Playing Monopoly

Playing Monopoly
It's springtime, when a boy's thoughts naturally turn to Barry Bonds bay-water slams out of Pacific Bell Park. And to TV interviews of Willie Mays, ensconced in his Pacific Bell skybox. And to Kirk Rueter fastballs, hurtling toward home plate -- and the Pacific Bell logo on the backstop behind it. In fact, if a $50 million investment in naming rights for the Giants' new stadium is on the mark, boys' thoughts will turn, each spring for years, toward a vague association between Pacific Bell and the balmy goodness of baseball afternoons.

This heartwarming narrative of positive consumer brand identification, which is being told and retold by Bay Area newspapers and television stations ad nauseam, is, of course, a corporate myth; there is no real connection between Pac Bell or its policies and the enduring satisfaction of outdoor baseball. But luckily for us, we don't have to rely on corporate mythology for our springtime satisfaction; the wonder of America's free market economy has given us a real story about Pacific Bell and the vibrancy of the human spirit.

The next time the boys on the bus sit down to write a baseball story that includes the mention of Pacific Bell Park, they might do well to keep this second narrative in mind.

It's the story of a 46-year-old former welfare mother from Vallejo who embarked on a two-year quest to learn about deteriorating local phone service in California. It's the story of how Pacific Bell has, by all appearances, lied to the public about delays in telephone hookups and repairs, just as the digital revolution was making high-quality local phone service essential. It's the story of how the shoddy service and lying of Pacific Bell could, if regulators did their jobs, open the firm to state sanctions. It's the tale of state regulators who seem to have turned a blind eye to Pacific Bell service problems and lying.

But finally it's the story of Linette Young, a good-natured yet forceful crusader who operates in the tradition of Karen Silkwood or Erin Brockovich, and who continues to press on. "Sometimes it's against all odds," she says. "But we keep fighting for it, though."

Linette Young recalls vividly the moment she realized she was nobody's fool.

It was 1995, and Young was working as a technician at the UC Davis Remote Sensing Lab, which uses infrared and heat-sensitive imagery from satellites to produce maps. Young's position seemed miles away from her previous life as a single parent who was condescended to by indifferent welfare bureaucrats, and disregarded by people who thought themselves to be above her on the economic totem pole. Now, after putting herself through college at UC Davis, her life seemed poised for a dramatic change.

"I had been given the assignment of setting up a remote sensing conference in Washington. It was a blast," Young says. "I was invited to dinner with my boss, and there were these Ph.D.s, there were people from NASA. I was in a beautiful restaurant with all these people with incredibly intelligent jobs. I opened up my mouth, and I started talking and contributing to the conversation, and these people started listening to me. From that moment in time, I felt like I had finally gained that respect I didn't have. It changed my life."

Two years later, while working toward a public policy master's degree at California State University at Sacramento, Young took a job at the California Public Utilities Commission Office of Ratepayer Advocate. This office acts independently of the commission, advising it on rules and policies affecting consumers served by regulated private monopolies such as Pacific Bell and PG&E.

"I was still in graduate school trying to think of a project to write my thesis on, and during 1997 and 1998, the Public Utilities Commission was flooded with complaints about [telephone] installations and repair problems," says Young. "They asked me to go through and make a database of these complaints -- the informal complaints of people at the end of their rope. I started reading these letters; they would range from people really annoyed to some real horror stories. There was a pattern to the complaints. People were complaining about the same problems over and over again, usually tied to a delay in getting either repair work done or an installation done."

Young's analysis seemed to provide evidence for the notion that Pacific Bell was doing what monopolies always do -- milk their franchises for all they can, then lie about the milking. When industries in truly open markets behave this way, their competitors drive them out of business. But the free market hasn't made much headway into the provision of local telephone service.

In Pacific Bell's case, there were people with elderly family members who had had to wait months for an extra phone line. There were families with children at home who couldn't get a phone for months. Others took jobs requiring an extra home phone line -- then discovered they couldn't get one installed for weeks.

"I was appalled. I would read these things, and some of these stories are really sad," Young recalls. "They were hurting a lot because they couldn't get the service. Some were trying to get a line repaired for an elderly parent. If you've got small kids, if you're at work, you want them to call you, so you know they're alive."

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