Retirement Planning Strategies December 2018

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A Book to Put Under the Tree


The holidays are here, which probably means you’re looking for some gifts to put under the tree. I can’t pretend that I know what will put smiles on the faces of your loved ones, but I recently read a book that would be a welcome addition to the wish list of any government employee. It’s called “The Fifth Risk,” written by renowned author Michael Lewis, and it just might be the best book I’ve read all year. I’ve been a fan of Lewis for years. He has an uncanny knack for tackling subjects that should be dry and boring — the real estate products behind the financial collapse of 2008 in “The Big Short,” baseball analytics in “Moneyball,” among many — and turning them into riveting page-turners. So when I heard that Lewis’ new book would tackle the operational aspects of the federal government, I knew I’d be picking up a copy as soon as it hit the shelves. When you think of the biggest threats to the viability of our government, you probably think about a nuclear tussle with North Korea or another external threat. Lewis, however, finds other massive dangers working inside our government: operational incompetence and an undervaluing of our civil servants. He holds our government and the workers

within it as some of the biggest driving forces for good in our nation. “The Fifth Risk” is largely a celebration of public- sector work and a rallying cry against the folks who want to slash government programs at all costs. WE WOULD HAVE NEVER MADE IT TO THE MOON WITHOUT NASA. GPS, WHICH WE ALL USE EVERY DAY, WAS THE RESULT OF A DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE PROJECT. MOST PEOPLE DON’T KNOW THAT EVEN THE WEATHER DATA THEY CHECK EVERY MORNING WOULDN’T BE WHAT IT IS WITHOUT THE WORK OF FEDERAL EMPLOYEES. Lewis defines the fifth risk as “the risk a society runs when it falls into the habit of responding to long-term risks with short-term solutions.” In terms of how that applies to government programs, the short-term solution is almost always to cut the program. But Lewis warns that myopic thinking like that will only lead to a nation that is worse off than before. After all, some of our greatest achievements as a nation required a wealth of federal support. We would have never made it to the moon without NASA. GPS, which we all use every day, was the result of a Department of Defense project. Most people don’t know

that even the weather data they check every morning wouldn’t be what it is without the work of federal employees. The pervasive misconception about what the federal government actually does is what makes “The Fifth Risk” so refreshing. As I was reading — though it’s probably more accurate to say devouring — there were so many moments when I wanted to high-five Lewis through the pages. I will note, as a warning, that Lewis does interject some of his personal political views into the book, but they’re far from the crux of the piece. No matter where you stand ideologically, it’s impossible to argue with Lewis’ sober arguments regarding the value of federal programs and the need to run them efficiently. With animosity toward the government at a fever pitch on every side of the aisle, his message couldn’t have come at a better time. No matter what else you’re hoping to unwrap this holiday season, I strongly encourage you to gift yourself a copy of “The Fifth Risk.” It’s a great read, but more than that, it will make you feel like there’s somebody out there who understands the value of your work. It’s enough to fill any public servant with cheer. –Ann Vanderslice | 1

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