NPR: Michael Lewis: Many Trump Appointees Are Uninterested In The Agencies They Head Up
by Dave Davies November 6, 2017 | Heard on Fresh Air
The Moneyball author is writing a series of articles for Vanity Fair about President Trump’s picks to lead federal agencies — and the consequences of those appointments.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. You might know our guest, journalist Michael Lewis, from some of his books, such as “Moneyball” and “The Big Short,” both of which were adapted into movies. Lewis has spent a lot of this year exploring the ways the Trump administration is changing the federal government at the ground level.
Lewis has spoken to many career employees of the departments of energy and agriculture. He says they found Trump appointees ill-prepared for the jobs they have and uninterested in the work of the departments they’re running. In a series of articles for Vanity Fair, Lewis reports that the consequences of such ill-informed leadership could be troubling in areas as critical as maintenance of the nation’s nuclear arsenal and managing nuclear waste, both functions of the Energy Department. Lewis spoke to FRESH AIR’s Dave Davies about his series and about his latest book, “The Undoing Project,” which is now out in paperback.
DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Well, Michael Lewis, welcome back to FRESH AIR. What made you want to get into these government departments and see them from the inside here as the transition in administrations occurred?
MICHAEL LEWIS: Well, my mind when Trump was elected was on the subject of risk because I just finished a book, “The Undoing Project,” about people’s – the difficulty people had processing risk, in evaluating risk. And I was wondering what risks Trump brought with him. I then saw that the transition from the Obama administration to the Trump administration basically didn’t happen, (laughter) that – what normally happens after a new president comes in is that the day after the election, dozens of people roll into each of the agencies and start getting briefings from the people who are on their way out or from the career civil servants.
And across the government, there were people waiting inside the Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture, and no one showed up to be briefed. And so I thought, well, maybe this is a way to get at the question of what risk we’re running with this new kind of president, go in and get the briefings myself that they didn’t get and see and ask them. Like, what are the risks to the society if the government is neglected or mismanaged or misunderstood?
DAVIES: Right. And so you talked to a lot of officials and former officials of these departments. How easy was it to get access, to walk into the Department of Energy building and poke around?
LEWIS: So the former Obama people who ran the places were of course very accessible. Just generally, when I would call them up, they’d say, that’s – you know, I’m relieved you called. I was hoping to have given a briefing or presided over a briefing, and it never happened, and I’d love to give it to you. The career civil servants who were inside the Department of Energy or the Department of Agriculture are highly exposed and scared. They’re afraid they’re going to get in trouble if their names are in the press. So a lot of it had to be done kind of (laughter) clandestinely.
The Department of Energy, for example – I did get in touch with someone who was a little less scared, and she gave me a tour of the building. But mostly with the career civil servants, I had to meet them outside the building and agree not to use their names. And funny enough, you know, they clearly felt so exposed that I think that – I’m continuing to do this project. I think I was – as a rule, I’m not going to use the names of the career civil servants because I don’t want to get people fired.
DAVIES: Right. Well, let’s talk about the Department of Agriculture, which you spent some time in. And you know, a lot of people think of, yeah, well, that’s the agency that distributes subsidies to farmers. And you found out (laughter) there’s an awful lot more that it does. There’s a drinking game they play there, of – on the diversity of its tasks.
LEWIS: Yeah. It’s called the – Does The USDA Do It? And someone will name some function of government, and the employees of the USDA have to guess whether the USDA does it or not. And if they’re wrong, they chug. That speaks to the complexity and the – of this institution and just the vast array of stuff it does. So…
DAVIES: Yeah. So what are some of the things we would chug on that we wouldn’t know the Department of Agriculture does?
LEWIS: You know, so – right, if I ask you, the USDA shoots geese at LaGuardia airport so they don’t get into airplane engines – if you answered no, you’d be wrong. They – the USDA polices essentially all conflict between animals and people in the country.
The USDA makes sure that circus elephants aren’t being abused. The USDA makes sure that each of the 9 billion birds we kill each year to eat are – aren’t going to make us sick. The USDA oversees firefighting in the country while firefighting and the National Forest Service and 200 million acres of national forest. The USDA funds a vast majority of the science research into food production. The USDA feeds poor people and schoolchildren who can’t afford school lunches.
I mean, it goes on and on. And the actual farming part of it, the agricultural part of it, the farm subsidy part of it, even if you count it generously, is less than 10 percent of the budget.
DAVIES: OK. So the Agriculture Department staff were prepared for a transition. They were ready to brief people who they knew would be coming in who may or may not have – share some of their policy agenda. Who showed up from the Trump administration?
LEWIS: Well, I tell you. Nobody showed up. The day after the election, nobody shows up. So they have…
DAVIES: Did – were they really expecting people the day after the election? Is that…
LEWIS: Oh, my God. They had parking spots reserved, and they had offices set aside and the briefing books on the table. And they’d arranged Wi-Fi for the computers and passwords for everybody and, you know, badges to get in and out of the buildings. They expected a team of people to show up. And this wasn’t just the Department of Agriculture. There were other agencies where they were similarly prepared that just wondered, where is everybody?
And then days passed, and they finally kind of get word that, well, they’re a little disorganized, and nobody’s coming. And it was actually the better part of two months before anybody shows up who’s going to be – who’s going to represent Trump’s transition to the Department of Agriculture. So they had – they were just left waiting for a long time.
DAVIES: And the first person that shows up is a fellow named Brian Klipperstein (ph), right?
LEWIS: He’s not the first person who’s appointed by Trump to go in and be the transition person. But the first two people I think had problems because they were a lobbyist for, like, the soda industry. (Laughter) And there was protests about that person being involved in such an enterprise because, among other things, the USDA is responsible for the nation’s nutrition and understanding it and promoting good nutrition. So the first guy who actually shows up and is still there is named Klippenstein, and he comes from an operation called Protect The Harvest.
And Protect The Harvest, best as I can tell, it’s – it sees his job as essentially trolling the Humane Society, that it’s – it stands up for the rights of people in animal-people disputes, which, you know, I didn’t realize that it was necessary to do so. I thought people were doing a pretty good job of it. But it’s hypersensitive to animal rights people and tries to respond to animal rights activists wherever it can. And it was funded by a rancher and oil man named Forrest Lucas. Anyway, this guy runs that operation for them. And the people in the USDA of course find that a little odd because one of the things the USDA does is stand up for the rights of (laughter) animals in animal-people disputes.
DAVIES: They do dogfighting investigations. I happen to know that’s…
LEWIS: That kind of – yes, dogfighting and circuses and, you know, poultry farming. And wherever animals might be mistreated, the USDA has some responsibility to monitor it. And anyway, so this guy – but he’s a one-man transition team. And the thing that’s bewildering to the people inside the USDA who thought they were going to be passing the baton and explaining to the Trump administration how the Department of Agriculture works is that they thought this is a job for 20 people to be done over 80 days, not one person over a couple of weeks. So the feeling generally inside the institution was that the transition never really happened, and the people who eventually come in never really got the briefings.
DAVIES: And so Klippenstein wasn’t interested in details.
LEWIS: Well, according to my sources, he was interested in some things and not others. And he took a peculiar interest in anything having to do with climate change. He wanted to know who inside the agency had been responsible for responding to climate change. And this also happened in the Department of Energy.
Essentially there was a witch hunt across the government for scientists, policy people who were responsible for responding to climate change because the position of the Trump administration was that basically it didn’t exist. And so the career civil servant who was asked for the names of people in the Department of Agriculture who might be involved in, say, researching climate change refused to give up names. So that got shut down right away.
DAVIES: Eventually a larger team of Trump appointees did arrive at the Department of Agriculture. Who were they? What kind of backgrounds did they bring?
LEWIS: They sent in 30 or so people to work in the Department of Agriculture who were political appointees. They were typically young men in their 20s with absolutely no background in agriculture or in anything having to do with the mission of the Department of Agriculture. The magazine Politico got ahold of the resumes of these people, and most of them did not have the qualifications for the jobs they were supposed to hold. So it’s a little unclear why they were put there or what they thought they were doing. And it’s even unclear that people in the civil service there – how many of them are still floating around the building.
But the main positions inside the Department of Agriculture – the Senate confirmed positions like the deputy secretary and the undersecretary positions – there are 13 Senate confirmed positions at the Department of Agriculture. And when I finished writing this piece a month ago, only one of them had been actually filled – the secretary.
DAVIES: You asked everybody, what’s one of your biggest concerns about what might go awry here? And one of them said the science. It turns out that the chief scientist of the Department of Agriculture is a Senate-confirmed position. You spoke to Cathy Woteki, right? She was the previous chief scientist. What did she tell you about the job, what it does, why it’s important?
LEWIS: So what she told me was in some ways even not as interesting as who she was. I mean, this is a person – she’s 70 years old – who’s spent her entire career essentially preparing for this job of being the chief scientist at the Department of Agriculture and steering a budget of several billion dollars a year of grants to researchers who were working on things like how we respond to climate change in agriculture, how we grow crops in warmer climates or in different places or how we graze livestock when – at higher altitudes. I mean, there are all kinds of research projects that are essentially laying the groundwork for how we feed ourselves 50 years from now and that will pay off then. And it’s mission-critical.
I mean, the whole department was in fact founded essentially as a science institution. When Lincoln created it in the 1860s, he did it so that farmers – there was a more rapid dissemination of the state-of-the-art practices in farming. So it’s core to the mission of the Department of Agriculture. And this person who was – had been in the job, you know, had spent 50 years training as an agricultural scientist and really understood the field.
What concerned her was, first, who Trump had nominated to be her replacement – an Iowa right-wing talk show radio host named Sam Clovis, who had absolutely no background in science, whose chief qualification seems to have been he was just really loyal to Trump. He was co-chairman of Trump’s campaign. And she, like everybody else, was mystified because while you can understand why political loyalists need to find their homes inside of an administration, why put him in a place where you actually have to know something? You know, why put him in charge of the science end of the Department of Agriculture, especially since so much of that research that’s being done is one way or another related to climate change? And he doesn’t think climate change exists.
So the fear – the broader fear was that the science programs in the Department of Agriculture were going to be politicized and that – in a way they just hadn’t been and the culture would shift and it would cease to be a scientific enterprise and become a political one.
DAVIES: You know, when I read about this, it struck me that this is the kind of program that populists like Steve Bannon would say, this is exactly what we have to get rid of. This is the deep state, these bureaucrats who hand out tens of billions of dollars every year to obscure research projects or make loans to people hither and yon that taxpayers have no idea of or interest in, and this is the kind of swamp we want to drain. Give us an example of this science and the way it contributes something positive that we wouldn’t know.
LEWIS: Penicillin (laughter). I mean, if you go back to the history of the Department of Agriculture and its role in making agriculture more efficient, there are not many people who would dispute that it is the – has been the chief engine of agricultural progress in the country from its founding. And the progress has been astonishing. I mean, the average farmer when the Department of Agriculture is founded is feeding three or four people a year. And now they’re feeding a 155 people a year. In some ways, the scientific progress in the production of food is – it underpins the entire economy, enables everybody to be something else other than a farmer.
So the idea that, like, the free market by itself is going to generate the optimum amount of long-term scientific research – I don’t think any person who’s actually in the market, like, at a big corporation, a big ag corporation or, in the case of energy, big energy corporations would say – it would say that there’s any validity to that. It’s that they know the market is very good at funding research that has obvious short-term gains that will yield. It’s not so good at funding research that is going to have really long-term implications that are hard – that the profits from which are hard to capture.
And that’s the kind of research that the department funds. And it funds it at, you know, all those schools that are called ag or tech. The land grant universities that were founded alongside the Department of Agriculture in the 1860s are doing the research.
DAVIES: I want to come back to Sam Clovis, the guy that the Trump administration nominated as the chief scientist for the Department of Agriculture who you say didn’t have a background in science, was a talk show host. What do we know about his effect on the science program in the Department of Agriculture so far?
LEWIS: We know nothing yet. I mean, the question is – it’s very hard to see what they’re doing now. I mean, it’s still early days. And the sad truth is that you could put someone who is wholly unqualified into that job, and the society wouldn’t feel the effects for a very long time because the kind of research that’s being done is research in – is research that will pay off 30 years from now or 40 years from now.
So this is to me – there’s a theme in the sort of risks that the Trump administration are taking by putting people who are not suited for jobs into the jobs. And one of the themes is that they’re – a willingness to tax the distant future for the political present because the distant future really doesn’t have a voice at the table.
DAVIES: My guest is Michael Lewis. His article is about the Trump administration’s impact on departments of the federal government appear in Vanity Fair. Since our interview was recorded, the president’s pick to be chief scientist of the Agriculture Department, Sam Clovis, has withdrawn his nomination. It was revealed that last year, Clovis was the Trump campaign supervisor of George Papadopoulos, who tried to broker a relationship between the campaign and Russian officials and has admitted lying about it to the FBI. We’ll hear more of our interview with Michael Lewis after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we’re speaking with Michael Lewis, the author of “Moneyball” and other books. His latest is “The Undoing Project.” He has some articles now in Vanity Fair about how the Trump administration is reshaping the work of several federal departments, among them the Departments of Agriculture and the Department of Energy. I want to talk about the energy department. The energy department had reams of briefing material ready for the Trump team when they arrived. Who showed up, if anyone?
LEWIS: Nobody showed up the day after the election. They – and they were, too – were expecting 20 to 30 people roll in. And they were especially alarmed because like the Department of Agriculture, the energy department is misnamed. It really is misleading. You think it’s about energy. It’s really more about nuclear weapons. It’s where the nuclear stockpile is maintained. And because they’re in the middle of national security issues – and they were terrified that the Trump administration was not going to know what it needed to know.
So they had 20 desks and 20 parking spots and so on and so forth, and nobody shows up for several weeks. And when someone shows up, again, it’s one guy, and it’s a guy who doesn’t seem to know very much and doesn’t seem actually all that interested in learning what they have to tell him. He shows up kind of in a spirit of, oh, someone – you know, they told me I kind of got to come in here.
What became apparent to the Obama administration is that from the point of view of the Trump administration, the transition was something they just had to be able to say they did but they didn’t have any actual interest in. And now, it wasn’t true in every department. I think it’s probably less true, say, in the defense department, but that was true – generally true across the administration.
And the problem is then of course, what happens is there’s no transfer of knowledge? I mean, the idea that, like, the people who are going out, even if they’re from a different party, don’t have anything to teach the people who are coming in is preposterous, that the vast majority of what I would tell you if I had been in the energy department for eight years and you were coming in and didn’t know very much about it would be not ideological at all.
It’d be like, how do we maintain the nuclear stockpile, or, what’s going on with a nuclear cleanup in Eastern Washington – very technical things. And I would also give you guidance on how the place runs. But the Trump administration took – clearly took the view that they had nothing to learn at all from the people who had been running the place for the last eight years.
DAVIES: You write that there was – what was called as a beachhead team, some group of Trump staffers who showed up. What did you hear that they did?
LEWIS: Well, the – in the energy department…
LEWIS: …Because this happened in every place. In the energy department, I mean, just to quote one of the civil servants, they said they ran around insulting people. And they did – among other things, they asked for a list of all the names of people who had been involved in any climate change conferences or research. So there was a feeling that there was a witch hunt for people who had worked on climate change. Beyond that, there was no real, like, groping with the subject matter or anything like that.
GROSS: We’re listening to the interview FRESH AIR’s Dave Davies recorded with Michael Lewis about his series in Vanity Fair examining how the Trump administration is changing the federal government on the ground level. They’ll talk more about the series and about Lewis’ latest book, “The Undoing Project,” after we take a short break. And Lloyd Schwartz will review a new Brahms recording by one of Lloyd’s favorite pianists. I’m Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. Let’s get back to the interview FRESH AIR’s Dave Davies recorded with journalist Michael Lewis, the author of “Moneyball” and “The Big Short.” Lewis is writing a series for Vanity Fair about how the Trump administration is changing the federal government on the ground level. The first article was about the Department of Energy. The second and latest is about the Department of Agriculture. Lewis says many career employees have found Trump appointees to be ill-prepared for their jobs and uninterested in the work of the departments they’re running.
DAVIES: What about Rick Perry, the energy secretary, who once as a candidate I think wanted to eliminate the Department of Energy?
LEWIS: Well, I wrote the piece on the Department of Energy and published it a couple of months ago. And one of the things that has occurred to me as I’ve been wandering around the government is that there’s, like, a distinction that needs to be made within the world of Trump appointees, and that there are a whole bunch of people – like Sam Clovis in the science department at Agriculture or like Rick Perry at Department of Energy – who have exhibited such ignorance of the task that they are – been handed to do that the responsible response to being asked to do it should’ve been, you know, I’m not qualified.
Rick Perry said onstage – call for the elimination of the Department of Energy, and I couldn’t remember its name. So the feedback – what I got out of career civil servants is, one, it was an insult that he was even put in the job in the first place. Two, he wasn’t making any great effort to actually get to know the place, though he was doing lots of public appearances.
So he – and seemed to view the job as largely a ceremonial job, where he would tour and tweet about it, tour a national laboratory, for example, that’s – and tweet about it. Or he was making – he’s been – there’s been lots of foreign travel and tweeting about it but no, like, organic interaction with this department he’s meant to run. Now, that may have changed since I wrote my piece. I don’t know. But the fact that the people in the building who are serious, committed civil servants are offended by the person who’s been put on top of them is – it’s not a good sign.
DAVIES: Your article about the Energy Department is titled “Why The Scariest Nuclear Threat May Be Coming From Inside The White House.” What does the Energy Department do that should scare us if it’s done badly?
LEWIS: Well, they make sure that nuclear weapons don’t go off when they shouldn’t and that nuclear weapons do go off when we want them to. So…
DAVIES: Now, I would think that would be the Defense Department. What does the Energy Department have to do with it?
LEWIS: No, no, no. They’re – the Energy Department is responsible for maintaining the material inside of nuclear bombs – the plutonium and the uranium. They make – it’s research at national labs like Livermore Laboratory or Lawrence Berkeley Lab or Los Alamos that’s funded by and overseen by the Department of Energy that maintains the nuclear stockpile.
In addition, the Energy Department is charged with cleaning up the sites where we have made nuclear weapons, which are now horribly contaminated and, the more you learn about them, terrifying. So Hanford, Wash. – eastern Washington – was the site of the manufacturer of the plutonium that went into the first atom bombs during World War II. And that was – course, a hasty and rushed job in that we were racing to beat the Germans to get a nuclear – an atomic bomb.
And a lot of stuff was dumped in the soil that should not have been dumped in the soil and that is creeping slowly towards the Columbia River. And to clean it up, the Department of Energy estimates it’s going to take $100 billion and a hundred years. That site, which is, you know, like, a third the size of Rhode Island, is a disaster waiting to happen. If it’s not properly managed and the waste gets into the Columbia River, you have a nightmare scenario.
DAVIES: There are a lot of scientists and technical people, I’m sure, who run these and the – you know, the salt beds in New Mexico where the barrels of spent nuclear fuel are stored. But those at the top, what harm might they do? Are they going to cut the budget in ways that would have an impact?
LEWIS: It’s hard to know what they’re going to do. What we know is that the person who is – was actually in the office who was in charge of overseeing the nuclear stockpile in – during the last days of the Obama administration heard no word at all from the Trump administration about who was going to replace him or whether they wanted him to stay on, to the point where he had packed up his boxes and left.
And there was no one in the office until the Trump people called and said, oh, we’ve been – senators called the Trump people – administration, and said, you got to get that guy back. What happens if there’s no one actually kind of running the place in a competent way? I mean, you tell me. I mean, I don’t think anybody knows.
Here’s something that one of the Energy Department officials said to me that – it was just a throwaway line, but it stuck in my head – said when the – that when the Trump people finally showed up and were questioning the people who were in this department that oversees the nuclear arsenal, they were asking about where the weapons scientists came from who were in the various laboratories like Los Alamos.
And they had explained to them that these people who end up figuring out how to make plutonium explode when you want it to explode and not explode when you don’t want it to explode – that these people didn’t start their lives wanting to make atom bombs, you know? They didn’t start their lives as weapons scientists.
They start this – lives as physicists, and they got interested in this complicated problem. And so they are housed in a place where there’s lots of other kinds of science going on, and they get kind of drawn into the weapons program. And the response of the Trump people was, oh, that’s dumb; don’t you want people who grew up wanting to be – wanting to make nuclear weapons? And the answer was, well, actually, no, you don’t want the person who grew up wanting to make nuclear weapons in the middle of this process because God knows what they’ll do. And…
DAVIES: You want people who want – know how to keep nuclear material safe.
LEWIS: Safe – exactly. So it’s that kind of thing. Like, you know, if you let the wrong kind of people close to the process, yeah, it’s hard to know how it will go wrong. It’s just – you just know it’s not going to go more right.
DAVIES: One of the things that struck me when you were writing about things that the Energy Department does that aren’t apparent to anybody in the public is things like, for example, its contribution to containing Iran’s nuclear program and waste. You want to just describe that for us?
LEWIS: Well, Obama’s secretary of energy, Ernie Moniz, is a nuclear physicist. He really knows how to build an atom bomb, or – and what you need for it. So he was at the table with – during the Iran negotiations. And he was so pleased with the result of the negotiations because he knew that what they were being denied, or what they agreed to deny themselves, would deny them the nuclear capability.
And that was the whole goal of the negotiation. So the Energy Department and the expertise in it is what you need at the table when you’re trying to prevent some foreign country from getting its hands on nuclear weapons.
DAVIES: So if a new presidential administration comes in that is suspicious of the agreement, they need to understand the technical details to know whether it’s an effective agreement or not, which means they got to pay attention and listen to the people in the department, right?
LEWIS: Absolutely. If you’re not – you can’t just say that’s a bad deal without sitting down with people at, like, Los Alamos who will explain to you why it’s not a bad deal, while, in fact, this is going to prevent them from getting nuclear weapons.
DAVIES: Michael Lewis’ pieces about the way the Trump administration is reshaping departments in the federal government are appearing in Vanity Fair. We’ll continue our conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we’re speaking with Michael Lewis, the author of “Moneyball” and many other books. His latest is “The Undoing Project.” He also has several articles appearing in Vanity Fair about the way the Trump administration is reshaping the work of several federal departments, beginning with the departments of Agriculture and Energy.
I want to talk a bit about your latest book, “The Undoing Project,” which is now out in paperback. It’s about a couple of Israeli psychologists who did some pathbreaking work on how people make decisions. And I know that you got interested in this after you wrote “Moneyball,” which is about how, you know, the managers of the Oakland Athletics found that smart, you know, data-based evaluation of ballplayers gave them insights far more helpful than veteran baseball scouts. So how did you get from major league baseball to these two guys in Israel?
LEWIS: You know, it was funny because I seldom read the reviews of my books because all I remember is the bad stuff in them, not the good stuff, so it’s just a – it’s a pain-inducing event. But I read a review of “Moneyball” by Richard Thaler, who’s just recently won the Nobel Prize in economics, and Cass Sunstein, who is a legal scholar. And they said – they pointed out a flaw in “Moneyball.”
And the flaw was that I didn’t understand what my book was about. I thought my book was about how people got misvalued in a marketplace – in this case, baseball players. And they said, no, what this book is really about is the way experts – supposed experts on baseball players – scouts – misjudge the players. And it’s about what’s going on in the minds of those people when they make those misjudgments.
And two Israeli psychologists, Amos Tversky and Danny Kahneman, did work in the ’70s and early ’80s exploring what was going on in the minds of experts when they were making judgments in conditions of uncertainty. And they actually explained exactly what’s going on inside the minds of these people.
And I thought, oh, my God, I missed the story. So I started reading their papers just to see what I had missed. And in the course of reading the papers, I finally got up the nerve to call Danny Kahneman and go visit him, and that began a relationship that led me to the book.
DAVIES: Yeah. Amos died in 1996.
LEWIS: Amos Tversky died in 1996. And oddly, which I didn’t appreciate at the time, his eldest son, Oren, had been my student in the one term I’d taught at Berkeley. And so I had – I ended up having access to both sides of the collaboration. Kahneman himself, when he was 21 years old, reshaped the entire military by essentially doing “Moneyball” for Israeli officers. He built an algorithm to decide which young men would be officers and which wouldn’t.
DAVIES: And how did Kahneman tell them to evaluate officers to find the good ones?
LEWIS: Well, what was going on when he came into the army in the early ’50s was, they were using scouts. They were essentially using people who were supposedly expert in kind of looking at a young man, and sizing him up and deciding whether he was officer material. And he had the insight then that the judgment was bad. They already had data at that point.
They were starting to realize that the wrong people were ending up in the officer corps. The performance in the army was not good back then. And what he did was he identified half a dozen traits – he did this in a day. This is the amazing thing. This is how slapdash it all was at the time, too. But in a day, he sort of made a list of the traits that you would want in an officer. You want punctuality. You would want bravery. You would want et cetera, et cetera.
And he found ways to ask questions of people so that these qualities could be measured and a number could be assigned to a person that would be a grade for each quality. So he built a very cruel – crude algorithm, and he took the process of choosing the officers essentially out of the hands of the scouts. And to this day, it’s done by what’s called the Kahneman score – that the young men and women in Israel are evaluated by this thing he built in the early ’50s.
DAVIES: So these guys collaborated closely for many years and came up with this explanation for how our gut instincts will steer us wrong, how experts get it wrong. And it’s unfair to ask you to summarize Nobel Prize-winning work in the – but…
LEWIS: No, you can – you know, it’s funny. It’s very hard to summarize because what they were doing – here’s a good example of an experiment they did that’s easy to describe on the radio. They put people in a room with a wheel of fortune. And on the wheel of fortune were – it was numbered 0-99, and they’d have people spin this wheel of fortune.
And it would land on some number – 47 or 62 or 88. And then after they’d – it landed on some number, they’d ask the people, what percentage of the countries in the United Nations come from Africa? And the answer, they were able to see, was driven in part by the number that was spun on the wheel of fortune. People who spun a low number guessed a lower number for the number of African countries in the United Nations than people who spun a high number.
And thus is born the idea of anchoring, that you can actually, really screw up people’s judgment by throwing in an arbitrary number in front of the thing being judged. The thing, in a funny way, that really drew me to them as a subject was not just the research they’re famous for, but all the stuff they kind of picked up and played with and didn’t really publish anything about but got to all kinds of rich insights anyway.
DAVIES: Why is the book called “The Undoing Project”?
LEWIS: I think of their program as kind of undoing a false view of the human mind as an essentially irrational thing. But it’s called “The Undoing Project” also because that’s what they were working on when they busted up, when they stopped working together. They were trying to explore the rules of the human imagination. The very idea that the human imagination has rules is, to me, breathtakingly interesting.
But it grows out of Danny Kahneman watching people at the funeral of his nephew who had been killed in an Air Force plane crash try to undo the boy’s death, the way that the stories they told – if only that had happened, if only that had happened, if only that hadn’t happened. And there was a structure he saw to the if-only statements, that people were – the things they were undoing were the things that happened right before his death. They – people kind of worked from the tragedy backwards. They didn’t say, if only there was no Israeli army (laughter) or if only he’d never gone into the Air Force.
And he and Amos start to noodle around about the rules of the imagination by looking at the way people undo tragedies and to turn up all this stuff that they’d ever put in print. And I think when you back away from Kahneman and Tversky, yes, people will say they created behavioral economics. They won Nobel Prizes. They created a field called judgment decision-making that never existed before. But what they really did was make it scientifically respectable to investigate the human mind and what it’s doing. And that has had profound implications across the society.
DAVIES: You know, their approach to decision-making I gather has affected, you know, things that leaders do in government and medicine and finance and probably military strategy. You know, I’m wondering if – how it affects we ordinary people who make routine decisions like voting, for example. And I wondered what you think they might observe of the election of Donald Trump.
LEWIS: Well, let’s – I’ll give you a grab bag of things I think they would have said about the election. But I’m putting words in their mouth because of course they didn’t speak to the election. The first thing they would say is they would notice how after the election, all sorts of people had explanations for why it was basically inevitable that Trump was going to win who never predicted it, that the world instantly set about trying to make itself seem more certain than it actually was and denying that – kind of a large random component in any election – that a lot of things could have happened where Trump wasn’t president.
But people started to kind of explain the world as if that was what was meant to happen. So they would have been very interested in that, just for starters. And they would have said, you know, it’s basically a phony exercise pretending to be able to explain what you never could have predicted. And reality is much more complicated than that. So, they would have said that.
Then they would have said I think that Trump’s appeal is in part the way he eliminates the uncertainty of the world, that Obama – as successful as he was as president, Obama himself acknowledged that it was always problematic for him having to seem sure of things that were clearly inherently probabilistic, that people do not want to be led by someone who’s saying, well, there’s a 68 percent chance we won’t be in a nuclear war (laughter). They want to be led by people who say, I’m going to – not going to let that happen. And that aspect of Trump’s character they would have seen as appealing to basically human nature.
They would then have said about Trump that he is a case study of all of the problems with intuitive judgment because he gives into his own so totally, that he’s so totally devoted to his own gut instincts. And they had identified all kinds of problems with gut instinct. The gut instinct led you to naturally think in stereotypes, for example, to naturally overweight whatever you’ve just heard or just seen, to naturally think that things that are vivid or memorable are much more likely to happen than things that aren’t.
So they would have been – they would have fought – I think they would have been alarmed – very alarmed by Trump’s – the lack of a sense he had that he needs to check his own gut against anything. I don’t think they would have felt that their research basically explained the election. I don’t – I think they would have said it was deeply inexplicable.
DAVIES: Well, Michael Lewis, thanks so much for speaking with us.
LEWIS: Thanks for having me.
GROSS: Michael Lewis’ articles about how the Trump administration is changing the federal government on the ground level are published in Vanity Fair. His book “The Undoing Project” is out in paperback. He spoke with FRESH AIR’s Dave Davies, who is also WHYY’s senior reporter. After we take a short break, Lloyd Schwartz will review a new recording of pianist Nelson Freire playing Brahms. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALLEN TOUISSANT’S “BRIGHT MISSISSIPPI”)