Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A Beginner's Guide to Driving in Manhattan

I spent the weekend with my family in New York. It's become an annual trip, scheduled to coincide with World Maker Faire. It was our 5th trip to the Big Apple, and I'm finally getting the hang of navigating the city. So, without further ado, here are my top ten tips for driving in Manhattan:

1. Pay no attention to signs or traffic lights. Simply drive with the traffic.

2. Yes, that taxi is going to cut you off.

3. Pedestrians pay no attention to walk/don't walk signs. They cross whenever and where ever they like. The also leap from the curb into the road without warning to flag a taxi.

4. If you leave any space at all between you and the car in front of you, someone will try to squeeze into it.

5. Every horizontal surface in the city will be considered by someone a legitimate parking spot. There are almost no alleys or driveways, so trucks, delivery vans, moving vans, taxis, limos, rickshaws, etc. simply stop on the road in front of buildings.

6. Paying for parking in Manhattan will cost you the same as a hotel room in any other city.

7. People use their horns. A lot. Taxis use their horns instead of their brakes.

8. Most of the major north/south avenues are one-way and 5 lanes wide. The centre lane is designated for emergency vehicles - if a fire truck, police car or ambulance is coming, everyone is expected to clear out of the centre lane. Surprisingly, this works quite well. People get out of the way and the emergency vehicles come roaring through at high speed. Then, taxis immediately tuck in behind the emergency vehicles and roar at high speed too.

9. Use your car to get to or from Manhattan, but within Manhattan, don't drive. Walking, the subway, or a taxi will be faster and cheaper. There's probably nowhere to park where you're going anyway, and even if there is, you'll pay way more to park than a taxi or subway would cost.

10. GPS signals are unreliable in the urban canyons of Manhattan. Know where you're going without relying on GPS. With the numbered streets & avenues, it's really easy to navigate. 

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Globalization of Local Labour

Much has been written in recent days about the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. Businesses, claiming a shortage of workers in Canada, are taking advantage of this program to bring in workers from other countries, to work everywhere from banks to coffee shops.

This is, in reality, simply an extension of what has been happening for years. Jobs have been transferred from high wage economies to low wage economies. Manufacturing in North America has been in decline, as workers in China & India will do the work for much lower wages. Service jobs, such as call centres, have also moved to Mexico, India, or even economically depressed areas in Canada. Companies save money, as the lower wages more than offset the increased transportation and telecommunications costs involved in moving operations to other countries.

However, there are some types of jobs that are inherently local. Serving coffee to customers cannot be moved offshore (though some fast food chains actually use offshore call centres to take orders at the drive thru & enter the orders into the restaurant's computer system). With the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, companies are now bringing the low wage expectations of other parts of the world to Canada to service these inherently local jobs.

The reason given by the companies is that they cannot find Canadians willing to do the work. But that's a simplistic argument. All employment is an economic transaction - the sale of labour for money. Canada does not have a shortage of people looking for work, and serving coffee does not require a specialized skill set that is absent among Canadian job seekers. What is really going on is the companies are not willing to pay Canadians enough to attract their labour.

What is curious to me is that the businesses, supported apparently by the Federal Conservative government, are using the Temporary Foreign Worker Program to subvert the free market that in other circumstances they claim to support. Without the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, the free market would force businesses to increase wages and benefits to the point where they could attract and keep Canadian workers. One might claim that they are simply taking a global view of the free market - that they are offering wages that do attract labour, just not Canadian labour. But that view requires a fundamental shift in our thinking about immigration policy. It would require us to essentially abandon immigration restrictions, and allow anyone who wished to come to Canada. And it would require the companies to admit that there's nothing "Temporary" about their use of this program.

Businesses lobby hard to ensure that they don't face unfair competition from foreign competitors who don't face the same safety standards, environmental standards, & labour standards. They push for import tariffs, and seek product standards that are directed more at stifling foreign competition than safety. Through complex free trade agreements and the World Trade Organization, they carefully regulate the access foreign companies have to Canadian markets.

Canadian corporations can't have it both ways. If a free market within the borders of Canada, protected from unfair foreign competition, is fair for their business, then they must also tolerate a free market for labour on the same terms. Like any other economic transaction, if you can't find someone willing to sell to you, increase how much you're willing to pay.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A Fresh Look is Needed on the Red Hill Lawsuit

More than 10 years ago, the City of Hamilton sued the federal government over delays in completing the Red Hill Expressway. The City had justification to be angry - delays had been caused by an environmental assessment ordered by the federal government which a Federal Court ruled was improper. Having obtained that ruling, the City then went on to seek $75 million in damages from the federal government, dozens of federal ministers & employees, alleging, in essence, that the environmental assessment was ordered in bad faith.

Yesterday, Hamilton council discussed whether to drop the lawsuit, but after a lengthy in camera meeting, decided against it. The reason they cited in interviews with The Spectator was that they were concerned that dropping the lawsuit now would result in the City having to pay the federal government's legal costs to date.

The City has already spent about $3 million pursuing this case, including having to pay the federal government about $310,000 in costs after losing a motion in the case. While it's true that simply dropping the case now could expose the City to paying the federal government's legal costs for the entire lawsuit, one thing that is certain is that lawsuits get more expensive as time goes on. Dropping the suit today would be costly, dropping it next year would be more costly.

The City has 3 options: drop the case, negotiate a settlement, or take the case to trial. A settlement could be 'we'll drop the case if you agree to waive your costs'.

From my limited knowledge of the case, I'd have to say that it's a difficult one. Proving that something happened is relatively easy. Proving motivation is often difficult. Proving someone did something in bad faith is usually very difficult. The City has to prove that the federal government and/or some or all of the individuals named as defendants actively and knowingly used the environmental review process in an improper manner for improper purposes. Showing they were wrong is not enough. Proving it was a mistake, or that they were aggressive in their application of the review process is not enough. They must prove intentional wrongdoing. Even a hint of 'doing the wrong thing for a proper reason' may be enough to defeat the City's claim.

I spent almost 20 years litigating big cases. Many of those cases were against the federal government. I know enough not to presume I can judge the case from the outside. There may well be factors I don't know about that make it winnable. There may be settlement discussions underway. I don't know.

However, from reading the court decisions, there are matters of concern. In the decision that granted the federal government the $310,000 in costs, the judge said:

the City changed the nature of the relief that it sought on several occasions … 
Counsel for the City has acted as if it had a client with inexhaustible resources to finance endless experimental litigation and that it could conduct litigation against the federal government with impunity. …
This motion proved to be entirely unnecessary. Over 3-1/2 years were spent in preparation and argument.  It consumed 11 court days … based on a hearing in the Federal Court which itself required only 5 days. The City was entirely unsuccessful. No findings were made by the court that the defendants had not already conceded or admitted in their statement of defence filed in 2006. In the end, 3-1/2 years of legal work by both parties, which could have been spent advancing the action, were entirely wasted.
The City took an over reaching and excessively complicated approach to this motion, filing almost 300 pages of written argument (comprising 964 paragraphs) and over 127 cases and authorities. The relief sought changed substantially on several occasions after service of the original notice of motion and even in the midst of oral argument up to the last day of the hearing of the motion. 
These are harsh words by the usually polite standards of Canadian judges. The judge found that this motion was "entirely wasted". That includes the $310,000 in costs the City had to pay to the federal government. However, it also includes whatever the City paid its own lawyers for the motion. Court ordered costs are usually only a fraction of what is actually spent, and federal government lawyers' hourly rates are often much lower than those charged by lawyers in large law firms. Given that, it would not surprise me that the City spent more than double the $310,000 on its own lawyers. As a result, the "entirely wasted" motion probably cost the City 3 1/2 years and about a million dollars (possibly more), plus all of the staff time that was devoted to it.

It appears to me that, at least in retrospect, some very poor decisions have been made with respect to how this lawsuit has been pursued. Because these matters are discussed in camera, I don't know what input was given by council, staff, or the lawyers. I don't know what recommendations were made, or who made the ultimate decisions to proceed in the manner they did. But it appears clear to me that mistakes were made.

Human nature being what it is, it's difficult to admit that you were wrong. It would be difficult for council members or staff to admit that their decisions cost the City $1 million or more with nothing to show for it. It is difficult for a lawyer to tell his or her client that he or she charged hundreds of thousands of dollars for something that yielded no results. So it's reasonable to think that those who have been involved to this point may not be objective enough to make a reasoned decision about whether, or how, to go forward.

In my view, what the City and council need now is a second opinion from a respected, objective and independent lawyer. It will cost additional money, but it is necessary at this point to set aside what has happened in the past, and consider where things stand. View it as all civil lawsuits should be viewed - as a dispute about money. Litigation is a costly, inefficient and unsatisfying way to make a point. At this stage, it's must be viewed as purely a business decision: what are the risks & costs of going forward, and what is the likelihood of recovering more than you will have to spend. It needs to be a cold and rational calculation. And I'm not sure anyone close to the case is capable of that right now.