Influence peddling isn't what it used to be. Maybe you have the idea that Washington overflows with well-paid lobbyists whose only mission is to compromise the integrity of members of Congress. There is a skeletal truth to this, but mostly it is romanticism.
To a large extent, Washington's lobbying and intelligence-gathering operations -- practiced by groups as varied as the Environmental Defense Fund and General Motors Corp. -- have become heavily bureaucratic and technical, much like the government they shadow. In the warfare of competing interests, success often depends on the quality of information and the forcefulness of arguments. Information is power.
But the contest extends well beyond isolated lobbying struggles. Because the government now actively involves itself in so many aspects of life, Washington has quietly evolved into the nation's central marketplace for ideas, where rival groups vie for the attention of the news media -- also centralized here -- to create an intellectual climate that ultimately will affect government decisionmaking.
Consequently Washington has become a city of information overload. The average reporter can't absorb -- let alone reflect upon -- all the studies, press conferences and surveys hurled his way. Alone each is interesting but, collectively, they produce a weariness and bewilderment that ultimately are transmitted to the public.
But there is no avoiding this process. Consider the highly abbreviated calendar of private press briefings (forget the government) offered this reporter in a typical week. Any other reporter could provide a similar list.
Monday: The Urban Institute holds a press conference at 10 a.m. to publicize its new book. The Subtle Revolution, which examines the rise of working women. "Revolution" is not too strong a word. Nearly half of all women over 16 now work, against about a third in 1947; by 1990, the percentage will increase to 55, the study estimates. This would mean that nearly two-thirds of all women with children under 18 would be working against about half today.
Nancy S. Barrett, an economist who wrote part of the study, offers an interesting hypothesis: The nation's productivity is increasing far more rapidly than the statistics show. In effect, she argues, technological advances in homemaking -- dishwashers, clothes dryers, vacuum cleaners -- have freed women to enter the work force. But these domestic productivity improvements don't appear in the official statistics.
The book's authors are disturbed by women's continued low earnings relative to men's. On average, women earn only about 60 percent of what men do, a ratio that has remained roughly constant for decades. In the main, the study attributes this to persistent occupational segregation low-paying clerical, secretarial and nursing jobs traditionally have gone to women -- that permits employers to evade legal prohibitions against pay discrimination for the same job. Interestingly two of the authors recently have moved into important government jobs. Barrett is deputy assistant secretary of Labor, and Nancy M. Gordon is executive director of the White House's Interdepartmental Task Force on Women.
Tuesday: The American Council for Capital Formation unveils a new computer model of how the economy works. A business-supported lobbying and research group, the council has pressed Congress to lower tax rates on corporations and on high-income individuals. In general it supports the theory advanced by economist Arthur B. Laffer that excessively high tax rates can be self-defeating by discouraging work and investment, thereby hurting economic growth and, paradoxically tax revenues.
This is a good commonsense notion, but it lacks a firm factual foundation: What's the precise effect of higher tax rates? And at what level? By establishing a strong relationship, the council clearly could bolster its case for tax relief. But the study is only modestly persuasive. It does indicate that economic growth increased when tax rates were cut. But the extra growth could have resulted from the extra spending created by tax cuts -- the conventional explanation -- not Laffer's incentive effect.
Thursday: One technique adopted by groups trying to get media attention is the press luncheon -- a free meal in return for a few hours of a reporter's attention. The Worldwatch Institute, an environmental research organization, used this approach to promote a study on the "future of the automobile in an oil-short world."
According to Worldwatch, it is gloomy. There are slightly more than 300 million cars on the road today (about 40 percent in the United States), but the study contends that the imminent peaking of world oil production with frustrate projections of a doubling of the global auto fleet by the year 2000.
Sharply higher fuel prices are inevitable, it argues. An interesting table shows that average U.S. gasoline prices (92 cents a gallon in August) are still subtantially lower than in most foreign countries, for example -- France ($2.09). Italy ($2.23) and Japan ($2.49). The report urges less powerful cars -- with a maximum speed of perhaps 65 miles an hour -- that would be far more fuel efficient and would satisfy most driving needs.
Have you got it all? Information overload isn't simply a tiring process, but also one that immerses subjects in so much detail that they sometimes become separated from their basic meaning. Believe it or not, each of these press briefings dealt with essential aspects of daily life: family structure, which has been changed irreversibly by the increase in working women; the effect of taxes on the division of our time between work and leisure, and the basic mobility that holds society together.
But technical issues assume such importance that they create confusion and fragmentation. Government becomes dependent on information specialists and analysts and the public yearns for simplicity and strength. This partially explains the apparent popularity of such presidential hopefuls as Sen Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Ronald Reagan, who seems to offer an unclouded vision of the world. The trouble arises when they come to office and their simplified vision collides with complicated reality. The result is political disillusion.