The price of a loaf is of little importance

5th October, 2013

Cameron’s critics chose a singularly useless indicator, writes Tim Harford

“Clueless David Cameron doesn’t know the price of a value loaf of bread showing just how out of touch he is with the British public. And the PM risked alienating himself from voters further when he tried to defend his ignorance by saying he used a pricey BREADMAKER instead.”, The Daily Mirror , October 1

I thought David Cameron was in trouble for not knowing the price of a pint of milk?

You are thinking of the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who admitted he didn’t know. Or possibly you’re thinking of an insult thrown at the prime minister and his chancellor, George Osborne, by a member of parliament, that they were “two posh boys who don’t know the price of milk”.

MPs do throw a few choice insults across the floor of the House.

Actually the insult came from their own side – it was Nadine Dorries.

Oh. But they are posh boys, aren’t they?

They certainly are posh. But I think we already knew that without these bizarre trivia tests on how much particular products cost. It’s ridiculous. David Cameron is the prime minister. He’s busy. Do we really expect him not only to do his own shopping but also to keep careful track of what every item costs? There are a lot of people in the country who don’t do that – most of them men, I suspect.

Still, the prime minister should know the price of a loaf of bread.

The prime minister did know the price of a loaf of bread. He said it was “north of a pound”, and the Office for National Statistics reckons the average price of an 800g loaf of white sliced bread is £1.31. Sounds like he was about right. The prime minister is being accused of being out of touch only because he didn’t know the price of a particular lump of processed fluff called a “value loaf”, sold in Tesco or Sainsbury, which is much cheaper. And I should point out that this makes the entire business even more nonsensical: the general story is supposed to be that David Cameron does not understand how high the cost of living has risen. What this proves is that he doesn’t realise how low the cost of living really is.

How much is a value loaf, then?

I read in the newspapers that it is 47p, although I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t go and check.

You’re out of touch too!

Listen: there are about 10bn distinct products and services on sale in London alone, according to an educated guess by the complexity economist Eric Beinhocker. If each of them had a single undisputed price, and if Mr Cameron were to memorise every one of those prices at a rate of one a second in some prodigious feat of being-in-touchness, the process would take 317 years.

But ordinary people do know the price of what they buy.

Some do and some don’t. Believe me, I know: one chapter in my first book did little more than note unusual patterns in supermarket pricing. You’d think I had solved Fermat’s Last Theorem from the response that got: many people are genuinely surprised to discover that prices of apparently similar goods vary in intriguing ways from one store to another, or even from one shelf to another. If they really had been paying attention they would know that already.

We’re all out of touch!

Some people know the price of a tin of beans to the penny, and are savvy shoppers. The rest of us simply assume that the savvy shoppers keep the supermarkets honest.

Surely people do at least know the price of a loaf of bread.

Perhaps. There is some evidence – and grumbles from the Competition Commission – that supermarkets use the price of certain products, such as bread and milk, to lure shoppers in before mugging them with a high price for some less familiar product. Far from being a bellwether of the cost of living, there are few prices less informative of what food really costs than the price of a loaf or a pint of milk.

Tough. Politicians have to pay attention to the price of bread. “Panem et circenses” and all that.

Yes, yes – bread and circuses. The lesson through the ages is that nobody cares about what politicians do, so long as people are well fed and entertained. These days, when the political stakes are high, and Mr Cameron’s government has advanced a broad range of substantial changes to the way the country is run, all anybody seems to care about is whether he knows the price of a loaf of bread. That’s the true circus.

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