IBJOpinion

MARCUS: What is it worth? TV has the answer

Morton Marcus
April 16, 2011
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Morton Marcus

“The Price is Right” is far different from “Deal or No Deal.” The latter is a game of chance—find the beauty holding the briefcase with $1 million. “Price” requires you to know the “usual and customary” charge for an item—a variant on the song “How Much is That Doggie in the Window?”

Discovering value emerged as a TV staple long before the recent economic tsunami. Could public television exist without “Antiques Roadshow”? Can you imagine HGTV without a program delving into home prices? Before long, maybe a Blue Cross channel will initiate a program during which patients on a gurney, doped up with a sedative, get a chance to win a free procedure if they can “Price the Operation!”

Let’s think about this for a moment. We appear obsessed with value. We are outraged by prices at the gas pump and jump at the chance to buy anything advertised as 50-percent off. We purchase Christmas wrapping to hold in waiting for 48 weeks in anticipation of higher prices closer to the time of need. We delay buying the 52-inch TV because we know the price will fall. We know a good price when we see it, and we know when the price is too good to be true.

Price information fills our heads and occupies our conversations. But all these are private-sector prices. We don’t have any idea of prices in the public sector.

What does it cost to fill that pothole? What would it cost to keep that pothole from recurring soon? How much does it cost to provide instruction for a learning-disabled child? What does it cost to try a person for possession of marijuana?

With government, we assume the sum we pay is a close approximation of the cost. Government isn’t supposed to make a profit. But what should be the price to park on a downtown street? The cost to government is trivial. Here we are thinking more broadly of the costs to others, the costs of not finding convenient parking or the costs of traffic congestion.

Some government services are given away. No price (fee) is charged to park on most streets, to borrow books at the library, or for immunizing a child. The benefits of these services dominate our thoughts.

Today, many challenge the idea of “free” parking or a “free” library, believing that those who use government resources ought to pay for them. Similarly, there are those who, aside from questioning the value of vaccinations, would have the families of the inoculated pay for that protection.

These are neither silly nor sinister thoughts. But they frequently discount the reasons for many essential government functions. First, it is often wise to separate services from the ability to pay for those functions. Second, many government activities have positive external effects.

A public with good access to knowledge and art is of value to all. Similarly, a public immune to infectious diseases is a benefit to all. A fee standing between a citizen and a public service discourages use and reduces those universal benefits.

We could have a better understanding of public-sector services by taking a clue from the private sector. Let’s have our mayors, governors and legislators host public access TV programs called “What Does It Cost?” We and they might learn something of value.•

__________

Marcus taught economics for more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU’s Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at mmarcus@ibj.com.

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  1. Now if he'd just stay there...

  2. Daniel - what about the many US citizens who do NOT follow what the Bible teaches? The Hindus, Jews, Muslims and others who are all American citizens entitled to all rights as Americans?? This issue has NOTHING to do with "What the Bible says..." Keep all Churches separate from State! Pence's ongoing idiocy continues to make Indiana look like a backwards, homophobic state in the eyes of our nation. Can't we move on to bigger issues - like educating our kids?

  3. 1. IBJ should link to the referenced report. We are in the age of electronic media...not sharing information is lazy. Here is a link http://www.in.gov/gov/files/Blue_Ribbon_Panel_Report_July_9_2014.pdf 2. The article should provide more clarity about the make-up of this panel. The commenters are making this item out to be partisan, it does not appear the panel is partisan. Here is a list of the panel which appears to be balanced with different SME to add different perspectives http://www.in.gov/activecalendar/EventList.aspx?view=EventDetails&eventidn=138116?formation_id=189603 3. It suggests a by-pass, I do not see where this report suggests another "loop". 4. Henry, based on your kneejerk reaction, we would be better off if you moved to another state unless your post was meant as sarcasm in which case I say Well Done. 5. The article and report actually indicates need to improve rail and port infrastructure in direct contradiction to Shayla commentary. Specifically, recommendation is to consider passenger rail projects... 6. People have a voice with their elected officials. These are suggestions and do not represent "crony capitalism", etc. The report needs to be analyzed and the legislature can decide on priorities and spending. Don't like it, then vote in a new legislature but quit artificially creating issues where there are none! People need to sift through the politics and provide constructive criticism to the process rather than making uninformed comments in a public forum based on misinformation. IBJ should work harder to correct the record in these forums when blatant errors or misrepresentations are made.

  4. Joe ... Marriage is defined in the Bible ... it is mentioned in the Bible often. Marriage is not mentioned once in the US or Indiana Constitution ...

  5. Daniel - Educate me please: what does the Bible have to do with laws? If the government wasn't in the business of marriage to begin with, then it wouldn't have to "define" marriage at all. Marriage could be left as a personal, religious, or otherwise unregulated action, with no ties to taxes, legal status, etc. Then people could marry whomever they want, and all this silliness would go away. Remember to vote Libertarian in November.

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