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.






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.

Secessions that didn’t work out

No, not that secession. It’s the ten most important unsuccessful secessions of the last few decades. That’s the topic of my latest column over at RealClearHistory, anyway. An excerpt:

You already know about Catalonia and its unsuccessful bid to secede from Spain late last year. (Check out our archives if you want to get up to speed.) A comparative approach is useful here. The unsuccessful secession movements in Africa have all been violent. The unsuccessful ones in Europe and North America started out violent but have evolved into democratic movements. The key to understanding this shift is the federative structures that exist, or don’t exist, in different parts of the world. The secessionist movements in Europe and North America are not looking to go it alone any longer. These movements don’t want full sovereignty. Separatists in Europe and North America want more decision-making power in federative structures. In the case of Quebecers, it’s Canada’s unique federation; for Catalonians (and the Scottish, for that matter), it’s the European Union. Once a federative body roots itself in a region of the world, separatist tendencies cease to be violent and they shift to more peaceful forms of resistance. Kurdistan provides a microcosmic example of this evolution, In Turkey, where the Kurds continue to be ignored and oppressed, violence reigns supreme. In Iraq, where the Kurdish region has been given autonomy and self-governance, grievances are aired out in the open, in the form of non-binding referenda and in arguments put forth in a free and open press.

I also spend a good deal of time explaining why the Confederacy is no longer relevant for understanding the world we live in. Please, check it out.

The Antebellum Puzzle, Anthropometric History and Quebec

I recently gave an interview on Economics Detective Radio with Garrett Petersen to talk about my forthcoming article in Economics & Human Biology (with Vadim Kufenko and Alex Arsenault Morin). In the interview, I explain why anthropometric history is important to our understanding of living standards, their evolution and short-term trade-offs in economic history. The interview is below, but you should subscribe to Garrett’s podcast as he is well on his way to becoming a serious competitor to EconTalk with the bonus that he does lots of economic history.

Podcast link (download).

On power-display bias and the historians

This is an excerpt from my upcoming book at Palgrave McMillan which discusses Canadian economic history. This excerpt relates to a point that I have made numerous times on this blog regarding the bias for power held by historians and how it often leads them to inaccurate conclusions (here and here):

When the great historian Lord Acton warned that, “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” he was not only referring to imbuing certain fallible humans with excessive powers, but also as a caution to historians for their assessment of politicians. Too often, politicians become known for “greatness” because of their actions, regardless of how much they impoverished society or put in place measures that would ultimately erode their citizens’ quality of life. By the same token, some eminent figures remain unknown, relegated to a footnote in the history books, even though they have contributed in a more significant way to economic enrichment, cultural development, and social cohesion. Grand gestures and large-scale social projects inspired by good intentions do not always yield great results – or desirable ones.

If we truly want to assess the Quiet Revolution and the “Great Darkness” with any clarity, we must consider politicians’ actions in a more realistic scope, and sift through the quantitative and qualitative data that show how people thought and acted in the everyday. Through the use of rigorous tools, statistical methods and economic theories, we ought to consider how things might reasonably have developed otherwise without the Quiet Revolution. This is what I have tried to do in this book. (…)

The discourse on Quebec modernity that emerged along with the Quiet Revolution coincided with the emergence of a strong interventionist State. When we compare Quebec to other Western countries, however, our analysis reveals that the State did not play a major role in modernization here. After all, it was in a period when Quebec’s State apparatus was less active compared to the rest of Canada that it was able to progress in leaps and bounds. Of course, the State must have had some effect in certain areas, but the Quiet Revolution was not responsible for the bulk of positive outcomes that came to term during this period. Analyzing trends, causes, explanations and secondary forces at play in Quebec society’s metamorphosis definitely requires a degree of patience and effort. It would be much less onerous to take the easier path of only looking at the State’s activities as worthy of attention in this regard. If we fail to make these efforts, we risk succumbing to the “Nirvana Fallacy.” In order words, we tend to put the State on a pedestal: it becomes a kind of disembodied entity in a virtual reality where it plays the VIP or starring role. Comparing reality with a utopia necessary leads us to conclude that utopia is better, but this approach is utterly fruitless.


On Capitalism and Slavery : Pêle-Mêle Comments

Last week, a debate was initiated via an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that relates to the clash between historians and economists over the topic of slavery. The debate seems acrimonious given the article and at the reading of a special issue of the Journal of Economic History regarding the Half has never been told by Edward Baptist, its hard to conclude otherwise. Pseudoerasmus published comments on the issue in a series of posts and a Trumpian twitterstorm (although the quality is far from being Trumpian). I find myself largely in agreement with him in response to the historians, but there are some pêle-mêle points that I felt I needed to add.

On Historians Versus Economists

To be honest, when I took my first classes in economic history, it seemed clear that there were important points that were agreed upon in the literature on slavery. The first was that the accounting profitability of slavery was not the same as the economic profitability (think opportunity cost here) of slavery. Thus, it was possible that (concentrating on the US here) the peculiar institution could more or less thrive regardless of the social costs it imposed (i.e. slavery is a tax on leisure which also increases the expropriation rate from slaves, and non-slaveowners often had to shoulder the cost of enforcing the institution). This argument is not at all new; in fact it is basically a public choice argument that Gordon Tullock and Anne Krueger could have signed on to without skipping a heartbeat (see Sheilagh Ogilvie – one of my favorite economist who does history in equality with Jane Humphries). The second point of agreement is that no one agreed on how to measure the productivity of slavery in the United States and the distribution of its costs and gains. The second point has been a very deep methodological debate which related to the method of measuring productivity (CES vs Translog TFP – stuff that would make your head blow and which also lead to the self-invitation of the Cambridge Capital Controversy to the debate). The quality of the data has been at the centre-stage as well, and datasets on slave prices, attributes, tasks and many other variables are still being collected (see notably the breathtaking work of Rhode and Olmsted here and here).

Thus, I will admit to being unimpressed by the use of oral histories to contest that literature. In addition, the absence of theory in Baptist’s work yields an underwhelming argument. Oral histories are super-duper important. The work of Jane Humphries on child labor is a case in point of the need to use oral histories. She very carefully used the tales told by children who worked during the industrial revolution to document how labor markets for children worked. The story she told was nuanced, carefully argued and supported by other primary evidence. This is economic history at its best – a merger of cliometrician and historian. In fact, while this is an evaluation that is subjective, the best economists are also historians and vice-versa. The reason for that is the mix of theory with multiple forms of evidence. But they key is to have a theory to guide the analysis.

Unexpectedly for some, the best exposition of this argument comes from Ludwig von Mises in his unknown book Theory and HistoryI was made aware of that book in a discussion with Chris Coyne of George Mason University and I proceeded to reading it. I was surprised how many similarities there were between the Mises who wrote that book and the Douglass Norths and the Robert Fogels of this world. The core argument of Theory and History is that axiomatic statements can be applied to historical events. The goal of historians and economic historians is to sort which theory applies. For example, the theory of signaling and the theory of asymmetric information are both axiomatically true. Without the need for evidence, we know that they must exist. The question of an economic historian becomes to ask “did it matter”? Both theories can compete to offset each other: if signaling is cheap, then asymmetric information can be solved; if it is not, asymmetric information is a problem. Or both may be irrelevant to a given historical development. To explain which two axiomatic statements apply to the event (and in what dosage), you need data (quantitative and qualitative). Thus, Theory and History actually proposes the use of econometrics and statistical methods because it does not try to predict as much as it tries to a) sort which axiomatic statements applied; b) the relative strengths of competing forces; c) the counterfactual scenario.

Without theory, all you have is Baptist’s descriptions which tell us very little and can, incidentally, be distorted by he who recounts the tales he read.

On the Culture of Peasants/Slaves/Slaveowners

When I started my PhD dissertation Canadian economic history, the most annoying thing I saw was the claim that the French-Canadians had “different mentalities” or “more conservative outlooks”. This was basically the way of calling them stupid. This has recently evolved to say that they “maximized goals other than wealth”. Regardless, this was basically: the French-Canadian was not culturally suited for economic development.

But culture is not a fixed variable, it is not an exogenous variable. Culture is basically the coherent framework built by individuals who share certain features to “cut out” the noise. Everyday, we are bombarded with tons of pieces of information and there is no way that the human brain can process them all. Thus, we have a framework – culture (ideology does the same thing) – which tells us what is relevant and what is irrelevant and what interpretation to give to relevant information.

People can cling to old beliefs for a long time, but only if there is no cost to them. I can persist in terrible farming practices if I am not made aware of the proper valuation of the opportunity I am foregoing. For example, British farmers who arrived in Quebec in the 19th century tended to use oxen as they did in England for tilling the soil. They had probably been taught to do that by their parents who learnt it from their grandparents because it was part of the farming culture of England. The behavior was culturally inherited. However, when they saw that the French-Canadians were using horses and that horses – in the Canadian hinterland – got the job done better, they shifted. The culture changed at the sight of how important was the foregone opportunity by continuing to use oxen. Where the British and the French co-existed, both were equally good farmers. Where they could not observe each other, they were all sub-optimal farmers. Seeing the other methods forced changes in culture.

The same applies to slaveowners and slaves! Slaveowners were a more or less tightly knit group that frequented similar circles and were constantly on the lookout to increase productivity. If some master had noticed that he could increase production by whipping more slaves, why would he not adopt this method? Why would he leave 100$ bill on the street? Why did the masters growing cotton in South Carolina not adopt the method of whipping adopted by growers in Louisiana? Without a theory of how culture changes (and what purposes it serves beyond the simplistic Marxist power structure argument), there is no answer to this question. With the work of Rhode and Olmstead, there is an answer: the type of cotton that had higher yields was not suited for growing everywhere! In this case, we are applying my comment from the section above on Historians versus Economists. There are competing theories of explaining increasing output: either some slave masters were unable to observe the other slave masters and adopt the torture methods they had (which would need to be the case for Baptist to be right) or there were biological limitations to growing the better crops in some areas (Rhode and Olmstead).

Two competing theories (they are not mutually exclusive though) that can be tested with data and they set a counterfactual. That is why you need theory to make good history.

One last thing: slave owners were not capitalists

This is probably the most childish thing to come out of works like those of Baptist: to assert that because slaves were capital assets, that the owners were capitalists. That is true if you want to adhere to the inconsistent (and self-contradicting) Marxist approach to capital. In fact, as Phil Magness pointed out to me, slave owners were not free market types. They were very much anti-capitalists. Slavery apologists like Fitzhugh and Carlyle were even more anti-capitalists than that. It’s not because you own capital that you are a capitalist unless you adhere to Marxist theory.

But, capital is just a production input. Its value depends on what it can produce. As Jeffrey Hummel pointed out, there is a deadweight loss from slavery: enforcement costs, the overproduction of cotton because slavery is basically a tax on leisure and the implicit taxation of the output produced by slaves. All three of these factors would have slowed down economic growth in the south. Thus, as capital assets, slaves were relatively inefficient.