ODU Lecture Series: Bestselling author criticizes Trump Administration, lauds federal workers

Michael Lewis (Southside Daily photo/Courtesy of Old Dominion University)
Michael Lewis (Southside Daily photo/Courtesy of Old Dominion University)

NORFOLK — In 2017, President Donald Trump tapped Barry Lee Myers to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Myers, the CEO of AccuWeather, “has spent the last two decades of his life trying to gum up the ability of the National Weather Service to communicate with the people because if it does it poorly, AccuWeather can make more money selling weather forecasts,” bestselling author Michael Lewis told a crowd of 1,700 at the Ted Constant Convocation Center on Oct. 18.

Lewis said Myers’ nomination is “symptomatic of the bigger problem” with the Trump administration’s approach to governance.

“If you have no interest in the government, to the point where you don’t even show up for the briefings, and if you have no kind of mission … what rushes in is financial interest,” Lewis said. “And who’s going to show up and work for that? Only people who have some narrow reason for being there.”

Lewis, whose latest book, “The Fifth Risk,” examines the chaotic transition after the 2016 election, spoke as part of the Old Dominion University President’s Lecture Series. WHRO’s Cathy Lewis moderated the event, which was co-sponsored by the Norfolk Forum.

Trump didn’t expect to win the election.

“They didn’t have an acceptance speech on election day,” Lewis said. “They only had a concession speech.”

The day after the election, Trump fired his transition team. That eliminated the group responsible for vetting appointees – and not just high-profile candidates — of the new administration.

“One of the resumes of one of the people who got an $80,000-a-year job in the Department of Agriculture had no skills,” Lewis said. “He was a high school graduate who had been a cabana attendant at a country club, and the skill it listed was ‘pleasant demeanor.’ There was a lot of that kind of thing.”

The incoming administration also had little contact during the transition with officials from the Obama administration, who had spent six months preparing briefing books on government agencies.

This was troubling because “the federal government, … at any given time, is managing a huge portfolio of risks, some of them catastrophic,” Lewis said. “Even in the places that you think are not really critical to our lives, they’re critical to our lives.”

He pointed out that the Department of Energy – which is run by Rick Perry, who called for its elimination in a presidential debate even though “he couldn’t remember its name” – oversees the country’s nuclear arsenal and that 75 percent of the Commerce Department’s budget is devoted to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

While admitting that the federal bureaucracy has fundamental problems, Lewis implied that putting people in charge of agencies of which they are ignorant adds fuel to a false myth about the government — and the civil servants who work for them.

“The myth that’s false is that the private sector does all the innovation, does all the exciting stuff. It’s what makes the economy grow. And … the public sector is filled with dead weight, full of lazy, indolent people. The less we spend on them, the better. The truth is that almost every major economy-changing innovation starts with some public-sector grant or research inside the public sector,” said Lewis, citing the internet, GPS, solar technology and Tesla. “The very simple reason is that industry does what will pay in five to 10 years. It’s not funding the research in the future.”

He said he met many public sector employees who “could move you to tears because they have a sense of public purpose.”

Lewis, who wrote about the financial sector in “Liar’s Poker” and the “The Big Short,” was asked the biggest threat to the U.S. financial system. He said it would be if Trump threatened to refuse to repay the money the United States owes China.

“I could see him tweeting, getting up in front of the crowds he’s gathered and saying they took the money in unfair trade deals …” Lewis said. “I can already hear people cheering for him. So if this becomes a viable kind of political strategy, what happens? People start dumping dollars; people start dumping Treasury bonds.”

He said that no one questioned that the government would serve as a “backstop” when the financial crisis hit in 2008. “What happens if there’s a financial crisis without that?” he asked. “That’s a bigger deal.”

The President’s Lecture Series serves as a marketplace for ideas, featuring renowned speakers who share their knowledge, experience, opinions and accomplishments. Discussing timely topics, the series puts diversity first, showcasing authors, educators, business innovators and political figures.

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John Mangalonzo (john@localvoicemedia.com) is the managing editor of Local Voice Media’s Virginia papers – WYDaily (Williamsburg), Southside Daily (Virginia Beach) and HNNDaily (Hampton-Newport News). Before coming to Local Voice, John was the senior content editor of The Bellingham Herald, a McClatchy newspaper in Washington state. Previously, he served as city editor/content strategist for USA Today Network newsrooms in St. George and Cedar City, Utah. John started his professional journalism career shortly after graduating from Lyceum of The Philippines University in 1990. As a rookie reporter for a national newspaper in Manila that year, John was assigned to cover four of the most dangerous cities in Metro Manila. Later that year, John was transferred to cover the Philippine National Police and Armed Forces of the Philippines. He spent the latter part of 1990 to early 1992 embedded with troopers in the southern Philippines as they fought with communist rebels and Muslim extremists. His U.S. journalism career includes reporting and editing stints for newspapers and other media outlets in New York City, California, Texas, Iowa, Utah, Colorado and Washington state.