Every once in a while, this reporter attempts to clean off his desk. It's a futile operation. He has the world's messiest desk. It's light years beyond mere clutter. Compared with the normally messy desk, it's King Kong next to a chimpanzee. Cleaning it off is like shoveling sand from the Sahara; much exertion yields no visible result.
Each messy desk has its own psychology. This desk's peculiar psychosis is a pervasive insecurity -- the reporter's fear that he is ignorant of everything he needs to know -- and a permanent fantasy that somehow enough information can be gathered on, in, under and around his desk to protect him against the threatening terrors of surprise, error, misinterpretation and plain stupidity.
The cleanup does not signify passage beyond these anxieties. Indeed, just the opposite. Every time you dive into your private information pool, you drown. You become convinced that there's more going on out there than you ever dreamed of and, if anything your defenses need redoubling.
Here, for instance, is an article from the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs -- "The Grain Export Boom: Should it be Tamed?" If you want to worry, read this.
Lauren Soth, who was editorial page editor for The Des Moines Register and Tribune between 1954 and 1975, thinks farmers and government officials have placed too much faith in chemical fertilizers to replenish eroding topsoil. Excessive cropping is resulting in alarming erosion. He reports that topsoil erosion on about one-fourth of our cropland (or about 97 million acres) exceeds rates considered safe by the Agriculture Department.
What to do?
Soth believes the administration should scrap subsidies for gasohol -- turning grain into alcohol fuel -- because they simply increase production pressures on farmland. So far the White House hasn't. It didn't touch two massive subsidies: exemption of gasohol from the 4-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax; and a 20 percent investment tax credit (double the regular rate) for gasohol plants. President Reagan did propose cutting federal loans for gasohol projects, but Congress may restore even these.
The bigger conflict, though, involves booming grain exports, which are critical to farmer prosperity. Soth thinks we may be sacrificing long-term resources to short-term profits. He argues that we may have to restrain exports and pay farmers to keep some land out of production; he believes we need to make greater efforts to increase food production in developing countries. Administration policy is going just the other way: promoting exports and reducing foreign aid.
Speaking of farms, our information heap also coughs up a press release announcing the opening of a huge tractor plant in Waterloo, Iowa -- a computer-controlled factory that its owner, Deere & Co., thinks is the most efficient in the world. That may seem a surprise considering all that's been written about sagging American productivity.
There are, in fact, surprises everywhere. Anyone who doesn't think so should get another item in our rubble, Everybody's Business, The Irreverent Guide to Corporate America (Harper & Row, 1980). This is a wonderful book: not an anticorporate tirade, but a fact-filled almanac of the ambitions, failures and idiosyncracies of 317 of America's major companies.
Browsing though it is a humbling experience. Of course some of the information is of the quiz-show variety. The biggest hotel chains? In 1978, they were Holiday Inns, with 286,529 rooms, followed by Sheraton Corp. (102,109 rooms) and Ramada Inns (93,000). Or the largest advertiser? It's Procter & Gamble Co., with 1978 advertising costs of $554 million, followed by Sears, Roebuck & Co. ($418 million) and General Foods Corp. ($340 million).
What is more revealing of ignorance is the huge variety in corporate styles and strategies. The corporate profiles are intriguing from the very first entry, Beatrice Foods.
"They're the largest food company in the nation [1979 sales of $7.5 billion], but not many people outside the business world have heard of them," says the almanac. "They don't make a lot of noise; they never promote the Beatrice name." Since the 1940s, the company has acquired more than 400 firms. Brand names include Dannon yogurt, Tropicana juices and Meadow Gold dairy products.
Or consider Texas Instruments Inc., the huge semiconductor firm. The almanac ascribes some of its success to borrowed "Japanese-style management techniques. They call it 'TI culture,' and it means hard work, long hours and almost fanatical loyalty to the company." A former TI executive put it less kindly; he said the firm sees its workers as "completely interchangeable, kind of like auto parts."
The excavation of the world's messiest desk is like any good archaeological dig. Ultimately, you can deduce a bit of truth and wisdom from all the scraps of information. The truth worth pondering here involves our conventional image of the economy.
In a word, that's "stagflation." The word evokes a picture of a giant whale; it's sitting in a shallow pool of water, going nowhere, just looking sad and spiritless. Today's economy is apparently stagflating with a vengeance. Output is just about where it was a year ago. So are unemployment and inflation.
But that's all statistics. The elementary message from this reporter's information heap is that the world out there is churning aplenty. Quiet changes (such as excessive soil erosion?) may have profound consequences. Who ever dreamed of an "energy crisis" in 1969?
We -- reporters, politicians and public commentators of all stripes -- tend to simplify too much. That is our job and our curse. But the real world doesn't necessarily respect our simplifications and simplicities. In a nearly $3 trillion economy, great turbulences may stir beneath an unmoving surface. This, alas, leads to neither peace of mind nor a neat desk.