These articles have been published in the Economist, Standpoint Magazine, Financial Times, MoneyWeek, the Times Literary Supplement, New York Observer and more
It’s often said that politicians are so detached they don’t even know the price of a pint of milk or a loaf of bread. In 1992, then-president of the United States George H W Bush was forced to admit he did not know how much a gallon of milk cost during a debate with Bill Clinton, whose rural background earned him the admiration of the nation. In 2013, David Cameron guessed that a sliced white loaf from a value supermarket would cost ‘well north of a pound’ when it was actually around 47p. He defended his ignorance by saying he prefers to bake his children healthy home-made granary loaves.
Earlier this year, the right-wing French politician Jean-Francois Cope was lampooned for his ‘Marie Antoinette moment’ when he was asked if he knew how much a pain au chocolat costs. He responded with ‘10 or 15 cents’, but the pastry’s actual price is over one euro. In the run-up to the US presidential election, both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were described as not knowing the price of either a loaf or a carton of milk.
But how come their campaign teams haven’t simply told them to remember those two figures? And are bread (quite a biblical reference point) and milk (alluding to motherhood, presumably) even the right products to ask politicians about? I think we should ask them about the price of potatoes.
Economists tell us that when incomes go down (as they do in times of a recession), people buy more potatoes. They are the classic example of an ‘inferior good’ – a good that is less in demand when people become wealthier. They’re unlike most other goods, for which demand increases when incomes go up. Knowing the price of potatoes might reveal where politicians think the economy is going. But of course, knowing the price of something could still mean they know the value of nothing.
This column was published as part of Marina’s Imaginary Millions in Money Observer December 2016.