The opportunity cost of truth
“You’re the only person to come in here today and buy decent newspapers. People come in and buy the Daily Mail and read the front page headline and believe that stuff.”
There was a temptation to tell the man at the till about the Daily Mail’s “Hurrah for the Blackshirts” headline in 1934 and how my grandfather, Semitic in appearance, had been pursued through the streets by the same people extolled by the headline writer of the day, but there was another man waiting to be served. Limiting a response to the suggestion that the Financial Times was read by people who tended not to tell each other lies, I left the shop.
Putting £1.60 change from £10 into my pocket, there was a realisation that the truth came at a price: the weekend edition of the Financial Times is £3.90 and the weekly edition of New Scientist is £4.50 (had the shop stocked the Morning Star, for a touch of alternative polemic, the total cost would gave been £9.90).
As if anticipating thoughts regarding the cost of things, Tim Harford’s Financial Times column is about opportunity cost. Forty years ago, Douglas Howe, our economics tutor at Strode College in Somerset in the 1970s would have urged us to look at the opportunity cost, he would have explained that no choice we make is free of cost. If we make a decision to do one thing, even if there is no financial element, it comes at the cost of using up resources, even if only time, with which something different may have been done. Spending decisions had an easily measurable opportunity cost, it was what one may have bought with the same sum of money.
£8.40 seems a lot to spend in a newsagent’s shop, until one considers what else may have been bought for a similar sum. On a Saturday night, few people going to a pub would baulk at spending £8.40 on two pints of beer and a packet of crisps. A matchday ticket at a League Two football match (the fourth tier of English football) might cost three times the amount. A haircut would have been the full £10, and perhaps more. Coffee and cake at one of the high street chain coffee shops would have been cheap at £8.40.
Pints of beer, cups of coffee, short back and sides; the opportunity cost of reading the truth seems slight in comparison – and, unlike pint glasses or coffee cups, the reading can last all week and be shared with whomsoever one chooses.
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