Skip to main content

Book Reviews Review: Three new books pay homage to the bureaucrats who make modern government tick

The Poison Squad by Deborah Blum.

These are dark days for technocrats.

From Brexit Britain to Trump’s America to Ford’s Ontario, the world is in thrall to a style of politics that treats the functionary as an obstacle – an arrogant “expert” interfering with people power or, worse, an emissary of the “deep state” thwarting the executive’s whim.

Republicans and Tories have been attacking bloated bureaucracy for generations, but this isn’t Ronald Reagan’s conservatism: In a growing segment of the modern right, the civil service is treated not only as inefficient, but illegitimate.

Story continues below advertisement

Little wonder, then, that so many journalists have responded by lionizing the humble bureaucrat. Who better to stand up for such a maligned figure than a bunch of reporters – maybe the only other class of people more familiar with authoritarian slander? Maybe that’s why, without quite meaning to, Michael Lewis in The Fifth Risk (W. W. Norton & Co.; US$26.95; 256 pages), Susan Orlean in The Library Book (Simon & Schuster; US$28; 336 pages) and Deborah Blum in The Poison Squad (Penguin Random House; US$28; 352 pages) have written homages to the genius of modern government and the people who make it tick.

At a time when the U.S. federal government is shut down and otherwise careening out of control, and the British government is aiming an unsteady gun at its own foot, these books contain a refreshing portrait of bureaucracy as a haven of good sense and competent management.

Government doesn’t advertise itself well. But if it did – and right now, it should – it would look a lot like these books. Dead-eyed pencil pushers and scheming mandarins are nowhere to be found. Instead we get a gallery of quiet heroes.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean.

There’s Harvey Washington Wiley, chief chemist of the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the turn of the 20th century and maestro of Blum’s “poison squad” experiments, which showed America the dangers of using chemicals to preserve food.

There’s Charles Lummis, the eccentric head librarian of Los Angeles in the early 1900s who walked from Ohio to California seeking “joy and information,” wore a brilliant green corduroy suit, published a book of poems on birchbark pages and waged war on trashy books with a “Literary Pure Food Act.”

And there are modern lights such as the biochemist Catherine Woteki, who fought sexism in academia before rising in the civil service to become chief scientist of the Department of Agriculture under Barack Obama and quashing a potentially catastrophic bird flu outbreak.

To varying degrees, these books are all about something other than bureaucracy. Sleek and accessible as all of Lewis’s work, The Fifth Risk is billed as a warning about Donald Trump’s dangerous ignorance of sensitive government functions (safeguarding nuclear weapons is a big one). In her spirited, off-kilter way, Orlean tells the story of a mysterious fire at L.A.’s beautiful Central Library. Blum, slightly more plodding, recounts the nationwide battle for pure food in the Gilded Age.

Story continues below advertisement

But, almost by accident, each story becomes a song of praise to government office workers – the kind now locked out of their jobs in D.C. and beyond. A few common traits emerge from these bureaucratic characters. One is passion for their work. Since careers in government are often thankless and badly paid, they attract people who have a vocation for public service. Another Los Angeles librarian we learn about from Orlean thought people in her profession should “read as a drunkard drinks or as a bird sings or a cat sleeps or a dog responds to an invitation to go walking.” Lewis and Blum describe people who feel the same way about food chemistry or meteorology. They’re unabashed nerds who don’t mind the grey buildings and endless staff meetings because they feel lucky to be working on subjects that have fascinated them since childhood.

The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis.

Much of what government does is highly technical – think weather radar, rather than welfare – so it also attracts clever people who like a challenge. Lewis tells us about John MacWilliams, a very American sort of high achiever who was both a Goldman Sachs investment banker and a literary novelist before joining the Department of Energy as “chief risk officer.” At first he was put off by the alphabet soup of acronyms that clotted his departmental memos, but soon came to relish the fascinating stuff he and his colleagues got to do, such as sending teams to measure radiation at the Super Bowl in case of a dirty bomb attack.

Like many of the characters in these books, MacWilliams was drawn to government by a simple-hearted desire to “serve.” It turns out that good people gravitate to work in the public interest. People such as Ali Zaidi, who moved to the United States from Pakistan at the age of 5 and gratefully realized after joining the federal government that the U.S. Department of Agriculture paid for his school lunch as a kid.

A public sector more inclined to self-promotion would spend lots of time talking about the kinds of un-ideological but important jobs that Zaidi learned his department performs: things such as inspecting the nine billion birds Americans eat every year, running a squadron of fire-fighting aircraft and managing 193 million acres of national forests and grasslands.

Without that kind of busy work, the modern world falls apart. It’s easy to forget, because it all performs so seamlessly most of the time, but someone always has to be doing maintenance on the machinery of civilization: pumping water, keeping the lights on, making sure people have breathable air. “No one notices when something goes right,” one of Lewis’s characters says. It’s a fair lament.

Maybe nowhere is the government’s hand more needed or more invisible than in the food we eat. There was a time, just a few generations ago, when mass-produced food killed people regularly and made a far greater number sick. Government intervened. That’s the story of The Poison Squad.

Story continues below advertisement

In the late 19th century, advances in chemistry and industrial production had actually made food less wholesome in many ways, since manufacturers could and did mask rot with embalming chemicals and kept their wares “fresh” with toxic preservatives. Blum gives a litany of the poison people were spoon-fed by big companies at the time. Early margarine ingredients included sulfate of lime and sugar of lead. Candy samples tested in New York turned up dyes made from lead chromate and arsenic. U.S. soldiers were sickened by lead in their tinned beef rations; common flour was laced with powdered clay and whitened with sulfuric acid; sour milk was sweetened with formaldehyde, killing hundreds of children.

It’s a valuable reminder of what the industrialized world can look like without vigilant bureaucrats. Few have been more vigilant that Harvey Washington Wiley. His poison squad experiments involving government clerks led to the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 – popularly known as “Dr. Wiley’s law” – that banned the mislabelling and adulteration of food sold across state lines.

Harvey Washington Wiley, looking through an optical instrument in his laboratory at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Bureau of Chemistry, 1902.

Library of Congress

These books help show why government has good reason to be neurotic and risk averse. It’s not just because the public sector is insulated from market pressure – the usual conservative line – but because government is often society’s last line of defence. It’s there for people when no one else is. During the Great Depression, Orlean tells us, out-of-work men doubled the patronage of the L.A. Central Library. It was mostly poor people eating the cheap, preserved food Wiley fought against. It is impoverished families such as Ali Zaidi’s who use food stamps.

That kind of responsibility breeds a caution the more free-wheeling private sector can’t really understand. It’s why bureaucrats look doubly good these days: not only in comparison to the thick-necked strongmen of the world, but also beside the amoral whiz kids of finance and tech, those inventors of the credit default swap and targeted digital ads who helped wreck the global economy and America’s democracy in the span of a decade. Government is still cleaning up their mess.

That contrast brings to mind Facebook’s one-time mantra, which it lived up to all too well: Move Fast and Break Things. The bureaucrat’s motto is more likely the opposite: Move Slow and Fix Things. We’re lucky they live up to it, too.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter