Electricity in Quebec before Nationalization (1919 to 1939)

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that  I am generally skeptical of “accepted wisdom” on many topics. “Accepted wisdom” is a construction of a stylized fact by a party with intense preferences that is gradually able to remove nuances over time to solidify its preferred narrative. The example I gave a few weeks ago concerned antitrust laws. There are many more. One of those concerns a research agenda that I laid claim to in a recent article in Atlantic Economic Journal (co-authored with my dear friend Germain Belzile): the nationalization of electricity in Quebec.

My home province of Quebec is basically one giant network of rivers well-suited for the production of hydro-electricity – a potential that was noticed in the late 19th century and led to a rapid expansion of the network. Historians (and some economists) have depicted the early electrical industry in Quebec as a “trust” (a cartel) that gouged consumers and could only be resolved, as witnessed by the neighboring province of Ontario, by nationalization (which occurred in two waves – one in 1944 and one in 1962).

In the article I published with Belzile, I argue that this narration is largely incorrect. First, before nationalization prices in Quebec were falling and were low by North American standards (see figures below). Second, production was expanding rapidly. This is in spite of the fact that taxes imposed on the electrical industry grew rapidly over time from less than 10% of total expenditures to close to 30%.  Moreover, we point out that looking at residential prices is bound to yield bad comparisons (if we can call those made above as “bad”) if there is price discrimination. The industry price discriminated and offered incredibly low prices for industrial customers (large power) than in Ontario or anywhere else in Canada  (in spite of the taxes it was operating under and the fact that Ontario subsidized its own).

We also point out that there was a dynamics of interventionism problem. The neighboring province of Ontario (more populous and richer than Quebec) nationalized its industry and set prices well below the market level which is an implicit subsidy. However, at the subsidized rate, Ontario could not supply its own demand and had to buy at the market price in Quebec. Its over-equilibrium quantity of energy demanded was transferred on the freer Quebec market, thus increasing prices on that market.

We also argue that there was wide heterogeneity of rates in Quebec that relate to the structure of municipal regulation (the level at which electricity was regulated pre-1935). The price differences depended on the political games involving rent-seeking firms and politicians (best exemplified by the case of Quebec City). Cities with high prices were places where the electrical market was heavily politicized and franchises (i.e. the contracts fixing rate schedules over long periods of time to recoup capital investment) were short and subject to holdups.

This latter point is meant for us (me and Germain) to stake a claim on future research to document the nationalization and regulation process at the municipal level and see what the effects on prices and outputs were. In a certain way, I am trying to establish a research agenda extending the skepticism of “accepted wisdom” that has emerged with the economic history of antitrust in the United States to the case of electricity trusts in Quebec. This first article is, I believe, a promising start for such an inclusion.






Rosenbloom on the Colonial American Economy

Joshua Rosenbloom is an economic historian worth following if you are interested in American economic history during the colonial era. He has recently published what appears to be an overview article of the topic (probably for a book or an invited symposium) which perfectly summarizes the current state of the research. I believe that this should be widely read by interested parties.  Here are key excerpts for some of the topics he discusses. I provide some comments to enrich his contribution, but these should be understood as complements rather than substitutes to this excellent overview of the American economy during the colonial era.

On Economic Growth 

Mancall and Weiss (…) concluded that likely rates of per capita GDP growth could not have been higher than 0.1 percent per year and were likely closer to zero. In subsequent work, Mancall, Rosenbloom and Weiss (2004) and Rosenbloom and Weiss (2014) have constructed similar estimates for the colonies and states of the Lower South and the Mid-Atlantic regions, respectively. Applying the method of controlled conjectures at a regional level allowed them to incorporate additional, region-specific, evidence about agricultural  productivity and exports, and reinforced the finding that there was little if any growth in GDP per capita during the eighteenth century. Lindert and Williamson (2016b) have also attempted to backcast their estimates of colonial incomes. Their estimates rely in part on the regional estimates of Mancall, Rosenbloom and Weiss, but the independent evidence they present is consistent with the view that economic growth was quite slow during the eighteenth century.

This is still a contentious point (see notably this article by McCusker), but I believe that they are correct. In my own work, using both wages and incomes, I have found similar results for Canada and Leticia Arroyo Abad and Jan Luiten Van Zanden have found something roughly similar for the Latin American economies (Mexico and Peru).

It is also consistent with even simplistic accounts of the neoclassical growth model. The New World was an economy of abundant land input whose outputs (agricultural produce) were mostly meant for local consumption. If one wanted to increase his income, all he had to do was use more inputs at really low costs. There is very little in this situation to invest in increasing total factor productivity and incomes would only increase at the dis-aggregated level (following the same region over time) as we are capturing the extent of inputs included over time (e.g. the long-settled farmer has a high income because he has had the time to build his farm, but the short-settled farmer brings the average down because he is just starting that process).

On Monetary History and Monetary Puzzles

In lieu of specie, the colonists relied heavily on barter for local exchange. In the Chesapeake transactions were often denominated in weights of tobacco. However, tobacco was not used as a medium of exchange. Rather merchants might advance credit to planters for the purchase of imported items, to be repaid at harvest with the specified quantity of tobacco. Elsewhere book credit accounts helped to facilitate transactions and reduce the need for currency. The colonists regularly complained about the shortage of specie, but as Perkins (1988, p. 165) observed, the long run history of prices does not suggest any tendency of prices to fall, as would be expected if the money supply was too small. (…) With only a few exceptions the colonies issuance of these notes did not give rise to inflationary pressures. There is by now a large literature that has analyzed the relationship between note issuance and prices, and finds little evidence of any correlation between the series (Weiss 1970, 1974; Wicker 1985; Smith 1985; Grubb 2016. As Grubb (2016) has argued, this suggests that while the circulation of bills of credit may have facilitated exchange by substituting for book credit or other forms of barter, they did not assume the role of currency.

In this, Rosenbloom summarizes a puzzle which has been the subject of debates since the 1970s (starting with West in 1978 in this Economic Inquiry article). In many instances (like South Carolina and Pennsylvania), the large issues of paper money had no measurable effect on prices.  This is a puzzle given the quantity theory of the price level. The proposition to solve the puzzle is that as the paper money printed by colonies tended to be backed by future assets, they were securities that could circulate as a medium of exchange. If properly backed and redeemed, people would form expectations that these injections were temporary injections and there would be no effect on the price level all else being equal. Inflation would only occur if redemption promises were not held or were believed to be humbug. This proposition has been heavily contested given the limited information we hold for the stock of other media of exchange and trade balances. I have my own take on this debate on which I weigh using a similar Canadian monetary experiment (see here), but this is a serious debate. Basically, it is a historical battleground between the proponents of the fiscal theory of the price level (see notably the classical Sargent and Wallace article) and the proponents of the quantity theory of the price level.  Anyone interested in the wider macroeconomic debate should really focus on these colonial experiments because they really are the perfect testing grounds (which Rosenbloom summarizes efficiently).

On Mercantilism, the Navigation Acts and American Living Standards

The requirement that major colonial exports pass through England on their way to continental markets and that manufactures be imported from England was the equivalent of imposing a tax on this trade. The resulting price wedge reduced the volume of trade and shifted some of the producer and consumer surplus to the providers of shipping and merchant services. A number of cliometric studies have attempted to estimate the magnitude of these effects to determine whether they played a role in encouraging the movement for independence (Harper 1939; Thomas 1968; Ransom 1968; McClelland 1969). The major difference in these studies arises from different approaches to formulating a counterfactual estimate of how large trade would have been in the absence of the Navigation Acts. In general, the estimates suggest that the cost to the colonists was relatively modest, in the range of 1-3 percent of annual income. Moreover, this figure needs to be set against the benefits of membership in the empire, which included the protection the British Navy afforded colonial merchants and military protection from hostile natives and other European powers.

The Navigation Acts were often cited as a burden that the colonists despised, but many economic historians have gone over their impact and they appear to have been minimal. It does not mean that they were insignificant to political events (rent-seeking coalitions tend to include small parties with intense preferences). However, it does imply that the action lies elsewhere if someone wants to explain the root causes of the revolution or that one must consider distributional effects (see notably this article here).

These are the sections that I found the most interesting (as they relate to some of my research agendas), but the entire article provides an effective summary for anyone interested in initiating research on the topic of American economic history during the colonial era. I really recommend reading it even if all that you seek is an overview for general culture.

On demography and living standards in the colonial era

This is a topic that has been bugging me. Very often, historians will (accurately) point out mortality statistics in the United States, Canada (Quebec) and the Latin America during the colonial era were better than in the comparable Old World (comparing French with French, British with British, Spanish with Spanish). However, they will argue that this is evidence that living standards were higher. This is where I wish to make an important nuance.

Settlement colonies (so, here there is a bigger focus on North America, but it applies to smaller extent to Latin America which I am more tempt to label as extractive – see here) are generally frontier economies. This means that they are small economies because of small populations.  This means that labor and capital are scarce relative to land. All outputs that come from the relatively abundant factor will thus tend to be cheaper if there is little international trade for the goods that they are best at producing. The colonial period pretty much fits that bill. The American and Canadian colonies were basically agricultural colonies, but very few of those agricultural outputs actually crossed the Atlantic. As such, agricultural produces were cheap. This is akin to saying that nutrition was cheap.

This, by definition, will give settlement colonies an advantage in terms of biological living standards. As they are not international price takers, wheat is cheaper than in the old world. This is why James Lemon spoke of the New World as the “Best poor man’s country” (I love that expression) : it was easy to earn subsistence. However, beyond that it is very hard to go beyond. For example, in my dissertation (articles still in consideration at Cliometrica and Canadian Journal of Economics) I found that when wages were deflated by a subsistence basket containing very few services and manufactured goods and which relied heavily on untransformed foods, Canada was richer than the richest city of France. Once you shifted to a basket that marginally increased transformed goods and manufactured goods, the advantage was wiped away.

Yet, everything indicates that mortality rates were greater in Paris and France and than in Quebec City and Quebec as a whole (but not by a lot) (see images below).  Similar gaps seem to exist for the United States relative to Britain, but the data is not as rich as for Quebec. However, the data that exists for New England suggests that death rates were lower than in England but the “bare bones” real incomes measured by Lindert and Williamson show that New England may have been poorer than Great Britain (not by much though).

Crude Death Rates


I am not saying that demographic and biological data is worthless. Quite the contrary (even I wanted to, I could not since I have a paper on the heights of French-Canadians from 1780 to 1830)! The point is that data matters in context.  The world is full of small non-linearities between variables. While “good” demographic outcomes are generally tracking “good” economic outcomes, there are contexts where this may be a weaker relation (curvilinear relations between variables). I think that this is a good example of that point.


How poor was 18th century France? Steps towards testing the High-Wage Hypothesis (HWE)

A few days ago, one of my articles came online at the Journal of Interdisciplinary HistoryIt is a research note, but as far as notes go this one is (I think) an important step forwards with regards to the High-Wage Hypothesis (henceforth HWE for high-wage economy) of industrialization.

In the past, I explained my outlook on this theory which proposes that high wages relative to energy was a key driver of industrialization. As wages were high while energy was cheap, firms had incentives to innovate and develop labor-saving technologies.  I argued that I was not convinced by the proposition because there were missing elements to properly test its validity. In that post I argued that to answer why the industrial revolution was British we had to ask why it was not French (a likely competitor). For the HWE to be a valid proposition, wages had to be higher in England than in France by a substantial margin. This is why I have been interested in living standards in France.

In his work, Robert Allen showed that Paris was the richest city in France (something confirmed by Phil Hoffman in his own work). It was also poorer than London (and other British cities). The other cities of France were far behind. In fact, by the 18th century, Allen’s work suggests that Strasbourg (the other city for which he had data) was one of the poorest in Europe.

In the process of assembling comparisons between Canada and France during the colonial era (from the late 17th to the mid-18th centuries), I went to the original sources that Allen used and found that the level of living standards is understated. First, I found out that the wages were not for Strasbourg per se. They applied to a semi-rural community roughly 70km away from Strasbourg.  Urban wages and rural wages tend to differ massively and so they were bound to show lower living standards. Moreover, the prices Allen used for his basket applied to urban settings. This means that the wages used were not comparable to the other cities used. I also found out that the type of work that was reported in the sources may not have belonged to unskilled workers but rather to semi-skilled or even skilled workers and that the wages probably included substantial in-kind payments.

Unfortunately, I could not find a direct solution to correct the series proposed by Allen. However, there were two ways to circumvent the issue. The most convincing of those two methods relies on using the reported wages for agricultural workers. While this breaks with the convention established by Allen (a justifiable convention in my opinion) of using urban wages and prices, it is not a problem if we compare with similar types of wage work. We do have similar data to compare with in the form of Gregory Clark’s farm wages in England. The wage rates computed by Allen placed Strasbourg at 64% of the level of wages for agricultural workers in England between 1702 and 1775. In comparison, the lowest of the agricultural wage rates for the Alsatian region places the ratio at 74%. The other wage rates are much closer to wages in England.  The less convincing methods relies on semi-skilled construction workers – which is not ideal. However, when these are compared to English wages, they are also substantially higher.

Overall, my research note attempts a modest contribution: properly measure the extent to which wages were lower in France than in Britain. I am not trying to solve the HWE debate with this. However, it does come one step closer to providing the information to do so. Now that we know that the rest of France was not as poor as believed (something which is confirmed by the recent works of Leonardo Ridolfi and Judy Stephenson), we can more readily assess if the gap was “big enough” to matter.  If it was not big enough to matter, then we have to move to one of the other five channels that could confirm the HWE (at least that means I have more papers to write).


Is Free-Riding for Union Negotiations a Myth?

As the US Supreme Court is considering the case of Janus v. AFSCME on mandatory deductions for the purposes of union negotiations, I think it is time to truly question the argument underlying mandatory deductions: free-riding. Normally, the argument is that union members fight hard to get advantageous conditions. After taking the risks associated with striking and expending resources to this end, non-members could simply get the job and the benefits associated with prior negotiations and not contribute to the “public good” of negotiation. This is an often-used argument.  I come from Quebec in Canada where closed shop unionism (i.e. you are forced to join the union to get the job) still exists and mandatory dues are more stringently enforced than in the United States. There, one of the most repeated defense of the closed shop system and of the mandatory dues is the free-riding argument. As such, the free-riding argument is an often-used communication line.

That is, in essence, the free-riding argument. While it appears axiomatically true, I do not believe that it is actually a relevant problem. However, before I proceed, let me state that I have a prior in favor of consent and I only sign off on “forcing” people when the case is clear and clean-cut (I am what you could call a radical “contractarian”).

So, is free-riding a problem? The answer is in the negative (in my opinion) as the free-riding argument entails that unionism provides a public good. One of the main feature of a public good is an inability to exclude non-payers.  Think about the often-used example of lighthouses in public economics: the lighthouse provides a light that everyone can see and yet the owner of the lighthouse would have a very hard time to collect dues (although Ronald Coase in 1974 and Rosolino Candela and myself more recently have emitted doubts about the example).  However, why would a union be unable to exclude? After all, it is very easy to contractually “pre-exclude” non-payers. A non-member could obtain only 50% or 75% or 80% of the benefits negotiated of the union. Only upon joining would he be able to acquire the full benefits of the union.

As such, “excludability” is feasible. In fact, there are precedents that could serve as a framework for using this exclusion mechanism. Consider the example of “orphan clauses” which were very popular in my neck of the wood in the 1990s and early 2000s. Basically, these clauses “create differences in treatment, based solely on the hiring date, in some of the employment conditions of workers who perform the same tasks“. These existed for police forces, firefighters and other public sector workers.  Now, this was a political tool for placating older union members while controlling public spending. As such, it is not an example of exclusion for negotiation purposes. Nevertheless, such contracts could switch the “date of employment” for the “union status” in determining differences in treatment.

Another mechanism for exclusion is social ostracism. This may seem callous, but social ostracism is actually well rooted in evolutionary psychology. It also works really well in contexts of continuous dealings (see also this example by Avner Greif which has been the object of debates with Sheilagh Ogilvie and Jessica Goldberg)  Workplace relations between workers are continuous relations and shirkers can be ostracized easily.  The best example is the “water dispenser gossip” where co-workers will spread rumors about other workers and their behavior. All that is needed is an individual marginally inclined towards the union (who could even get special treatment from the union for being the ostracism-producer) who will generate the ostracism. As such, the free-riding argument has a solution in that second channel.

In fact, ostracism and contractual exclusion can be combined as they are in no way mutually exclusive. These two channels are the reason why I do not adhere to the “free-riding” argument as valid justification of compulsory payment for financing unions.


On Antitrust, the Sherman Act and Accepted Wisdom

I am generally skeptical of “accepted wisdom” on many policy debates. People involved in policy-making are generally politicians who carefully craft justifications (i.e. cover stories) where self-interest and common good cannot be disentangled easily.  These justifications can easily become “accepted wisdom” even if incorrect. I am not saying that “accepted wisdom” is without value or that it is always wrong, but more often than not it is accepted at face value without question.

My favorite example is “antitrust”.  In the United States, the Sherman Act (the antitrust bill) was first introduced in 1889 (passed in 1890). The justification often given is that it was meant to promote competition as proposed by economists. However, as often pointed out, the bill was passed well before the topic of competition in economics had been unified into a theoretical body.  It was also rooted in protectionist motives. Moreover, the bill was passed after the industries most affected saw prices fall faster than the overall price level and output increase faster than the overall output level (see here here here here and here). Combined, these elements should give pause to anyone willing to cite the “accepted wisdom”.

More recently, economist Patrick Newman provided further reason for caution in an article in Public Choice. Interweaving political history and the biographical details about senator John Sherman (he of the Sherman Act), Newman tells a fascinating story about the self-interested reasons behind the introduction of the act.

In 1888, John Sherman failed to obtain the Republican presidential nomination – a failure which he blamed on the governor of Michigan, Russell Alger. Out of malice and a desire of vengeance, Sherman defended his proposal by citing Alger as the ringmaster of one of the “trusts”. Alger, himself a presidential hopeful for the 1892 cycle, was politically crippled by the attack (even if it appears that it was untrue). Obviously, this was not the sole reason for the Act (Newman highlights the nature of the Republican coalition which would have demanded such an act). However, once Alger was fatally wounded, Sherman appears to have lost interest in the Act and left others to push it through.

As such, the passage of the bill was partly motivated by political self-interest (thus illustrating the key point of behavioral symmetry that underlies public choice theory). Entangled in the “accepted wisdom” is a wicked tale of revenge between politicians. At such sight, it is hard not to be cautions with regards to “accepted wisdom”.


If causality matters, should the media talk about mass shootings?

My answer to that question is “maybe not” or at the very least “not as much”. Given the sheer amount of fear that can be generated by a shooting, it is understandable to be shocked and the need to talk about it is equally understandable. However, I think this might be an unfortunate opportunity to consider the incentives at play.

I assume that criminals, even crazy ones, are relatively rational. They weigh the pros and cons of potential targets, they assess the most efficient tool or weapon to accomplish the objectives they set etc. That entails that, in their warped view of the world, there are benefits to committing atrocities. In some instances, the benefit is pure revenge as was the case in one of the famous shooting in my hometown of Montreal (i.e. a university professor decided to avenge himself of the slights caused by other professors). In other instances, the benefit is defined in part by the attention that the violent perpetrator attracts for himself. This was the case of another infamous shooting in Montreal where the killer showed up at an engineering school to kill 14 other students and staff. He committed suicide and also left a suicide statement that read like a garbled political manifesto. In other words, killers can be trying to “maximize” media hits.

This “rational approach” to mass shootings opens the door to a question about causality: is the incidence of mass shootings determining the number of media hits or is the number of media hits determining the incidence of mass shootings. In a recent article in the Journal of Public Economicsthe possibility of the latter causal link has been explored with regards to terrorism.  Using the New York Times‘ coverage of some 60,000 terrorist attacks in 201 countries over 43 years, Michael Jetter used the exogenous shock caused by natural disasters to study they reduced the reporting of terrorist attacks and how this, in turn, reduced attention to terrorism. That way, he could arrive at some idea (by the negative) of causality. He found that one New York Times article increased attacks by 1.4 in the following three weeks. Now, this applies to terrorism, but why would it not apply to mass shooters? After all, there are very similar in their objectives and methods – at the very least with regards to the shooters who seek attention.

If the causality runs in the direction suggested by Jetter, then the full-day coverage offered by CNN or NBC or FOX is making things worse by increasing the likelihood of an additional shooting. For some years now, I have been suggesting this possibility to journalist friends of mine and arguing that maybe the best way to talk about terrorism or mass shooters is to move them from the front page of a newspaper to a one-inch box on page 20 or to move the mention from the interview to the crawler at the bottom. In each discussion, my claim about causality is brushed aside with either incredulity at the logic and its empirical support or I get something like “yes, but we can’t really not talk about it”. And so, the thinking ends there. However, I am quite willing to state that its time for media outlets to deeply reflect upon their role and how to best accomplish the role they want. And that requires thinking about causality and accepting that “splashy” stories may be better left ignored.