Life & Liberty: The 976-ME Decade


A revisionist look at the Reagan years shows an appalling loss of the greed of the '70s, which Tom Wolfe dubbed "The Me Decade." Little is more "me-oriented" for consumers than deregulation. But it was Carter who deregulated trucking and airlines. Reagan zapped AT&T, but he let local phone monopolies off the hook. Big mistake.

Tell me an outfit doesn't need competition when it works like this: It lures kiddies into calling "976" dial-a-Santa numbers; it sues to get rid of "976" dial-a-porn numbers and raises its rates to pay the lawyers; then it charges us all a fee to take away the numbers.

In this same proud tradition, in a few tiny parts of the country, local phone monopolies are offering new services, such as telling you the number of the caller, so you can decide whether to answer. Such a deal, right? They know who's calling. They've always known. They've just never told us. Now they're going to charge us for it. It's like paying a royalty on your window every time you look to see who's at the door.

But I'm not complaining. I'll pay. I want it. I want all of them: call identifying, instant return-calling, priority-call signaling, selective call-snubbing, remote waffle-flipping—I want them all! And I want them yesterday.

And that's when we could have had it. For years, we could have had all these services and more—zillions more! features to boggle an Einstein!—if only local phone companies weren't fat and lazy monopolies. I say this for three reasons. One is because it's true. The second is that I want these services. But most important is that I am a libertarian. A libertarian is someone who wants you to have more choices in life, whether you like it or not. Choices like earning a living or starving, for example. I think the local phone companies would be a lot nicer to us if they had that choice open to them.

What if you didn't want this mind-numbing mélange of free-market phone features? No problem. You could choose a phone company that didn't offer those choices. In fact, if the "no-choice" choice were popular enough, they could charge extra for it. This is known as the marketplace at work.

For some reason, liberals find this annoying. And why not? Everything annoys them. Things like inequality—of income, housing, weight, height, eye color—you name it. Reality itself ticks them off. Kind of makes you wonder: why do liberals get to have unlisted phone numbers? That looks pretty damned unequal to me. I bet Jane Fonda has 10 of them. I think they should be nationalized. No liberal should be allowed to have 10 phones until everyone has 1. No one should be allowed to call Jane Fonda until everyone can call Jane Fonda. Collect.

And why do we let conservatives have phones at all? They don't like progress? I say give 'em a flat rock and a chisel.

What if Alexander Graham Bell had been a conservative? The first phone call would have been the last. "On second thought, Watson, forget it. I don't need this, and I don't need you. Hmmph…'Watson'—just what kind of name is that, anyway?"

Why let conservatives have what wouldn't exist if they'd gotten their way? William Buckley once put it like this: his proud goal was "to stand athwart history yelling, 'Stop!'" Well, I want to stand athwart his trunk line yelling, "I'm sorry, the number you have reached doesn't live in this century."

That's the golden rule at work, and it's no problem for me. I'm an unrepentant techno-elitist. I have three unlisted phone numbers. One's for business, and a machine answers it. One's for personal calls, and nobody answers it. And one's for my computer. And it doesn't answer it. If I had a dog, I'd have six unlisted numbers. And if I had Jane Fonda, I'd have 10! And we wouldn't answer any of them!!!

Speaking of unlisted numbers, why do they cost extra? What would you call an outfit that threatens to give a million people your "unlisted number" unless you pay it protection money every month?

You know why my computer and I don't answer our three unlisted monopoly phones? Because the callers are all wrong numbers. The free market solution? The ultimate custom service: 976 numbers for everyone. I'd get 10, all listed. You know why? Because whoever called me would have to pay two bucks for the privilege. That means everyone: sales creeps, wrong numbers, my aging mother in Arizona—through the alchemy of laissez-faire, every nuisance is transformed into profit.

Nirvana! The 976-ME Decade.

Tom Wolfe, call your office. Collect.

John Dentinger is a freelance writer in Los Angeles. He frequently writes for Playboy, the Chicago Tribune, and other publications.