trump trying to take credit for everything the government did. Actually, for the first time, promoting the government as long as it was the Trump government.


MICHAEL LEWIS: And that could have had some positive effects but it didn't happen and he now sees all this deep state crap that he's now bought into, I think.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, he views it fundamentally as a kind of hostile force that he has to contend with.

MICHAEL LEWIS: He created that hostility though.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. They were ready to serve.

MICHAEL LEWIS: They were ready to serve. That's the thing, that's the great untold story is just how ready to take orders the entire civil service was. Just tell us what it is you want us to do. There was none of this, "Oh, we're gonna trick them into continuing whatever it is we want to do." That wasn't what was going on. That's not who these people are.

CHRIS HAYES: I mean, remember, he goes the first day, the first day he goes to the CIA and he stands up in front of the wall with the stars of their dead and talks about his electoral victory.

MICHAEL LEWIS: And how big it was and then he goes over the photographers in the White House and has them photo shop people into the mall.

CHRIS HAYES: He called up the Parks Department because they tweeted the picture. It’s total war footing.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Yes. Anyway, the material, you started this by saying how it was showing off trying to make this stuff interesting. By the end of the thing, I felt the opposite. You could play a game, drop me anywhere in the federal government and I would come back to you with a story that everybody would agree was interesting and it's thanks to Donald Trump. That was not possible three years ago.

CHRIS HAYES: All right, but here's my question for you. This is the big question I have. There's been one horrible crisis and disaster, which is Puerto Rico, where 3,000 people died. I think indisputably and we do not have any public accounting of that, there has never been a special select committee, there has been no comprehensive fact finding about why that happened but I think indisputably, government mismanagement was a huge part of that, why that death toll was so high and we should get an accounting of it. That very incredibly outrageous to my mind and horrific and tragic event aside, which did not happen on the mainland, there have not been other cataclysms.

MICHAEL LEWIS: You don't count the kids in cages at the border as a cataclysm?

CHRIS HAYES: No, I do but, I was gonna say, the two moments that are the worst of Donald Trump governance to me are Puerto Rico and the kids in cages and the family separation, right?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Can I stop you again?

CHRIS HAYES: Please keep going, yes.

MICHAEL LEWIS: How about that airplane crash that may have been the result of the FAA not properly monitoring Boeing software?

CHRIS HAYES: That's a good point.

MICHAEL LEWIS: All right, so your point, we're still within the scheme of your broader point. This is all happening to people outside the United States with the exception of Puerto Rico.

CHRIS HAYES: Well, that's part of it. I mean, guess part of it, to me, the comparison is, as someone who was 22 in 2001 and the Bush administration, it was like 9/11 attack, mass murder in American history, followed by probably the worst foreign policy enterprise since Vietnam. And then this does not count? Enron crashes on their watch, then Katrina, in which thousands of American drown while we all watch, and then the largest financial crisis. It was just one disaster after another. I weirdly think that against the grain of the thesis of your book, a problematic result of Trump is that people don't think you need to have that much experience to be president of the United States.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Well, because nothing horrible has happened yet.

CHRIS HAYES: Exactly and I think it's a classic example of the one in a million tail risk becoming a one in a thousand tail risk and the snake eyes still hasn't come up and I think there's a kind of really dangerous, insidious acclimation to that.

MICHAEL LEWIS: It's absolutely true that from the minute he was elected the atmosphere changed. There was nobody that didn't think they could be president, right?


MICHAEL LEWIS: You and I, now, both think that we could do the job better than he could do it. If you'd asked me before Donald Trump was elected, "Michael, would you have any business running for president and being president?" And I'd say no, I'd be terrible at it. But now that he's there.

CHRIS HAYES: Absolutely.

MICHAEL LEWIS: I think absolutely, give me a call if you need me. I'll do it. And I think there are probably lots of people whose minds were changed just by the mere fact he was elected. And so, you're right, every day that goes by that we'll all still alive, it hardens that position, it reduces people's sort of sense of how useful it is to know things.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, that's my fear.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Yeah. I think that's right. I think that's totally right and you kind of see it in how many people are running for President.

CHRIS HAYES: That's exactly right. Yes, right.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Everybody is. You know anybody not running for president? No, everybody's running for president.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, I mean, you just announced on my podcast. We just made some news.

MICHAEL LEWIS: That's right. I'm accepting donations for an exploratory committee.

CHRIS HAYES: And I would be remiss if I didn't conclude on this point, which is that the biggest tail risk in the history of human civilization on the planet is now barreling down on us in climate. I mean, that's what makes it all so particularly ironic in a tragic sense, is that the risk, the big risk, is here and we've got the worst equipped individual to deal with.

MICHAEL LEWIS: But the price of not dealing with it won't register for a while, the full price.

CHRIS HAYES: The full price.

MICHAEL LEWIS: That's right. So, that's the kind of problem that he has absolutely no interest in attacking because he'll get no credit for solving it. The benefits will all flow to human beings forever whereas, for him, his life could be the same whether he deals with it or not, right? He'll have A/C and he'll be comfortable.

CHRIS HAYES: And he'll be in this tomb wherever they decide to put a big Trump sign.

MICHAEL LEWIS: But I think your insight is correct. All of a sudden, he's so debased the office that we think basically anybody can occupy it.

CHRIS HAYES: Well, Michael Lewis who's running for president, you can go to Michael Lewis for Prez dot org… No, I'm making that up. Michael Lewis, who is maybe the best non-fiction writer we have. He's a legend and I don't say that with any tongue in cheek. His latest book, which is about the federal government in the Trump era, is called "The Fifth Risk." He's got a great new podcast, which I've really been enjoying. As you can tell from this conversation, he's got some audio charisma. It's called “Against The Rules." It's about fairness with Michael Lewis. He also wrote "Moneyball," "The Big Short," "Flash Boys," "The Undoing Project" and a million other things. Michael, what a great, great pleasure to have you on, thank you very much.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Thanks a lot, Chris.

CHRIS HAYES: Once again, my great thanks to Michael Lewis, whose new podcast is “Against the Rules with Michael Lewis,” and whose book that we discussed, The Fifth Risk, you can get wherever you get your books. Also, if you like this podcast, as I mentioned up at the top, there's a few others you might find interesting.

Aaron Gordon and I, our discussion of New York City subway system. Abdul El-Sayed and I discuss Medicare for All. And Eric Klinenberg and I discuss his book, "Palaces for the People," which is about what he calls social infrastructure, all of which I think relates to this general idea of the challenges and rewards of the project of building big, functional public goods, which is what Michael's talking about in the conversation.

We love to hear your feedback, you could always tweet us at #WITHpod, email, we got some great feedback about my conversation with Rian Thum about the situation in China with the Uighurs, a situation that is pretty horrifying.

I appreciated people expressing the fact that they appreciated that we did that topic, that they hadn't heard a lot about it, that it really stuck with them. Rian and I, in that conversation, discuss some of the things that maybe can be done, and a huge part of the first step of doing anything is just having people know that it's happening, because attention and public focus will have an effect on the Chinese government. So share that podcast as much as you can, talk to people about the fact that it is happening, there are resources online. The New York Times has been doing some great reporting, you could also check that out.

Related links:

"The Fifth Risk," by Michael Lewis

"Against the Rules with Michael Lewis"

Related listening:

"Medicare for All with Abdul El-Sayed"

"Back to the future of transportation with Aaron Gordon"

"Social Infrastructure Week, with Eric Klinenberg"

"Why Is This Happening?" is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the "All In" team, and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to