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A great leap


Unnoticed by the public and mostly unreported by a press and television besotted with the sound-bite fun of the budget story, a radical rewrite of telecommunications law is now under way in Congress. The immediate result, reports the New York Times. is likely to be "chaos." But then -- ah! --benefits galore. I AM BRACING for another of those great leaps forward that happen when we shake off the shackles of the past. Believe me, braced is the position to be in when these great leaps occur.

I was there when we shook off the shackles of airline regulation and leaped forward. Since then airline travel has become such a miserable experience and so expensive that if it's unreachable by leg, car or rail I stay home.

I was there when we shook off the shackles of the old telephone monopoly system and leaped forward. Since then I have not only had to master the skills of phone installation for myself, I have been hounded incessantly by phone pitchmen urging me to switch from company to company.

Why were these great leaps forward instead of pains in the neck? Because market forces were brought into play. Bringing market forces into play makes life better after a brief period of adjustment, according to the financial journals I read.

Yes, there might be awkward periods of adjustment, they conceded. This has the earmarks of a big barbecue got up by the government to grease business' chin.

Customers might have trouble finding comfort in the new way of life. Some might even be cruelly gouged as finaglers seek to warp healthy market forces into evil market forces out for the quick buck.

My childish fear of falling victim to those greedy market rogues may explain why I groan instead of crying "Huzzah!" at news that another great leap forward is in the works.

Maybe those endless telephone commercials on TV are intended only to help us cut our phone-babble costs. Maybe, but all they do for me is confirm suspicion that these vast corporations are up to something that's beyond me.

Analyzing their competing cost claims would require advice from a tax lawyer and a certified public accountant. When offered a deal so complicated that you have to hire lawyers and accountants to figure it out, you'd better watch it, Buster.

Enough about the airline and telephone disasters, or great leaps forward if you prefer. Another is at hand. It is already being planned by Washington's greatest lobbyists, America's biggest corporations and Congress' most amenable senators and representatives. This leap will shake off the shackles that now bind the television, cable, telephone and Heaven only knows what other electronic enterprises.

Don't ask me to explain it. The bill is being written by lobbyists and congressmen.

Like much else that has happened in Washington since last fall's Republican triumph, this has the earmarks of a big barbecue got up by the government to grease business' chin.

Still, following the usual form, its architects insist that after the awkward adjustment period (inconvenience, maybe even -- hateful thought! -- gouging), the healthy power of market forces will result in a new era of bliss for people half-enslaved to electronics -- to wit, almost every last one of us.

Maybe so, but --

Before market forces stepped in, you could go to the airport and get a plane to where you actually wanted to go. Now you go to the airport and get a plane to Atlanta to get a plane to where you actually want to go.

A few months ago a condemned murderer was flown from New York to Oklahoma. He had to go to Atlanta and change planes to reach death row. If en route to the death house, a chance to experience the Atlanta airport might seem like a boon granted by kindly market forces. If not, you'd probably feel better toward market forces if they just moved you straight to Oklahoma.

Well, no use whining. Just shut up and leap, I guess.

Russell Baker is a New York Times columnist.

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