Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Small Business and the Suburbs

Some readers may be aware that over the last few years, and the last year in specific I have been working on ideas for a small, independent business. The idea has always attracted me. I like the notion of being my own boss and while making money making a positive contribution to my community. At first I thought about setting up my business in my hometown, Brampton, but I discovered a competitor had beaten me to the punch and so I looked elsewhere. Yesterday I met with some people from the Brampton Economic Development office. For anyone considering starting a business I would highly recommend speaking with your local chapter.

I sat down with one of their experts about locations in the city and neighbourhoods that might be of interest. After about an hour of conversation we parted ways, me with new ideas in my head and went to reconsider if Brampton might work for what I hope to accomplish.

I sat staring at a map last night, and drove to the locations we discussed and as I reflect back upon that experience I wonder if there might be a fundamental problem. Is suburban-style development hostile to independent, small businesses?

Hostile is probably too strong a word, what is probably more accurate to say is that they are a steeper uphill climb than in a more urban environment. I do not think the particular problem is Brampton, instead it is the land-use patterns in the city commonly found elsewhere. Downtown Brampton offers some solutions to the problems I am about to list, but instead I Want to talk about some of the problems first.

Every business has a certain logical catchment area. This is the area in which customers are likely to encounter a business in their daily activities, or the proximity to the business in their day-to-day lives. You can probably draw a circle around your business and within which you can reasonably expect customers to drive/walk/bike/transit to your business, and beyond which people are far less likely. In denser urban environments this circle could contain tens of thousands of potential customers. Given the lower densities found in suburban environments the business is drawing a smaller population. There is also an element of specialization here. Let's take the example of a bakery. Most people don't have need for a bakery anymore as they buy their bread from grocery stores. Bakeries now almost exclusively cater to desserts and pastries. Are there enough people five kilometers around a strip mall to make a bakery sustainable? Obviously in some cases yes, but it certainly more of a challenge.

If a business wants to reach beyond that circle it needs to pull in an audience and reach across the boundaries. In a suburb like Brampton that means driving. Transit, while improving, take longer, operates on an independent schedule and may not deliver you to your end location. Brampton is a large, sprawling city. Even as a person who has lived here most of his life my knowledge of it is constrained to certain districts and regions. Rarely do I find myself north of Bovaird, or in East Brampton. Likewise, a customer is unlikely to visit a business that is beyond a certain mental horizon. It took me months to go visit a board game store in Brampton because it seemed so distant and inconvenient.

Outside of the Downtown a business in Brampton is probably found in a mall, a strip mall or a shopping complex. I am unfamiliar with malls, so I'll leave that aside. The design of a strip mall and shopping complex are such that people going there already know why they are there. People don't browse in these locations. They drive to their store and leave. Worse still, unlike a traditional downtown, oftentimes the businesses are not visible from travellers on the road. The complex obscures businesses deep in its well of buildings and parking lots, and the strip mall is difficult to see. These types of shopping complexes encourage chains and franchises because customers have some idea what they are. It would be exceedingly easy to miss a unique name on one of those towering signs or hanging over a building and, since you are likely driving, it is difficult to investigate.

Finally the suburban development pattern that I have observed tends to create larger spaces. This is likely a benefit to some but that square footage costs money in rent and maintenance. A 3000 square foot restaurant might not make a lot of sense to an entrepreneur with limited resources, but a 1500 square foot one may let him/her get started and test the market.

There are no doubt successful independent, small businesses to be found in the 'burbs. When I reflect though on my favourites in my hometown only two are out in the sprawl while the rest are tucked inside the small downtown. These are definitely things I think about as I decide whether or not my idea is feasible and I wonder how many are faced with similar dilemmas.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Worth Reading - May 26, 2016

The opening part of this article is so true. I'll write it out here. "Unlike Carthage or Pompeii, cities don't tend to vanish anymore. Instead they shrink. Industrial economies weaken, residents leave, and what remains is a compromised infrastructure." 

From Edward Keenan at the Toronto Star, housing prices in Toronto are detached from reality. This is connected to what I wrote about on Tuesday.

Also from Edward Keenan, acall to raise city taxes

From Spacing, an examination of housing prices by looking at expansive vs. expensive cities

Hamilton, Ontario is having a hard time saying yes to $1 billion for an LRT in its downtown. I really don't understand what is happening in these cities...

Martin Patriquin on electoral reform

Chantal Hebert on electoral reform

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Quick Thoughts: Are we in a housing bubble?

Off the top I will admit that I remembered last night and late tonight that it was Tuesday and hence blog day. My day disappeared into a couple of projects, errands and work and the next thing I know I have less than three hours to post something interesting.

I did not have time to have anything properly prepped (last said by me, red faced, to a high school teacher). Instead I thought I would write down something that has been on my mind for weeks/months but haven't found the time to write out properly. I may revisit this with a proper post later.

I live in the Greater Toronto Area. I live with my family and we have lived in the same house my entire life. Every year prices have crept up and up and pushed potential buyers further afield. I am of the right age that a few of my friends have bought their first or second homes. More than a few have been pushed further into the Toronto commutershed, or deeper into suburbia to find homes they can afford. It's the 'drive until you qualify' formulation writ large.

This philosophy seems like a poorly disguised trap to me. Living further away from your work and essentials drives up costs, hidden in gas bills, second/third cars, insurance, and most importantly - time. It also has this daunting ripple effect. People cannot afford to live in inner Toronto so move to the inner suburbs, the inner suburbs prices people out and they live in the core 905, and out and out they go. Now my neighbourhood of simple 1960s suburban homes prices at ~$500000 when they cost a fifth as much 20 years ago. It seems to me the people living in these houses couldn't buy them today if they were forced into the market with no equity.

Watching a film like The Big Short has me wondering if the Canadian housing market found the perfect amount of heat to keep prices and investment flowing in the industry but not clearly manifest as a bubble. Prices, as near as I can tell, have not gone down in years and years. No one putting their house on the market today expects to lose money.

There are other troubling symptoms, but the excess isn't here to suggest the kind of runaway freight train that happened in the U.S. Still, I am worried, and the pace may be deceiving us. How sustainable is this ever climbing ride? Is a plunge on the horizon? And if it is, does the longer the wait mean worse outcomes for us all?

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Worth Reading - May 19, 2016

Martin Regg Cohn talks about the proposed changes to Ontario's political financing laws

It was all the buzz this morning on Twitter, the scuffle on the floor of Parliament yesterday. 

Steve Paikin writes that a longer leadership race for the NDP opens opportunities for less well-known candidates. 

Kady O'Malley writes how the electoral reform committee can be saved. I blogged about this on Tuesday.

David Akin argues that electoral reform overlooks the problem of representation by population in this country

The National Post offers their take on whether or not Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau should receive office staff at the public expense. 

Michael Chong (CPC - Wellington-Halton Hills, ON) has entered the race to lead the Conservatives. I have said positive things about Chong in the past, I look forward to what ideas he'll bring to the campaign.

San Grewal writes that the period of dysfunction under Susan Fennell in Brampton continues despite a change in leadership at the top

Andrew Sullivan writes how the roots to the current American presidential election may be found in the bedrock of political philosophy, Plato. Is democracy sliding towards tyranny? 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Electoral Reform at Risk

During the election Justin Trudeau (LPC - Papineau, QC) repeatedly stated that 2015 would be the last First Past the Post election in Canada. If the aftermath of the Liberal victory this is one of the few things I hung my hat on and had some hope for, as a person who strongly dislikes the Liberals and their current leader. I'm an electoral reform nerd. I've read all the articles about different forms of government, looked a possible models Canada could adopt and read up on what other countries do. I have been waiting for a serious push for electoral reform at the federal level for about 10 years now. However, the Liberals have put that all in jeopardy.

Changes to election laws are often very contentious and for very good reason. Fears about changes can broadly be broken into two groups, threats to democracy and tipping the partisan scales. These are connected but ultimately different problems. Occasionally a story will emerge where an autocratic president or prime minister changes election laws (or perhaps the constitution) to better secure their own power and curb democracy. Changes to term length, ending term limits, altering finance laws, or freedom of speech, or who can vote can erode the central democracy in a political culture. If the changes goes to far the system may collapse into despotism altogether. Then there are changes the preference one political party over the others, and usually it is the party in power. This might mean redistricting in such a way that benefits strongholds of one party over another or changing fundraising laws that benefits the ruling party.

Due to the risks inherent in tinkering with the electoral system of a given country it is often wise to ensure that broad consensus is reached on any reforms. Take for example the so-called Fair Elections Act. Massive public outcry on the provisions of that act forced the Conservatives to amend it into something more palatable. Making changes along party lines raises the possibilities that someone might tamper with the deck.

Earlier this month Minister Maryam Monsef (LPC - Peterborough-Kawartha, ON) announced the government's structure for the committee that will make recommendations about electoral reform. The Liberals have decided to give themselves a majority on the committee. Six of the ten seats are occupied by Liberals, three were meted out to the Conservatives and one to the NDP. The Bloc and Green Party will be permitted a seat, but they will not be allowed to vote.

Public reaction to this was decidedly negative. This is the sort of committee with which you ram something through, not arrive at consensus. This ploy by the Liberal government might jeopardize any chance reform has for legitimacy. It also sets a terrible precedent that any majority government can make major changes to the electoral system on their own.

It didn't, and doesn't, have to be that way. The Liberal reformers have allies in the progressive opposition parties. Both the NDP and Greens are hungry for electoral reform. The Conservatives are likely bad faith partners in this exercise. Their current electoral calculus means that any reform will likely cause them to lose seats and make it more difficult for them to form government. Likewise the Bloc is threatened by something like proportional representation as a regional party.

While the NDP and Greens would gladly sign on to a package for proportional representation it is not clear that the Liberals are willing to accept any form of PR. Trudeau has publicly expressed a preference for the ranked ballot option. It is widely assumed that this option would be a tremendous benefit to Liberals. A ranked or preferential ballot could be implemented without widespread changes to the rest of electoral system and so perhaps this is where the Liberals have been leading all along.

The way the committee will function is still uncertain. Monsef said the committee will evaluate systems based on five principles: effectiveness and legitimacy, engagement, accessibility and inclusiveness, integrity and local representation. Those aren't the five I would have chosen, but there you have it.

The risk of failure here is very high. The public and opposition parties could be easily alienated and any reforms seem an underhanded way to secure power for the Liberals. As a person who wants to see electoral reform I fear the Liberals have gotten off to such a ham-fisted start that it might already be too late to save.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Worth Reading - May 12, 2016

Eric Grenier broke down some of the fundraising by candidates (and potential candidates) to lead the Conservatives and NDP.  Definitely some interesting numbers.

The Ontario Government is proposing new rules to curb sprawl in the GTHA. I'll believe it when I see it. The current Green Belt is frequently violated.

Jeet Heer answers the question, are Donald Trump supporters idiots

The Liberals have finally announced their committee for electoral reform. It is not particularly inspiring that the Liberals will hold a majority on the committee.

Justin Trudeau's Liberal Government has begun using time allocation to curtail debates. Aaron Wherry offers a measured take here

From Huffington Post, a Liberal voter says enough Trudeaumania, let's get down to making progress. 

This article from the Toronto Star suggests that universities need a rethink. I am less concerned. I'm not sure what is needed is a dialogue between professors and students.

From the New York Times, a topic I think about a lot, progressive silencing of conservative or unorthodox views

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Sexual Harassment in the Halls of Parliament

In the last parliament two Liberal MPs were expelled from their caucus after allegations surfaced that they had sexual harassed New Democratic parliamentarians. It was reported earlier this week that former MPP Kim Craitor (OLP - Niagara Falls) was pushed to resign in light of a sexual harassment complaint. The public was never informed that this was the reason for Craitor's retirement. Craitor denies this and is a current city councillor.

Samara Canada, a non-profit organization that explores Canadians engagement in their democracy, filed a report in 2015 looking at Question Period and suggested that heckling and decorum of the House helped to create a toxic atmosphere that disproportionately impacted women. At the time I was skeptical of the report. I think aggressive, spirited debate is valuable. The sexism and name-calling are uncalled for, but suggesting that MPs should never heckle or boo each other I think tamped down the life of the House of Commons.

The type of sexual harassment we have come to expect is a politician taking advantage of an inferior, see Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. This is a horrendous abuse of power, but the fact that our representatives have to bear up under this treatment is stunning. Michelle Remple (CPC - Calgary Nose Hill, AB) recently wrote an op-ed talking about her experiences, including inappropriate touching. Rempel's position was endorsed by her colleagues.

Solutions to this type of problem are not obvious. Typically in human resources these instances are tried to be handled quietly for the dignity and privacy of the victim. On the other hand there is the right of the public and voters to be informed of their politicians' behaviour. I know if my MP/MPP was accused of sexual harassment I would like to know about it. Any process that works quietly and behind closed doors are at risk of falling victim to partisan manipulation and sweeping allegations under the rug.

One hopes that over time the toxic misogyny that exists in the House of Commons is driven out as it should be in the rest of society. There are no guarantees. What is clear is that MPs require training, like any workplace, and must have real consequences for their actions, but finding the balance that works for both the public interest and the theoretical victims will be difficult.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Worth Reading - May 5, 2016

Brampton City Councillors are having a difficult time working together. To call the climate at City Hall toxic might be a dramatic understatement

With the withdrawal of Senator Ted Cruz and Governor John Kasich, Donald Trump is set to take the Republican nomination. The New York Times looked at the electoral math as it currently stands

When will the Liberals introduce their promised changes to Bill C-51

North Korea is preparing to have its first party congress in 36 years. Historically these congresses can presage great changes, but in this case it seems probably not.

Andrew Coyne offers a nice little bit of satire about loosening lobbying rules

Episode 131 of Canadaland is about the political and economic turmoil occurring in Newfoundland and Labrador. 

This applies to a great number of people I know, from The Atlantic, why are so many smart people unhappy

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

A New Vision for the NDP

A couple of weeks ago the federal NDP met in Edmonton and voted that all the riding associations should debate the merits of the Leap Manifesto. As I have written on this blog I am not particularly impressed with the manifesto and think elements of it are wildly unrealistic. However, I do not like the notion of rejecting something without offering some alternative. For more than two weeks now I have been rolling ideas in my head where I think a new New Democratic Party could direct its attention and energies. It is not completely polished, and is hardly a manifesto, but I like to think it is a kernel of an alternative. While Leap is built upon a foundation of climate action I propose a vision rooted in justice and sustainability.

The NDP purports to be the party of social justice, but do we reflect it in our candidates? Do we reflect it in our membership? Who are we advocating for? Are we magnifying their voices or speaking on their behalf? Anti-racism and empowering minority communities both in Canadian society and our party should be a top priority. Canadians have a false sense of superiority on racial issues, one which is underserved. The issues of carding and excessive policing disproportionately impact black and aboriginal communities. The NDP should lead the way in reforming justice. Black Lives Matter and the issues that organization represents have been too casually dismissed. We should lend our support to these grassroots movements that are fighting for the social justice we claim to be advocating for and fight the media and socially constructed narrative against these kinds of groups.

The NDP needs a response to the "tough on crime" agenda which has only further marginalized vulnerable groups and created lasting harm. Justice policy, the courts and policing must be meaningfully reformed in order to end the imbalance between different groups within society. We need to embrace and passionately fight for things that actually make us safer rather than what makes us feel safer. The NDP should advocate for Crown prosecutors and judges to better reflect the population, and in particular those groups most impacted in the current criminal justice system, such as First Nations and M├ętis Canadians. The privileges of the majority must be extended to all Canadians, especially when their freedom is at stake.

After addressing immediate issues we should explore root causes including poverty, education, and housing. I am proud of the NDP's focus on root causes, but long-term solutions take years to make a shift. We cannot settle for a generational solution and offer little to the present. One reason the rival parties are able to circumvent the NDP is by offering immediate trinkets, purporting them to be solutions to social ills. Sadly this is more appealing over our more abstract promises. Poverty reduction would lower crime, but no one expects it to go away in four years, so what are we really promising to those impacted and broader society?

A growing concern for Canada needs to be our housing costs, sprawl, and growing social problems in the suburbs. Suburban development is environmentally, financially and socially unsustainable. Obviously the federal party can do little to shape land use planning, but there are levers that can be pulled. The government can provide support (resources, samples, shared best practices) for intensification and form-based code for cities. The government should support public transit initiatives that curb sprawl, investing money where it does the most good. Invest in rail over highways and develop more roots. Explore models in other jurisdictions and see if high-speed rail would work in certain Canadian contexts.

Canada is fortunate to have a strong healthcare system, but there is a fatal flaw and that is the centuries' old stigma against mental illness. All Canadians will be touched by mental illness at some point, either themselves or a loved one. First is the work to change attitudes, but that does little good if care and resources are not available. Treatment options need to be made widely available at affordable costs. We must end the criminalization of non-violent mental illness, and violent offenders are in institutions when possible. This equally applies to addictions. Substance abuse needs a comprehensive strategy that treats it as a disease and not a crime.

Parties of all stripes like to address youth unemployment with niche, short-term programs. This is folly. Canada, compared to many peers, lacks the employment market data other countries easily have at their finger tips. We need to reconsider our education and employment system, perhaps moving towards a model like the Swiss where high school-aged students are out in the workforce, learning valuable skills and seeing if it is the right fit. Right now figuring out the demand for certain professions is a matter of independent research and gambling.

Finally, Canada needs to confront its demographic crisis. The graying of the nation posses a major risk to our economy and social safety net. This is a threat that Canadians have not been adequately prepared for. As the boomers are and retire we face a crunch. Canada has been using immigration to bridge the gap , but we are still falling short. As a country we have not really considered growth in a strategic way. In 2011 a report was released posing the question of what a Canada with 100 million people would look like. The federal government should develop a long-term plan to address how we want to grow and where and the NDP needs to develop a set of policies to address the aging of the population.

The above is not a perfect vision for the NDP, but I believe it does more to redefine the party in a way consistent with its values and yet offering tangible reforms that would set Canada to be a more sustainable and fairer country. Any thoughts or feedback on these ideas would be greatly appreciated.