What does a latte tell us about currencies? Very little, actually

Purchasing power parity is not the same as the Big Mac Index.

The Wall Street Journal sees what the Economist is having, and it likes it. The latter's Big Mac Index is famous for demonstrating the variation in prices for the same good around the world. Despite Big Macs being basically identical no matter where you are, the dollar price varies wildly, from $6.81 in Switzerland down to just $1.82 in India. It's so influential that it's widely thought that Argentina is exerting pressure on its branches of McDonalds to keep the price down so as to not provide evidence of the nation's tinkering with reported inflation.

So now the WSJ wants a piece of the action, and has created its Starbucks Latte Index. I mean, it doesn't call it that, but that's what they're thinking:

Click to embiggen.

But like the Economist, the WSJ draws the wrong inferences from the variation. They both have a habit of using the data to illustrate purchasing power parity, the idea that some currencies are under- or over-valued because a comparable basket of goods varies in price. So the WSJ's Ira Iosebashvili writes:

One way to determine how currencies stack up is purchasing-power parity, or PPP, which compares the amount of currency needed to buy the same item in different countries. A grande latte at Starbucks, for example, costs $4.30 in New York, but the equivalent of $9.83 using Norwegian krone in Oslo, and just $3.92 in Turkish lira in Istanbul.

Starbucks Lattes and Big Macs both have another unique feature, though, which renders them less useful for comparing the strength of a currency overall: they are both made up of highly fungible goods, produced in two of the most integrated supply chains in the world. McDonalds, for instance, doesn't need to buy artisanal wheat from an individual farm; it can just trade in "wheat" as a mass-produced, internationally-traded com oddity. The company has even invented a product to sell to take advantage of variations in the cost of pork, the McRib.

In fact, for Starbucks, that's even more true than it is for MacDonalds. While Maccy D's has made a big deal out of its promise to only use British beef in its British burgers, most of the countries Starbucks operates in in don't grow their own coffee. That has to be imported from South America or North Africa, and so a Starbucks in London will almost certainly be paying the same for its coffee as a branch in Oslo, despite the difference in retail price being over $6.

What the Starbucks and Big Mac indices actually show is the price of unskilled labour and retail space. Those are the parts of the companies' businesses which, no matter how hard they try, they can't erase national differences from. Operating in Oslo, land of high taxes, is always going to be expensive, no matter how strong or weak the krone is.

The Starbucks index even makes this clear, thanks to the fact that the WSJ has included three American cities. A latte in New York City costs more than one in Detroit, a difference that self-evidently can't be due to the currency variation.

But the really important news is that London is actually one of the cheapest cities in the world for a Starbucks latte. Still overpriced for what it is, though.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt