Analysis: Mandatory Phone Books in the ‘Harrison Bergeron’ State

Published April 1, 2011

If you have an old landline telephone in Michigan, one of many outdated regulations requires the phone company to print and deliver a “white pages” directory to your house. In his 1961 short story “Harrison Bergeron,” Kurt Vonnegut portrayed a dystopian society of enforced equality, where the strong, swift, beautiful, and smart had those values degraded by a government that deliberately burdened them with handicaps.

Michigan government has devolved to the point where it advances an eerily similar policy toward businesses. Ancient rules holding back phone companies are a striking example.

The state mandates that landline phone service providers must print those phone directories and deliver them to customers. AT&T of Michigan, a provider of landline telephone service, reports that this regulation amounts to an annual requirement to print and deliver 1.5 billion pages.

Stack those pages on top of each other, and you have a pile 51.5 miles high, greater than nine times the height of Mt. Everest. Every year this pile must be produced by just one Michigan company regardless of whether the customers want it, because the government says so.  

‘Regulations from Bygone Era’

In Vonnegut’s story, a ballerina was forced to dance with weights attached to her ankles. If he were writing about Michigan, his ballerina would be required to schlep mountains of phone books rather than dance. Likewise, companies such as AT&T would prefer to put all that money and energy (to say nothing of all those trees and ink) to better use and merely print and deliver the white pages to customers who really want them.

Eliminating this requirement, and sweeping away other costly telecommunications regulations from the bygone era when everyone had just one calling option, is the rationale behind House Bill 4314, introduced by state Rep. Ken Horn (R-Frankenmuth). It recently passed in a House committee and awaits a vote from the full House.

Looking at the regulations on the books, it is easy to see why AT&T says the state is operating with a “rotary phone mentality” in a “wi-fi world.” The state demands price controls, mandated calling plans, government paperwork requirements, and more. The overall impression is that regulators are stuck in the 1970s, when there was one monopoly phone company and everyone in the house waited in line to use one phone stuck to the kitchen wall.

Instead, we live in an age when most teenagers can purchase a disposable cell phone from the corner party store, to say nothing of getting an iPhone for their birthday.

‘Ancient Telephone Mandates’

Michigan did pass major regulatory reforms for telecommunications in 2005. But to understand how policies like price controls and a mandate to print the white pages could still be on the books five years later, consider what state government has been up to since then.

From 2006 to 2010—the years since the first pile of outdated telecom regulations were cleared away in 2005—AT&T alone has invested an additional $2 billion into high-tech upgrades to its infrastructure in Michigan alone. This includes more wireless technology access, more Internet access, video franchising to compete with cable television, and more.

That’s $2 billion over five years from just one company that adds to the high-tech telecom competition in Michigan and has thus increased service quality and value for every consumer who watches television, hooks up to the Internet, or uses a cell phone or other wireless device.

If the new team of politicians running the capitol is serious about ending Michigan’s “Harrison Bergeron” economic policy, they have a lot of work to do, and it just starts with issues like this one. By May they will have been in office for four months. If they get through the month and are still holding hearings about abolishing ancient telephone mandates, they should be explaining to us all why it’s still taking them so long to get the job done.

Ken Braun ([email protected]) is managing editor of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy’s Michigan Capitol Confidential. Edited and reprinted by permission of Michigan Capitol Confidential.

Internet Info:

“Michigan 2011 House Bill 4314,” MichiganVotes: