The Consequences of Treating Electricity as a Right

In poor countries the price of electricity is low, so low that “utilities lose money on every unit of electricity that they sell.” As a result, rationing and shortages are common. Writing in the JEP, Burgess, Greenstone, Ryan and Sudarshan argue that “these shortfalls arise as a consequence of treating electricity as a right, rather than as a private good.”

How can treating electricity as a right undermine the aim of universal access to reliable electricity? We argue that there are four steps. In step 1, because electricity is seen as a right, subsidies, theft, and nonpayment are widely tolerated. Bills that do not cover costs, unpaid bills, and illegal grid connections become an accepted part of the system. In step 2, electricity utilities—also known as distribution companies—lose money with each unit of electricity sold and in total lose large sums of money. Though governments provide support, at some point, budget constraints start to bind. In step 3, distribution companies have no option but to ration supply by limiting access and restricting hours of supply. In effect, distribution companies try to sell less of their product. In step 4, power supply is no longer governed by market forces. The link between payment and supply has been severed: those evading payment receive the same quality of supply as those who pay in full. The delinking of payment and supply reinforces the view described in step 1 that electricity is a right [and leads to] a low-quality, low-payment equilibrium.

The Burgess et al. analysis coheres with my observations in India where “wire anarchy” is common (see picture). It’s obvious that electricity is being stolen but no one does anything about it because it’s considered a right and a government that did do something about it would be voted out of power.

The stolen electricity means that the utility can’t cover its costs. Government subsidies are rarely enough to satisfy the demand at a zero or low price and so the utility rations.

The consequences for electricity consumers, both rich and poor, are severe. There is only one electricity grid, and it becomes impossible to offer a higher quantity or quality of supply to those consumers who are willing and sometimes even desperate to pay for it.

Moreover,the issue is not poverty per se.

…the vast majority of customers in Bihar expect no penalty from paying a bill late, illegally hooking into the grid, wiring around a meter, or even bribing electricity officials to avoid payment. These attitudes are in stark contrast to how the same consumers view payment for private goods like cellphones. It is debatable whether cellphones are more important than electricity, but in Bihar we find that the poor spend three times more on cellphones than they do on elec-tricity (1.7 versus 0.6 percent of total expenditure).

Burgess et al. frame the issue as “treating electricity as right,” but one can can also understand this equilibrium as arising from low state capacity and corruption, in particular corruption with theft. In corruption with theft the buyer pays say a meter reader to look the other way as they tap into the line and they get a lower price for electricity net of the bribe. Corruption with theft is a strong equilibrium because buyers who do not steal have higher costs and thus are driven out of the market. In addition, corruption with theft unites the buyer and the corrupt meter reader in secrecy, since both are gaining from the transaction. As Shleifer and Vishny note:

This result suggests that the first step to reduce corruption should be to create an accounting system that prevents theft from the government.

Burgess et al. agree noting, “reforms might seek to reduce theft of electricity and nonpayment of bills” and they point to programs in India and Pakistan that allow utilities to cut off entire neighborhoods when bills aren’t paid. Needless to say, such hardball tactics require some level of trust that when the bills are paid the electricity will be provided and at higher levels of quality–this may be easier to do when there are other sources of authority such as trusted religious leaders.

In essence the problem is that the government is too beholden to electricity consumers. If the government could commit to a regime of no or few subsidies, firms would supply electricity and prices would be low and quality high. But if firms do invest in the necessary electricity infrastructure the government will break its promise and exploit the firms for temporary electoral advantage. As a result, the consumers don’t get much electricity. The government faces a time consistency problem. Independent courts would help to bind the government but those often aren’t available in developing countries. Another possibility is a conservative electricity czar who, like a conservativer central banker, doesn’t share the preferences of the government or the voters. Again that requires some independence.

In short, to ensure that everyone has access to high quality electricity the government must credibly commit that electricity is not a right.


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