J’ai publié au Centre sur la Productivité et la Prospérité une étude sur le coût de la vie au Québec. La question à laquelle je m’attaque est fort simple: le coût de la vie est-il plus bas au Québec qu’ailleurs au Canada?
La réponse est : non, au contraire il est plus élevé.
En tenant compte des différences dans la qualité des logements, des différences entre le type de logements consommés ainsi qu’en éliminant les effets des subventions visant à réduire le prix de biens comme l’électriciét (dont le prix est assumé par la voie des impôts contrairement à ailleurs au Canada), les Québécois doivent travailler PLUS longtemps pour obtenir les même biens que les Ontariens, Albertains ou les autres Canadiens. Plus bas, vous verrez le graphique le plus révélateur de mon étude. Il s’agit du temps de travail requis au travailleur moyen du Québec pour acheter les biens mentionnés en pourcentage du temps requis pour le travailleur moyen de l’Ontario. En bas de 100%, le Québécois travaille moins et en haut il travaille davantage. Comme vous voyez, les Québécois travaillent beaucoup plus longtemps et par conséquent, leur coût de la vie est supérieur.
Même pour la nourriture en passant. Les Québécois doivent travailler beaucoup plus longtemps pour acquérir un panier d’aliments jugé élémentaire par Santé Canada. Et ce résultat est valide indépendemment du choix de la mesure du salaire horaire (salaire moyen ou médian).
In writing the final part of my thesis on Canadian economic history, I found a pearl which I felt had to be shared with my readers (the few that you are). Historian Guy Frégault is one of the biggest names in the historiography of Quebec before 1850, one can’t write anything without at least referring implicitly to his works. Yet, like many “seminal works”, the importance it has been granted is often the result of repeating some of the key elements without further considerations. Since I felt its importance in my own work, I went to read Frégault’s work La Civilisation de la Nouvelle-France, 1713-1744. I felt like I had to and now I feel like it wasn’t all that relevant. Most of the judgment passed by Frégault on the economic growth of the colony is based on very poor understanding of economic theory, even basic elements of principles. Forget college-level economics, I am talking high-school-level economics.
In his work (p.64-65), Frégault speaks about the scarcity of bread in the colony and how of poor quality it was – a recurrent complaint of the population at the time. Emphasizing the economic difficulties of the 1710s, he asserts the following:
Bread was scarce. The Intendant may well have fixed the price of wheat, forced individuals to sell their surplus of grains and, finally, forcibly requested one fifth of the harvest in order to distribute to the poorest, the situation was still terrible. (…) a delegation of Québécoises [female inhabitants of Quebec City] protested to the Conseil Supérieur against the excessive price and poor quality of bread.
Read his passage again, just to be sure! Consider his logic: in spite of price controls and the forcible redistribution of crops, bread is still of poor quality, hard to find and expensive? Would it not make more sense to consider that scarcities are the result of price controls and poor quality of being the result of producers adapting to the regulations by cutting down on quality-linked expenses?
With the exception of Louise Dechêne’s works, no historians has fully appreciated how detrimental price controls could have been to the economic development of the colony. Frégault’s comments is a pretty stark illustration of that … and hence he qualifies for weird comments in economic history…
In recent times, Jeffrey Williamson and Peter Lindert have been attempting to assert that American living standards were much higher than in Britain in the colonial. An important part of their claim centers on the differential of purchasing power parity. This makes America looks richer on the eve of the American revolution. I don’t dispute that part.
However, I do dispute that it was something exceptional within the thirteen colonies since I think that the colony of New France, a small settlement of roughly 60,000 individuals in 1760, had a similar advantage over its mother country of France and likely over Britain. I can’t be sure about how it stood relative to America (I am still playing with my creation of output and wage estimates), but its level of living standards should not have diverged too much from those observed in America.
Why do I say that? Well here is a table from my thesis which compares prices in France to prices in Quebec (prices in Quebec divided by prices in France). As you can see, prices in French America – except for import prices – are considerably lower than those in France. In my modest opinion, this means that a parrallel can be drawn between Lindert and Williamson’s focus on British/American purchasing power and French/Canadian purchasing power.
So what about prices in Quebec to those in the Colony? Here, I am more prudent since converting currency units is extremely delicate. However, using the Hoffman rates for the grams of silver per livre permits me to draw the following image of the differences in prices between Quebec and Philadelphia. For flour, wheat and wine, the inhabitants of Quebec had to pay less than the inhabitants of Philadelphia while the latter paid less for rum, beef and salt.
From this, its hard to assert something about the relative purchasing power of the two colonies. However, I think it makes the American colonies seem less exceptional in economic history. This makes me think also that the real question is not whether or not colonial economies overtook “old world” economies, rather the question is why did that one (the US) actually had faster growth for most of the 19th century and Canada’s growth only took up in the late 19th century and early 20th century?
NOTE: This is all still formative thinking. However, the tables presented for prices are pretty solid.