Michael Lewis is a serious writer with a list of serious bona fides: Princeton bachelor’s degree, master’s from the London School of Economics, a brief career on Wall Street and author of best-selling, non-fiction books like "Money Ball," "The Big Short," and "The Blind Side." All were Hollywood box office hits. He also writes for the New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, and other national and international publications.
Earlier this year, Lewis turned his keen eye and sharp intellect toward Washington, D.C. to see how our federal agencies were making the transition from the bureaucratic steadiness of previous administrations to the “drain the swamp” Trump Administration.
His first report, a 12,500-word piece published in the September issue of Vanity Fair, examined changes at the U.S. Department of Energy. His second, an equally long and equally detailed report released in the magazine’s November issue, spotlighted the Trump takeover of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA. Both showcase Lewis’s fact-layered journalism and laser-sharp observations.
And both scare the pants off readers because of the willful ignorance shown at DOE and USDA by the incoming administration. A shared theme in each is that Team Trump rode into Washington with “nothing to learn from all the people running the place,” Lewis said in a Nov. 6 radio interview.
Soon, however, that gave way to a “willingness to tax the distant future for the political present.” In other words, quick personal wins — against what Trump’s one-time political advisor Steve Bannon calls the “deep state” — are more important than continued, long-term national success in energy or agriculture.
That discovery shocked Lewis because, like most Americans, he had only the broadest sense of what DOE and USDA actually did when he began his reporting. He was stunned to learn the breadth of both.
DOE, for example, spends almost half of its “$30 billion-a-year budget” on “maintaining and guarding America’s nuclear arsenal.” About $2 billion of it “goes to hunting down weapons-grade plutonium and uranium loose in the world so that it doesn’t fall into the hands of terrorists…”
It didn’t: During the Obama years, DOE collected enough of this material around the world “to make 160 nuclear bombs.”
So, yes, this is serious — in fact, deadly serious — work that demands serious people and serious attention.
After their election victory, however, the Trump team waited over a month to send anyone to DOE to even say hello. When someone finally appeared, it was a Koch Industries lobbyist who “didn’t bring a pencil or piece of paper. He spent an hour [and] never asked to meet… again.”
Lewis discovered it was no different at USDA. On Nov. 22, 2016 the incoming administration finally sent a transition official to one of the federal government’s largest agencies. The official stayed less than an hour and “wanted to know about the office on climate change… That’s what he wanted to focus on. He wanted the names of the people doing the work,” one USDA staffer told Lewis.
USDA’s “friendly welcome” — a 2,300-page transition blueprint intended to assist Trump appointees in overseeing an agency with a $164 billion annual budget, 100,000 employees, 193 million acres of land to manage, an $80-billion a year food aid program, “a bank with $220 billion in assets,” and a “massive science program” — was rejected.
Today, little has changed. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, Trump’s last Cabinet nominee and second-to-last to be approved, spends most of his time making public appearances at Big Ag events around the country or pushing a controversial USDA reorganization plan no one has seen.
Most sub-cabinet appointees, the undersecretaries who actually run USDA’s necessary, far-reaching programs, are either stalled in the Senate (see Bill Northey) or so controversial (see the now-gone Sam Clovis) that it’s both fair and necessary to ask who actually is in charge of anything there.
This ongoing failure, Lewis explained in the Nov. 6 Fresh Air interview, now threatens USDA and America’s future. “In some ways, the scientific progress in the production of food… underpins the entire economy (and) enables everybody to be something else other than a farmer…”
In no small part that “something else” is the nation itself. Putting it at risk now for short-term political gain is just more willful ignorance.
The Farm and Food File is published weekly through the U.S. and Canada. Source material, past columns and contact information are posted at farmandfoodfile.com.