CITY BEAT: The Valuation Game 

The $3.25 bottle of water, $10 beer, and $75,000 fund-raiser get “full value.”

Let's play a game called valuation. Actually, we have no choice.

Water used to be undervalued. Now it costs $3.25 in a bottle at Studio on the Square, or you can sip it out of the undervalued fountain by the bathrooms for free.

Coffee was undervalued until Starbucks and others started dressing it up and selling it for $3.50.

Gasoline was undervalued at $1.50 a gallon and maybe at $2.50 a gallon.

Beer is still undervalued. I bought a 12-pack for $7 at the grocery store, while a friend who took me to the Grizzlies game Sunday paid a fully valued $10 for a 24-ounce cup.

Ever see people lined up to buy lottery tickets? They may be undervalued. A 10 percent surcharge probably wouldn't cause a blip.

In sports, autographs were undervalued before card shows and traders. Hockey great Gordie Howe signed for free during his career and in retirement. I would have paid $10. Pro football tickets were undervalued before modern stadiums, club seats and $1,000 seat licenses. The best college basketball players were undervalued before they started turning pro after a season or two. The talent in the NCAA tournament has been devalued, but the overall product is fully valued if more teams have a chance to win.

Financiers have found undervalued assets all over Memphis. Elvis is undervalued, according to Robert Sillerman, the new majority owner of Elvis Presley Enterprises. Corporations are so undervalued they get paid just to stay here. Last week, Harrah's got comped $2.6 million in tax credits for being a loyal customer. The credit is for eight years, or $325,000 a year -- paltry compared to the $5,959,826 plus options earned by Harrah's fully-valued CEO Gary Loveman in 2005. MLGW and Shelby Farms are undervalued assets, but we'll never know how much because of political reasons.

Tools of the business world that were once valuable quickly became overvalued. That would include stock quotes and stock trading commissions, newspapers, and long-distance phone calls. Unionized automobile factory workers were overvalued at $30 an hour in wages and $65 an hour in wages and benefits. Real estate agents are overvalued at six-percent commissions if FSBO and Internet listings can compete with them.

Some valuable things are free because their inventors and owners are either not motivated to make a fortune or can't figure out how to do it. That would include the Firefox Web browser, Craigslist.org, Spybot software, and restaurant reviewer chowhound.com, which refuses restaurant advertising. For a discussion of them, see Richard Siklos' recent story at nytimes.com. It's free and undervalued.

In politics, City Councilman Rickey Peete raised more than $75,000 last week for his campaign fund. For that kind of money, you might think he is running for mayor this year, but he's running for City Council in October of 2007. Contributors ponied up $250 to $1,000 because Peete's superdistrict includes 128 precincts and downtown, and he is a board member of the influential Center City Commission and Riverfront Development Corporation. The City Council job pays $6,000 a year by City Charter. Amendments have pushed that to $30,600, pegged to the pay of the Shelby County Commission.

Apparently, the pay does not reflect the value of a council seat. The only people who have voluntarily given one up lately are John Vergos, who served eight years, and Janet Hooks, who got a city job. The term limits endorsed by the Tennessee Supreme Court last month only apply to the county mayor and commissioners.

Public service is undervalued. Crooked lobbyist Jack Abramoff and partners got $66 million from Indian casinos. But honest Harvey Johnson, a Mississippi lawyer and former mayor of Jackson, by all indications got nothing for casting the decisive vote on the three-member Mississippi Tax Commission in 1993 that opened Tunica County up to inland casinos worth billions to Harrah's, the casino industry, and the state of Mississippi.

If the Tennessee Waltz indictments are true, corrupt lawmakers sold themselves cheap to E-Cycle Management, the bogus computer recycler. John Ford got $10,000, others as little as $1,000 to put a sham company in position to make millions. Wake up, folks! We're a major league city, and $10,000 is small change. Graft is undervalued.

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