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.

 

Figure2Electricity

Figure4Electricity

 

Porque privatizar (ou desestatizar) o ensino é uma das melhores reformas que se pode fazer

Talvez seja somente uma percepção subjetiva sem maior relevância objetiva, mas a impressão que tenho é que a privatização do ensino é um dos maiores tabus da sociedade brasileira. Até onde eu sei nenhum partido, figura política ou figura pública de destaque está defendendo a privatização total do ensino no Brasil. Segundo as notícias que chegam até mim, o recente anúncio de corte de gastos na educação causa uma de duas reações: indignação ou pesar. Alguns reagem com indignação, e não aceitam que qualquer corte seja feito; outros reagem com pesar, mas consideram que os cortes são necessários. Ditas estas coisas, penso que cabe a mim agir como Walter Block e “defender o indefensável”: o governo (ou o estado – use o vocabulário que lhe convir) não deveria ter qualquer papel na educação. Para isso irei expor brevemente o que é economia, como ela funciona, e o que isso tem a ver com governo, indivíduos e educação. É uma exposição breve, e pode deixar alguns pontos pouco desenvolvidos. Para uma exposição mais profunda deste tema, recomendo o livro Educação: Livre e Obrigatória, de Murray Rothbard.

Economia é a gestão de recursos necessariamente escassos que possuímos. Os recursos são necessariamente escassos porque somos seres humanos finitos, e não deuses. Alguns paradigmas econômicos (notoriamente o marxismo) partem de um pressuposto de abundancia de recursos, mas isto é falso e até mesmo perigoso: até mesmo o homem mais rico do mundo tem somente 24 horas no seu dia. Tem somente um corpo, e não pode estar em dois lugares ao mesmo tempo. Tem energia limitada, e fica cansado. Todos nós possuímos recursos limitados (ainda que alguns possuam mais recursos à sua disposição do que outros). A economia é a arte de melhor gerir estes recursos.

A gestão dos recursos limitados que possuímos é feita através de escolhas. O nome que os economistas dão a isso é “custo de oportunidade”: a não ser que você detenha infinitos recursos, gastar em uma coisa significa não gastar na segunda melhor alternativa. Exemplos: comprar o carro A significa não comprar o carro B; morar na cidade X significa não morar na cidade Y; casar com Z significa não casar com W; e escolher a carreira α significa não escolher a carreira λ. Como disse um antigo professor meu, “a vida é feita de escolhas”.

Considerando que possuímos recursos finitos e precisamos fazer escolhas, qual é mecanismo mais eficiente para tomar decisões? Certamente muitas pessoas gostariam de tomar decisões com base nos seus gostos pessoais. Gostariam de escolher aquilo de que mais gostam. Porém, aquilo de que mais gosto nem sempre está ao meu alcance. Exemplos: ainda que eu goste mais de uma Ferrari do que de um fusquinha, talvez eu precise me contentar com a segunda opção. Ou ainda que eu queira viajar, talvez eu tenha que me contentar em pagar o tratamento para um problema de saúde que acabei de descobrir que tenho. É por coisas assim que a economia ficou conhecida como “ciência triste”. Muitas vezes ela está aí para lembrar que nem sempre podemos ter o que queremos. Dito isto, a melhor forma de tomar decisões é pelos preços: os preços nos dizem se aquilo que desejamos é compatível com os recursos disponíveis.

Os preços são geralmente definidos em termos de dinheiro. Dinheiro é melhor definido por aquilo que faz do que por aquilo que é. Muitas coisas podem ser dinheiro: papel, metais preciosos, cigarros, balas ou dígitos num computador. Mas o que dinheiro faz é servir como uma linguagem: o dinheiro transmite de uma pessoa para outra o valor dos recursos envolvidos numa mercadoria ou num serviço. E valor é algo subjetivo. Contrariando a teoria do valor trabalho, é impossível saber de forma objetiva qual é o preço de uma determinada mercadoria ou serviço: é necessário que este valor seja definido por relações de oferta e procura. E é de incontáveis relações de oferta e procura que os preços são feitos. Em outras palavras, os preços nos transmitem de forma simples algo que jamais poderia ser calculado por uma pessoa: uma infinidade de relações de oferta e procura, escolhas e preferências, dentro da economia. Como disse Friedrich Hayek, “a economia somos nós”.

E assim chegamos à educação. Como eu disse acima, escolher a carreira α significa não escolher a carreira λ. Como essa decisão é feita? Certamente que muitas pessoas escolhem sua carreira com base em aptidões que percebem em si mesmas, ou em considerações sobre o que poderá ser uma atividade profissional mais prazerosa. Porém, este é um luxo que não está disponível para todos: muitas pessoas precisam escolher uma carreira com base no que pode dar mais retorno financeiro com menor investimento e menor risco. Posso escolher uma carreira que promete um grande retorno financeiro, mas com grande risco de não conseguir emprego num mercado de trabalho altamente competitivo, ou com um investimento de recursos (em tempo em dinheiro) que não posso arcar. A vida é feita de escolhas, e essas escolhas muitas vezes envolvem riscos. Escolher uma carreira é dizer não (ao menos temporariamente) para todas as outras. Algumas pessoas tem a chance de arriscar mais. Outras não têm o mesmo luxo. Considerações como relação candidato/vaga, salário médio, nível de empregabilidade e outras são semelhantes aos preços, e podem ser bons parâmetros ao se decidir por uma carreira. Mas com o governo criando vagas em universidades, determinando regras de acesso ao mercado de trabalho e adotando outras medidas, os preços não refletem a real relação de oferta e procura. Em outras palavras, a linguagem é distorcida, e as decisões não são as melhores, nem para os indivíduos, e nem para a sociedade.

Compreendo que pensar assim possa soar extremamente cínico, e pode ser um banho de água fria, especialmente para os mais jovens ou mais sonhadores. Muitas pessoas preferem tomar decisões considerando seus gostos pessoais, sua vocação, seu desejo de ajudar o próximo ou outras considerações. Não estou desmerecendo nenhuma destas considerações. Estou apenas dizendo que somos seres humanos limitados que vivem num mundo de recursos limitados. Precisamos fazer o melhor uso possível destes recursos. Embora os recursos sejam limitados, nossa criatividade para aproveitá-los não demonstra um limite óbvio. O uso criativo e sustentável dos recursos necessita de uma bússola, um guia. O sistema de preços é o melhor guia que possuímos. Sem propriedade privada não há formação de preços, e sem formação de preços o cálculo econômico é impossível. Por esta razão os gastos com educação não param de aumentar e a qualidade dos resultados não para de cair: o melhor juiz para determinar como os recursos serão empregados é o individuo fazendo uso de seus próprios recursos. A interferência do governo prejudica ou até desfaz este julgamento.

Em tempo: estou defendendo que o governo precisa sair da educação e deixá-la para a iniciativa individual (até mesmo porque somente indivíduos podem ter iniciativa). Não estou defendendo que educação precisa ser necessariamente paga pelos alunos. Como disse Milton Friedman, “não existe almoço grátis” (mais uma dessas frases que tornam os economistas – especialmente os liberais clássicos e libertários – pessoas pouco populares). Mas quando uma pessoa tem fome e não pode pagar pelo almoço, outra pode fazer isso. O nome disso é caridade, e quero incentivá-la o máximo possível. Caso você se preocupe com os pobres, sugiro que pare de mandar dinheiro para Brasília na forma de impostos, que serão necessariamente mal empregados (segundo tudo que discuti aqui), e procure pessoas que precisam. Com certeza você não terá dificuldade de encontrá-las.

The Re-Privatization of Security (World Peace edition)

Sean McFate, a political scientist at National Defense University in Washington, DC, has a fascinating article in Aeon about the reemergence of mercenary and quasi-mercenary security firms throughout the world. The whole article is fulfilling throughout, especially if you’re a well-read anarchist or a history buff, but I wanted to highlight this tangent:

With the fall of the South African apartheid regime, unemployed soldiers from special forces units such as the 32nd Battalion and the Koevoet (‘crowbar’ in Afrikaans) special police formed the first modern private military company, appropriately named Executive Outcomes. Unlike WatchGuard, Executive Outcomes was not a military enterpriser but a true mercenary firm, waging war for the highest bidder. It operated in Angola, Mozambique, Uganda and Kenya. It offered to help stop the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, but Kofi Annan – then head of UN peacekeeping – refused, claiming ‘the world may not be ready to privatise peace’. Annan’s was an expensive ideology, given the fact that 800,000 people died. By 1998, the company closed its doors, but the mercenary market for force surged.

Two aspects are important here, one said and one unsaid. First, the unsaid. If this mercenary outfit was “waging war for the highest bidder,” why did it offer to go in to Rwanda to stop the bloodshed? I think scholars assume the worst when it comes to stateless actors and warfare. Why has Anheuser-Busch begun shipping free cans of water into Flint, MI? Why does Wal-Mart donate billions of dollars to charity? When it comes to reputation, costs may sometimes not make sense to outside observers who don’t have a sufficient understanding of benefits. Why on earth would a corporation built solely to wage war for the highest bidder be interested in offering its services to a country that would not be able to afford its services? To ask the question is to answer it, of course, but understanding incentives using a costs-benefits framework requires more effort than you might suspect.

There is simply no logical coherence to the idea that, in a world where stateless mercenary firms are the prominent form of security, violence and lawlessness will reign supreme; nor is there any evidence whatsoever to suggest that “[m]ore mercenaries means more war, as they are incentivised to start and expand wars for profit, and turn to criminality between contracts.” Indeed, as McFate notes in his excellent article, the market for security is already becoming freer and while he ends his piece on a depressing note, lamenting this indisputable fact of the present-day world, I couldn’t help but remember the now-famous graph on battle death trends produced by political scientist Jay Ulfelder (using data from the Uppsala Conflict Data Program [UCDP]), which illustrates nicely the overall decline in deaths due to warfare violence around the world:

blog battle deaths
Notice that the most deadly conflicts are the ones involving states with armies that had been nationalized?

The always excellent Max Roser and his Our World in Data project has another graph worth highlighting, with this one using data from Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature… and the UCDP:

blog battle deaths pinker data

Now, two graphs showing that deaths from warfare have been in decline for half a century does not necessarily mean that a freer market in security services has led directly to this overwhelmingly good news. I am confident in claiming, though, that the freeing up of security services markets, combined with the steady presence of a few, still-powerful nationalized armies has led to a reduction in war-related deaths (and violent conflict in general). Both graphs illustrate well what happens when there are too many nationalized armies vying for power and prestige. (It is worth noting here that the main goal of diplomats and policymakers everywhere, no matter their ideological orientation or citizenship status, is still to avoid another world war.)

Second, the said. Annan’s refusal to decriminalize mercenary activities led directly to the 800,000 Rwandan deaths. How is this moral failing any better than when a mercenary firm breaks its contract and ends up killing a few dozen more people than it was supposed to? Again, the graphs are useful here: When conflict is nationalized, everybody suffers; when it is privatized, atrocities happen but not on the same scale we have seen with nationalized conflicts. It’s not even close. Annan’s short-sightedness reminds me of economist Scott Sumner’s 2012 summary of Hillary Clinton’s view of the War on Drugs:

[…] in response to a final question on drugs (from a Latin American reporter), she said drug legalization would do no good because drug dealers are really bad people, and they would simply do other crimes. No discussion of how America’s murder rate fell in half after alcohol was legalized in 1933.

Like drug use, the privatization of security services causes many people, well-educated or otherwise, to bristle at the notion without quite thinking through its logical implications. While ugly, mercenary firms are far more efficient and effective at quelling “bush wars” than are nationalized armies and, in turn, mercenary outfits are far less capable of sowing the type of destruction that nationalized armies routinely carry out.

I don’t think that a world with a few nationalized armies and an abundance of mercenary firms is necessarily the best option going forward, though. It is, however, a better option than most scholars and analysts give it credit for. In fact, it’s the best option at the moment, and while the status quo may sometimes be ugly, remember the graphs. Privatization of security services has contributed, at least in part, to a more peaceful and less violent world.

In order to move forward from this status quo it is best not lament the way things are going, but to acknowledge that things are the way they are for a reason, and then look for avenues to alter the status quo without falling back on a blanket policy like nationalizing security services again. The horrors of the World Wars should still be fresh in our minds, and the horrors of those wars were enabled and encouraged by nationalized security forces.

The best way to move forward is by looking at where these “bush wars” are taking place and begin thinking about ways to incorporate these regions into the global order (such as it is). This policy represents a departure from traditional post-war thinking about international relations, but it doesn’t make it radical or unfeasible. Indeed, there is a long tradition of republican thinking in Western thought pertaining to international relations. The West needs to start recognizing the legitimacy of secessionist sentiments in the post-colonial world, even if it means friction with Russia and China.

Washington and Brussels will have to endure charges of hypocrisy when it comes to ignoring the lobbying efforts of places like Tibet and Dagestan, but Biafra should have become a member state of the United Nations long ago. Baluchistan should have access independent of Pakistan and Iran to the IMF and World Bank. Two or three soccer teams from the region known as Kurdistan could easily be present in all major FIFA tournaments. Examples abound throughout the world. The West should also be open to recognizing arguments made by Russia and China for the independence of regions. There is no good reason why Western diplomats should ignore Moscow’s recognition of places like South Ossetia and Donetsk; doing so only hardens Russia’s stance on recognizing secession in parts of the world where its influence is limited or non-existent and forces the West into bed with unsavory post-socialist regimes.

The West needs to start being more inclusive when it comes to its own federal and republican institutions, too. Morocco, for example, should have had its 1987 application to join the European Union taken seriously (same goes for Turkey). The US federation needs to be actively courting polities like Puerto Rico, Coahuila, Alberta, and Micronesia to join the union. Both the EU and US are contracts designed to dampen violent conflict by fostering diplomatic, economic, and cultural intercourse between provincial polities. The reasoning behind exclusionary policies simply doesn’t answer why these republican, supranational organizations should not be actively recruiting neighboring or geopolitically useful administrative units into their representative systems.

Without this change in mindset the status quo will continue, which again if we remember the graphs is not all that bad, but something worse may happen: There could be a reversion to the blanket nationalization of security services that we saw during World Wars I and II.

Criticizing the Right

There has been lots of attention on this blog geared towards the hypocrisy of the Left, and I think that it is justified, but all too often we have been giving the Right a pass. I think this has to do with the fact that the Left holds the presidency, but I still think it’s appropriate to remind readers that libertarianism is of neither the Left nor the Right. Philosopher Jason Kuznicki does just this in a brilliant post:

Scrutinize your own side too. Take a hard look at cushy “privatization” deals that really just funnel power and money directly into private corporations’ hands. As a certain liberal recently observed, the way to privatize a prison isn’t to give imprisonment power to a corporation. It’s to stop imprisoning so many people, then sell off the property. About which more below […]

But other restrictions exist. Many of them bite even harder.

Consider immigrants. In particular, if our free market is so great, why do you work so hard to exclude immigrants from it? Is the immigrant laborer less a moral self-fashioner than the Wall Street banker? I wouldn’t say so. He’s clearly at least as motivated. If the immigrant wants to make a life in America — why not let him?

Mr. Ryan recently proclaimed that the United States is the only nation founded on an idea. It’s a common conservative theme, and even if it’s not 100% accurate, I’m certainly sympathetic to it. But we are founded on an idea if and only if our borders remain open to all who share that idea. The moment we start checking for purity of blood, we become a tribalist nation-state just like so many others. Not founded on an idea, but on accidents of birth—and in fact standing squarely against the idea that all people should be the authors of their own lives.

You can read the rest here.

Again, I suspect that much of the vitriol aimed at the Left on this blog (mostly by myself and Dr. Delacroix and something that probably has to do with our previous, sovereign associations with that side of the aisle) is due to the fact that it currently occupies the White House, but it’s nice to remind readers that the Right is very hypocritical as well.

For more on immigration, see Hermanos* and Immigrants: A Story Pregnant with Deep Meaning.

For more on “privatization”, see Who Stole Our Trillions? and An Ominous Expansion of Eminent Domain.

For more criticism of the Right, see Ugly Conservative Sacred Cows and Blissful Ignorance….