Leaders do not need to milk price of pint

12th May, 2012

A few years ago, José Zapatero, then prime minister of Spain, was asked the price of a cup of coffee in a television interview. His answer, a woeful underestimate, became a minor embarrassment. I know all this because shortly afterwards, he appeared at a session of Congress with my book El Economista Camuflado [The Undercover Economist] under his arm – a book that discusses extensively (some say ad nauseam) the price of a cup of coffee. I was suddenly a prop in a surreal political debate.

Thanks to Nadine Dorries the same argument has popped up closer to home: George Osborne and David Cameron are posh boys, she says, who do not know the price of a pint of milk. To accuse them of knowing nothing of lacto-economics seems odd to me. I do not know whether Mr Cameron knows the price of a pint of milk. I do know that he is posh.

I am doubtful about the idea that there is, somewhere, the Platonic ideal of a pint of milk, whose just price is known by all virtuous people but an eternal mystery to the out-of-touch. The reality, of course, is that a pint of organic Jersey milk from a Hampstead deli is likely to cost more than a quarter of a two-quart bottle from Aldi. You will pay more for a pint delivered to your doorstep than if you take the trouble to drive to the supermarket.

Beyond that, you do not need to be a Tory millionaire not to care about the price of milk. I conducted a little survey. Steering clear of soya, rice and goat’s milk, I checked the price of a single pint of ordinary semi-skimmed. It’s 49p a pint in the Marks and Spencer at the local railway station. It is also 49p a pint at the downtown Sainsbury’s. It is 49p a pint in the Tesco next door.

The financial returns to learning about milk prices seem to be limited. There are people who are so strapped for cash – or perhaps, simply curious – that they will keep track. Many others will not, but that should not disqualify them for high office.

The converse also fails to hold: knowing the price of a pint of milk is no mark of a great leader. Before carrying out my survey, I guessed that the price of a pint of milk was 50p. Perhaps Nadine Dorries thinks that I would make a cracking prime minister. I can assure her I would be a profound disappointment.

Also published at ft.com.

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