A Failure of Imagination

In 2011, Texas governor Rick Perry entered the race to be Republican candidate for President of the U.S.A.  As part of his programme, he said that he would eliminate three government departments.  When he was asked to name them, he said: “Commerce, Education… and…” but could not remember the third.  Later, he informed the press that the third one was Energy.

The U.S Department of Energy spends about half of its $30bn annual budget on maintaining and guarding the nuclear arsenal.  That includes hunting down weapons-grade plutonium and uranium at loose in the world.  Between 2010 and 2018, they recovered enough material to make 160 nuclear bombs.

When the presidency changes, a transition team moves into every government department on the day after the election (consequently, both candidates – unless the next president is the incumbent – have to have a full transition team ready in case they win).  The transition team then has until the inauguration to get up and running as on that day, all the people who have been in the top stratum of  jobs in each department simply leave.

On the day after the Trump election victory, staff in the Department of Energy waited for the transition team to arrive.  Nobody came.  The same happened in every government department.  Nobody turned up at Energy for a month, and then didn’t stay long.  By the following June, (one eighth of the way through the presidential term) only one person was in place at the Department of Energy, the new head – Rick Perry.

Perry admitted at his congressional appointment hearing that when he had vowed to scrap the department he hadn’t really known what it did, and that since then he had had meetings with the previous head (who was a nuclear physicist and who was the lead negotiator on the Iran nuclear deal).  When staff were asked how many hours Perry had spent with the outgoing head, the answer was that the question was using the wrong unit of account – it wasn’t hours, it was minutes.

The risk in all this is that we do not know what risks are being run by not having a proper transition (all previous transitions between rival parties have followed the process and gone very smoothly), and by having people in charge of government departments who do not necessarily know what they are doing, or who are not terribly interested; and as author Michael Lewis concludes: “It’s what you fail to imagine that will kill you.”

 Source: “The Fifth Risk” – Michael Lewis

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