Herschel Hardin: Effectual Intellectual
September 16th, 2012
Herschel Hardin doesn’t want to simply rock the boat. He wants to turn the boat around.
By examining “waste and folly” in the private sector, information pills Hardin’s The New Bureaucracy (M&S), has revealed the remarkable extent to which ‘free enterprise’ has become a bloated sacred cow in North America.
“As of April 1991,” he writes, “the average CEO’s total remuneration in the United States, for firms over US$250 million in sales, was 101 per cent greater than in Japan, 105 per cent greater than in West Germany, 151 per cent greater than in the Netherlands and 123 per cent greater than in Sweden.”
Corporate indulgences. Paper entrepreneurship. Advertising (“the most pernicious of all branches of the New Bureaucracy”). Money-managers. The Stock Market. All are shown to be a drain on the collective economy with a barrage of statistics and revelations gleaned from several years’ research.
“Waste in the private sector is large, ever-growing and in many ways unchecked,” says Hardin. Whereas most of us are quick to criticize Canada Post or Canada Council, he contends that private business is all too often inept, foolhardy – and invariably excused. “Free enterprise ideology is the last refuge of wasteful bureaucracies,” he says.
In 1986, Hardin’s Closed Circuits: The Sellout of Canadian Television argued on behalf of public broadcasting. In 1974, Hardin’s A Nation Unaware earned him lavish praise from the likes of more popular analysts such as Allan Fotheringham, Pierre Berton and Peter Newman.
Prior to New Bureaucracy, Hardin published The Privatization Putsch in 1989. His play Esker Mike and His Wife Agiluk is a political satire about Inuit life and white society. Another play, The Great Wave of Civilization, reveals the destruction of the Blackfoot Confederacy.
Born in Vegreville, Alberta in 1936, Hardin is a self-described ‘western Canadian patriot’. He lives in Wet Vancouver, where he is currently writing a history of Vancouver City Savings Credit Union.
BCBW: What led you to investigate the waste and folly of the private sector?
HARDIN: In the mid-1980s I noticed mergers and acquisitions were being glorified in the media; yet there events were basically paper shuffling and had nothing to do with real enterprise. I also noticed commercialism in general was increasing everywhere I looked. Suddenly large corporations were sponsoring rock concerts and athletic events.
CEO compensation was also going sky-high. I knew that if such extravagances occurred in the public sector there would be all kinds of outcry. Nobody would accept it. But because it was happening in the private sector, nobody was saying boo.
BCBW: So society has a double standard.
HARDIN: Sure. Mergers and acquisitions are unproductive work. Yet M&A was being idolized in the press. The original reporting on Robert Campeau, for instance, was “Here’s our brave Canadian knight venturing into the lusty American war for corporate assets.” So I decided to write the book. I hired a research assistant. We started by reading through five years’ worth of business magazines, beginning with mainstays like Business Week, Fortune and Forbes. And a great publication called Advertising Age, great for what it reveals. The research territory then expanded seemingly without end.
BCBW: Why American sources and not Canadian?
HARDIN: The business press in the US is quite good; but in Canada it is quite weak. The business press in the US, for instance, does lots of exposés. If some corporation is fooling the public, or if some executive from a failing company has a big yacht at the shareholders’ expense, there are stories on these guys. And the United States, of course, with its free enterprise dogma, is where the New Bureaucracy is most advanced – where the most bizarre and outlandish case histories are found. The Americans are the ‘bureaucratic leader’.
BCBW: What was your emotional response to accumulating all this documentation on excess?
HARDIN: Mostly I was feeling a sense of discovery! It’s actually fun to look at the waste, nonsense and sham of, say, the various stock market analysts. But I do get angry when I turn on the news and they flash the stock market averages, the price of gold, the price of the dollar. This symbolically says bureaucratic shuffling is what is important in the economy. Whereas the individual who decides to upgrade his education by going to technical school, for example, which is really important to the economy, has no symbolic presence in the mass media.
Lobbyists upset me, too. Not that people shouldn’t represent their views. But when one group of lobbyists with special interests can outspend and outpaper everybody else, it really does undermine the parliamentary system.
BCBW: What about the increasing intrusions of advertising? Telephone soliciting. Junk mail. Between innings at baseball games. In the cinemas before the movie starts. It’s everywhere!
HARDIN: It’s really a propaganda system that is totalitarian. Twenty or thirty years ao TV critics used to complain about various commercials and interruptions. They no longer do. We’ve been beaten down. The public has almost given up, resigned to being pummelled. And we’re all suckers, we all get taken in by the sheer repetition of the imagery. All this propaganda portrays the values of consumption, instant gratification, and self-indulgence. It’s not much different than the way communist propaganda was practiced in the Soviet Union. It’s propaganda in the classic sense: We have no right of response.
Of course we could stand up on a soapbox and complain about this propaganda but that would be no more effective than Czech intellectuals getting together in somebody’s basement. The one case where a response actually made it to the airwaves was counter-commercials on cigarette smoking. Everybody in the advertising bureaucracy was so alarmed that they advised the tobacco companies not to fight a ban on their own broadcast advertising so that the counter-commercials would be dropped. If a right of response to television advertising was ever allowed, I believe the whole propaganda system would disintegrate.
BCBW: What about training our children to be more critical?
HARDIN: Intellectual awareness is really no match for the target marketing they have now. They have developed very detailed profiles, to the level of absurdity.
BCBW: In the book you mention that Search for Tomorrow watchers buy 27 per cent more spaghetti sauce than average people, but 22 per cent less V8 juice.
HARDIN: Yes. Whereas researchers discovered All My Children devotees feel so-so about spaghetti sauce but purchase 48 per cent more V8 than the norm – a comic example of how absurd and bureaucratically bizarre research marketing has become. Everything about us is being very carefully studied and pinned down, even to within the block or street where we live.
BCBW: My pet peeve is that Hockey Night in Canada is now called Molson Hockey Night in Canada. They’re robbing the meaning of life!
HARDIN: People accept that it’s Molson Hockey Night in Canada because there’s supposed to be something virtuous about the private sector. Whereas in societies that are not so dogmatically attached to the ideology – say Japan, which has a collective, almost feudal tradition, and Western Europe, which has its socialist parties – there’s been less extravagance, less abuse. One hopes that there will be a country somewhere that will come to grips with this and create a beachhead for reform. I was very, very disappointed when the Scandinavian countries finally caved in an decided to have television commercials. They were the last hold-out.
BCBW: Where do you think your independent-mindedness comes from? Does it have anything to do with growing up in Vegreville, Alberta?
HARDIN: It’s relevant because my father was a CCF voter. So I grew up not being emotionally party to the system. He never talked politics, but I was open to new ideas and to challenging conventional wisdom. Also, some small prairie towns like Vegreville have a certain democratic, egalitarian quality that a similar town or city in Ontario doesn’t have.
When I went to university in Kingston at the age of 18 it was a culture shock. I could feel class and conventionalism. Later on, when I was writing an editorial-page column for the Toronto Star, I could see how self-censorship creeps in. No matter how well-documented and objective you are, you’ll censor yourself if you want to reach a Toronto readership. Living in Ottawa or Toronto one develops a certain sensitivity – in small career, political or social ways – one suddenly finds oneself marginalized and no longer socially desirable.
BCBW: Whereas living in Vancouver you’re already marginalized! [laughter]
HARDIN: Yes. Certainly westerners do have a different style. One of the things that disappoints me is that our BC politics have become so moderate. When people used to say to me, “How can you possibly live in a place governed by Bill Vander Zalm?”, I would wear it as a badge of honour, facetiously speaking. The polarization of BC politics, which is so often decried, is a good thing up to a point. It generates public debate.
BCBW: Are you satisfied with writing a book as a course of action? As a recourse?
HARDIN: I like to think that the pen is mightier than the bureaucracy! There has to be some debate. Writing a book is a start. The journalistic function is to bring forward a reality that’s always there, but is lying just beneath the surface. All the different details in my books have been reported elsewhere by nobody’s really tied them together.
BCBW: If you could begin to re-shape our society, what would you do?
HARDIN: Let’s take a small example… an illustration. If I were premier of the province I would get rid of the Vancouver Stock Exchange. I know there are all kinds of people, from all sides of the political fence, who would like to get rid of it, too. Unfortunately the NDP, because it wants to be looked upon as a moderate party, won’t attack the VSE for fear of being accused of being anti-enterprise, anti-business. At the very least they should put a tax on stock market transactions and reduce the paper shuffling and waste. But that won’t happen until people look at the private corporate sector as a competing bureaucracy that does some good things but also generates waste, bureaucracy and self-indulgence. Culture really drives everything.
BCBW: So you don’t see any individual private corporations as major villains? Olympia & York? The Reichmanns?
HARDIN: No. I guess if I really had to blame anybody in particular, it would be the media. I think the media are really more important than any political party today. Political parties are forced to conform to the media. Politicians won’t talk about some issues if they think they’ll get hit really hard by the media. There’s another important factor here, too. The media are financed largely by advertising and marketing so for them to attack that section of the New Bureaucracy would be cutting their own throats. We can’t expect them to do that.
One hope we might have had in our society is the CBC, which is publicly funded for the most part, but it’s caved in, too. It’s become almost as captive as the rest of them. I don’t think people generally realize how extremely important it is to have a publicly funded major medium in a democratic country. People are usually making the nationalistic argument for the CBC, saying the CBC helps hold the country together and so forth, but maybe more important is the fact that it can provide a check on the narrowness and blindness of privately-owned media.
BCBW: You founded the Association for Public Broadcasting. In ten years, what did you learn from that?
HARDIN: The imagery of television governs almost everything we do. It governs the rhythms of our lives, it governs our sense of values. We need to get up in the morning and decide on our own what cereal we want to eat, not have our minds made up by the last corn flakes commercial we saw. If there is any one branch of the economy that needs to be reformed more than any other, I’d say it’s the advertising/marketing branch. It’s the least tolerable because it’s not simply wasteful; it influences how we thing. But until we have major change in the way people think about how our economy works, we can’t expect any major changes in the television we get.
Essay Date: 1992