Open and Shut

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Two recent books offer compelling perspectives on the contentious debate between private interest and public good, and raise provocative questions about an activist agenda for the design professions.


In October 2013, much of the government of the United States was shut down for sixteen days as Congress fought over funding for the Affordable Care Act. On the very first day of that shutdown, the American Institute of Architects published a statement declaring that its members were “extremely disillusioned with the current state of affairs in the nation’s capital.” The AIA was especially concerned about firms working on federal construction projects; yet the national organization, whose policy priorities include healthy communities and sustainable environments, made a more expansive point: “We urge both political parties to set aside political divisions and put the ‘common good’ of the American public first. That phrase is an anachronism in today’s political vernacular, but lawmakers ought to commit it to memory in coming weeks.”

The shutdown is making us realize how much we depend upon the work public employees do when their offices are open.

That the leading organization of U.S. architects would be alarmed by the prospect of the federal government shutting down for business is hardly surprising; a very great deal of that business affects the health and sustainability of our built and natural environments — the common good of the American public. The current shutdown, which has lasted (as I write) for seventeen days and counting, is making that more painfully apparent than ever. Most immediately the shutdown hurts furloughed federal employees who can’t cover the mortgage, pay the rent, buy groceries. But it is also making many more of us realize how much we depend upon the work public employees do when their offices are open and the government is functioning. Across the country, rural communities are stressed because low-interest mortgage loans aren’t being processed by the Department of Agriculture. In cities, homebuyers are worried about their Federal Housing Authority loans, and tenants are anxious about repairs in buildings managed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. National parks are reportedly strewn with trash, and some environmentalists warn about long-term damage to these fragile landscapes. A researcher in the Chicago office of the Environmental Protection Agency is nervous about delays on projects to improve the health of the Great Lakes; the former director of the Fish and Wildlife Service emphasizes that a shutdown has “cascading effects” on the field work of the organization. And of course these are just a few of the endless impacts — #shutdown stories — being documented by news outlets and on social media.

The AIA has not yet made any statement about the current crisis, but clearly the issues are as critical as they were half a dozen years ago. And in fact more so; the potential damage of this latest shutdown is far greater because it is being inflicted by an administration that from the outset has sought to undermine the fundamental workings of the nation it was elected to lead (and to serve). Two excellent recent books do much to illuminate the depths of our dilemma. Together The Fifth Risk and Winners Take All offer complementary perspectives on our immediate crises and structural troubles, and on the ongoing contentious debate about the balance between private interests and common good. As such they suggest political frameworks that might inform the hard restoration (of civil discourse, collective trust, public institutions, American democracy) that will need to follow the end of Trump. They also suggest provocative possibilities about how the design disciplines might structure an activist agenda and participate in that restoration.

The Fifth Risk delves into the unsung and unglamorous precincts of the federal civil service.

In The Fifth Risk , the journalist Michael Lewis delves into the usually unsung and unglamorous precincts of the federal civil service. Most directly the book is an unsettling account of the Trump administration’s catastrophic mismanagement and malign neglect of the agencies that comprise the executive branch, with a particular focus on the departments of Energy, Agriculture, and Commerce. The problems began right away, with a botched and chaotic transition. Lewis describes the scene at various agencies on the morning of November 9, 2016, as senior managers awaited the “small army” of new staffers they’ve come to expect from an incoming administration. As required by law, the departments had prepared voluminous briefing books — five-inch-thick three-ring binders containing tens of thousands of pages that Lewis calls “the best course ever on the inner workings of the most powerful institution on earth.” But that day and for weeks afterward, nobody showed up at the imposing departmental headquarters along the National Mall. The Trump people who finally arrived were inexperienced and unqualified. An oil industry apparatchik with ties to Koch Industries and ExxonMobil was the transition official for the DOE. A PepsiCo lobbyist turned up for the USDA briefings, and assorted agency positions were filled by campaign loyalists including “a long-haul truck driver, a clerk at AT+T, a gas-company meter reader, a country-club cabana attendant, a Republican National Committee intern, and the owner of a scented-candle company.”

The fundamental mandate of the executive branch agencies is nothing less than the project management of the United States of America.

Such hires were symptomatic of the Trump team’s comprehensive ignorance of and downright hostility to the fundamental mandate of the executive branch departments. Which, as Lewis describes it, is nothing less than the project management of the United States of America. The book can be read as a horrifyingly detailed report on the attempted evisceration of the national government by the worst president in U.S. history. But it’s also a paean to a public bureaucracy that’s as underpaid and under-appreciated as it is dedicated and mission-driven — a vast workforce responsible for managing an immense “portfolio of risks” and for keeping hundreds of millions of Americans safe from harm; harm that can range from toxic romaine lettuce to poisonous tap water, from childhood malnutrition to malfunctioning air traffic control to decades-old deteriorating bridges. But even more perilous are the risks we don’t even anticipate.

The risk portfolio — the public responsibility — of the federal government is formidable. The Department of Energy, with a budget of $30 billion and a staff of 110,000, is charged with protecting the country’s nuclear
arsenal  and cleaning up what Lewis calls the “unholy world-historic mess” left behind by decades of manufacturing weapons-grade plutonium. The department trains atomic inspectors; guards electrical grids across the country from physical attacks and cyber-intrusions; sponsors low-interest loans to catalyze investment in alternative energy (“every Tesla you see on the road,” Lewis reports, “came from a facility financed by the DOE”); and runs a $6-billion science program across seventeen national laboratories. Obama’s Energy Secretary, the nuclear physicist Ernest Moniz, advised on the lengthy diplomatic negotiations that produced the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the Iran nuclear deal. (Lewis describes the role of the current secretary, Rick Perry, as “ceremonial and bizarre”; according to a DOE official, Perry has “never been briefed on a program — not a single one.”)

The Department of Agriculture, with a budget of $141 billion and staff of 105,000, manages a couple hundred million acres of forests and grasslands and maintains an aircraft fleet for fighting wildfires. The USDA finances crop insurance; inspects all the meat that’s eaten in the United States; runs all the food, nutrition, shelter, and energy programs in rural America; and supports an extensive program of scientific research, often in coordination with land-grant universities. (The department was created in the midst of the Civil War “as a vast science lab,” Lewis writes, because the Lincoln administration “had decided it was time to make U.S. agriculture more efficient.”) And that’s just for starters; there’s so much else that the book reproduces the department’s multi-box organizational chart. Likewise the Department of Commerce oversees a network of agencies ranging from the U.S. Census Bureau to the Patent and Trademark Office to the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Its single largest program is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which in turn oversees the National Weather Service. And lest this sound quotidian, Lewis reminds us that weather predictions can have profound consequences. Not only does the mega-billion-dollar agriculture industry depend upon data-rich forecasting; in 1980, the mission to rescue the hostages at the U.S. embassy in Iran failed because of an unforeseen sandstorm.

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