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. I took Bruce's comments to highlight a glaring issue when it comes to a state's image, and therefore its overall branding. An example is Michigan vs. Indiana. Michigan has done an excellent job of following through on its branding strategy around "Pure Michigan", even down to the detail of the rest stops. Since a state's branding is often targeted to visitors, it makes sense that rest stops, being that point of first impression, should be significant. It is clear that Indiana doesn't care as much about the impression it gives visitors even though our branding as the Crossroads of America does place importance on travel. Bruce's point is quite logical and accurate.

  2. I appreciated the article. I guess I have become so accustomed to making my "pit stops" at places where I can ALSO get gasoline and something hot to eat, that I hardly even notice public rest stops anymore. That said, I do concur with the rationale that our rest stops (if we are to have them at all) can and should be both fiscally-responsible AND designed to make a positive impression about our state.

  3. I don't know about the rest of you but I only stop at these places for one reason, and it's not to picnic. I move trucks for dealers and have been to rest areas in most all 48 lower states. Some of ours need upgrading no doubt. Many states rest areas are much worse than ours. In the rest area on I-70 just past Richmond truckers have to hike about a quarter of a mile. When I stop I;m generally in a bit of a hurry. Convenience,not beauty, is a primary concern.

  4. Community Hospital is the only system to not have layoffs? That is not true. Because I was one of the people who was laid off from East. And all of the LPN's have been laid off. Just because their layoffs were not announced or done all together does not mean people did not lose their jobs. They cherry-picked people from departments one by one. But you add them all up and it's several hundred. And East has had a dramatic drop I in patient beds from 800 to around 125. I know because I worked there for 30 years.

  5. I have obtained my 6 gallon badge for my donation of A Positive blood. I'm sorry to hear that my donation was nothing but a profit center for the Indiana Blood Center.

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