At my desk this morning, my first act was to post to Facebook, a black and white photo of my spouse in the uniform of the US Navy, being saluted by his 3-year-old nephew. Though the world I most long for has eliminated the need for armed forces (cheers, Costa Rica!), I am proud of his service to our country, and grateful that he had the good fortune of serving between conflicts. I wish he’d kept those sharp uniforms, too!
Earlier, while still in my pajamas, I finished reading a book my friend, Laura, recommended a few weeks ago — one I heartily recommend to everyone: Michael Lewis’ The Fifth Risk. The book has been lumped together with other political bestsellers du jour, and it is certainly a sharp critique of the current administration. But its main message struck another chord: how well our government (in the capital G sense I wrote about previously) has functioned over time, regardless of the party in power. More importantly, the book lays out a portfolio of imminent risks, now that the true interests and intention of the incumbents have become clear, that is, close to zero in performing their sworn duty to protect and serve the United States and its citizens. Until recently, we have had the government to thank for focusing on activities like: “How to stop a virus, how to take a census, how to determine if some foreign country is seeking to obtain a nuclear weapon or if North Korean missiles can reach Kansas City.” No drama, no optics necessary or demanded.
(Photo: Mike Wilson, @mkwlsn)
Lewis, whose other bestsellers include The Big Short, The Blind Side and Moneyball (to mention three that were made into films) is a master storyteller, and if you have been following this blog, I can safely say you will be captivated, possibly even motivated to become more politically involved, by this latest book. At the very least, perhaps you’ll come to understand as I did that “Roughly half the DOE’s annual $30 billion budget is spent on maintaining and guarding our nuclear arsenal.” We have as much to fear from accidents as from terrorism, it seems. And there’s the NOAA — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — yes, I had to look it up — $5 billion or 60% of the Department of Commerce’s budget and the largest data-gathering agency in the world. Without it, writes Lewis, “… no plane would fly, no bridge would be built, and no war would be fought — at least not well.” In other words, cabinet appointments filled with cronies and loyalists who lack the education, experience, understanding, or even interest in their missions as anything but an opportunity for self-enrichment, is a recipe for looming disaster on an epic scale.
If Veterans Day makes you think of our military heroes — and it should — we might also want to celebrate those unsung heroes toiling away in inner offices, who have done more to protect all Americans than the people we commonly think of as our leaders. I am talking about career civil servants (toward whom I admittedly have a bias) who are mission- as opposed to money-driven. A few who stand out for me in this collection of extraordinary, dedicated and smart people: former Deputy Energy Secretary, Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall who led the U.S. mission to remove chemical weapons from Syria; former NOAA chief, Kathy Sullivan, who grasped the human element in disaster preparedness; former head of Rural Development (USDA), Lillian Salerno, responsible for the $220 billion bank “that serviced the poorest of the poor in rural America.” Yes, those voters.
The Fifth Risk has been called ‘a love-letter to federal workers,” and why they deserve praise instead of the blame usually piled on when something goes awry. Why they deserve a raise and respect. And why we need to vote in people who understand what has always made this country exceptional. Read it at the risk of becoming better informed and more appreciative of what it really means to protect and serve.