If you follow news about local government – say, Durango’s or La Plata County’s – what is remarkable compared to the national conversation so many of us are having is how seldom party or ideology enters into it.
This makes perfect sense. How you feel about President Donald Trump or climate change often ends up having little to do with the best site for wastewater treatment or even remedies for declining gas revenue. This is so true that it comes as a small surprise when we are reminded that a council member or a commissioner is a Republican or a Democrat, usually around election time.
Take Allison Aichele, the county treasurer, who eked out a re-election win when her race was called Tuesday. Her performance in her first term was hotly debated in some circles, but never, fortunately, did we hear that it was indicative of Democrats.
When we regard the federal government, however, we tend to see it as a series of personalities, or its parts as distant red and blue icebergs that shudder against each other. And it is too easy to see Trump as the Slim Pickens character at the end of “Dr. Strangelove,” riding a bomb. In truth, he is atop a massive professional pyramid.
The executive branch, through its agencies, happens to be not just the biggest employer in the U.S. by far but also in the world (followed by the People’s Liberation Army of China and then Walmart). There are about nine million federal employees, including contractors, the vast majority of whom are under executive control. Most are not soldiers or greeters. What do they do all day long?
Some great and good and essential things, says Michael Lewis.
Lewis, the author and journalist, decided to take a look after Trump’s election in 2016, first in articles for Vanity Fair magazine and now in a new book, “The Fifth Risk.” It asks the question, “What are the consequences if the people given control over our government have no idea how it works?”
That may strike some readers as an overstatement, but look at the wildfires in California last weekend, which left 42 people dead and 250,000 evacuated. Outgoing California Gov. Jerry Brown blamed climate change, not implausibly. Trump tweeted that “There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!”
This raised a raft of questions. Did Trump know that the fires were also burning on federal lands? Was the tweet meant to say that forest management was poor on those lands? Does he know that the Forest Service is within the Department of Agriculture, and that both budgets are set by Congress?
Meanwhile, these agencies do some fascinating and non-partisan work – such as weather forecasting, which has become superlative, in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is within the Department of Commerce (the government is a series of nesting dolls).
Kathy Sullivan, the astronaut and former NOAA administrator, told Lewis, “I’m routinely appalled by how profoundly ignorant even highly educated people are when it comes to the structure and function of our government.”
Someone ought to give copies of Lewis’ book to every Democrat in the new House majority bent on oversight. It is a road map for a significant fraction of what is at stake in the next two years.