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EYE ON THE PIE: Whose opinion is worth something?

October 8, 2007

"But," I reply, "opinions that float free of reality are not worth anything."

"Untrue," Juniper answers, wiggling a toothpick at me. "Most opinions are based on what people feel, whether they know anything or not. If they don't know much, their opinions are still valid as a product of what they believe."

"That's a very generous view," I say. "It helps explain some really dumb letters to the editors of our newspapers. I get many e-mails that demonstrate good knowledge and good thinking, but I also get my share of messages grounded in error and misunderstanding of how the world works."

"Exactly," Juniper says. "Take this property tax fuss ... "

"NO!" I shout. "No more about property taxes. I've had it beyond here," I say, leveling my hand with my eyebrows.

"As I was saying," Juniper continues, ignoring me, "Take this property tax fuss. Folks have many different opinions without relying much on facts. They like to blame their mayors for tax hikes, but those ladies and gentlemen generally have little to do with tax hikes. Since no one knows who is on the school board, they cannot be blamed.

"The General Assembly has disguised its actions better than a zebra among referees. Most of what smells about the whole property-tax system comes from those elected zebras. And what is the public's most voiced concern? Little old ladies are being sent onto the streets because of 'unfair' property tax increases."

Juniper rolls on: "Let's get it straight: The problem is with assessments, not tax rates. If you go to the butcher and the scale is faulty, the amount you pay is going to be off regardless of the price per pound. We've had scales that did not register correctly for years. This left many folks with very low amounts to pay, while others were paying too much. Now the scales are being corrected and the bills are reflecting reality. Thus, many buyers (homeowners) are crying foul because they are being charged properly after years of getting away with artificially low bills."

"Exactly," I say. "Most people don't know about the inequity of past tax bills. They don't care that those screaming today often have been the beneficiaries of unfair tax bills in the past. And no one is asking them to pay up what they did not pay yesterday; all that is asked is that they pay what they owe today."

"True, but even now the assessment process is still imperfect and there are legitimate reasons to squawk. But that's not what the Legislature focuses on," Juniper says. "Those exalted people want to 'ease the burden' of rapid increases in tax bills by applying new subsidies for homeowners. What the lawmakers don't tell homeowners is that it was the General Assembly that played a major role in increasing propertytax bills by manipulating various propertytax deductions, exemptions and credits. They will end up creating new inequities that will become problems in the future."

"All this ignorance, arrogance and misdirection winds up in the newspapers, emails and rantings on radio talk shows," I say. "There was a time when you looked to newspapers, or radio and television for news and opinion that had been filtered by trained journalism professionals. Today, the Internet and some other media offer raw opinion as indigestible and unhealthy for a democracy as improperly prepared meat and fish."

"That," Juniper says, "is why I come to the hardware store. You never get sick if you know your nuts and bolts."



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. To comment on this column, send e-mail to mmarcus@ibj.com.
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