MACLEAN’S INTERVIEWS JOHN PORTER

June 1 1968

MACLEAN’S INTERVIEWS JOHN PORTER

June 1 1968

MACLEAN’S INTERVIEWS JOHN PORTER

Back in the salad days of this country, when we were even greener in judgment than we are now, a couple of extremely popular misconceptions somehow became firmly imbedded in the national consciousness. The first was that Canada, while no melting pot, was a splendid mosaic of culturally distinct ethnic groups all working harmoniously together. The second was that this New World mosaic lacked the inherently evil class distinctions of the Old, that Canada was a relatively affluent and largely middle-class democracy. This complacent picture of ourselves started to fall apart about 10 years ago, first with Quebec’s Quiet Revolution and later with the publication in 1965 of John Porter’s sociological bombshell, The Vertical Mosaic. In 600 well-documented, highly readable pages Professor Porter tabulated the enormous inequalities of income and opportunity in Canada’s supposedly classless society, demonstrated that only about 10 percent of Canadian families can actually afford the middle-class life-style we think of as average, and concluded that effective power resides in a predominantly Anglo-Saxon economic elite that is only a few hundred strong. The book has since sold some 25,000 copies — phenomenal for what is basically an academic text — and remains required reading for anyone claiming to understand what Canada is all about. Prof. Porter, born in Vancouver in 1921 and a graduate of the London School of Economics, has been teaching sociology at Ottawa’s Carleton University since 1949 and is now the Director of the Social Sciences Division. This interview was conducted by Staff Writer Douglas Marshall in Prof. Porter’s bright corner office in one of Carleton’s new high-rise towers on the bank of the Rideau River. From his seventh-floor window he can gaze across smudgy downtown Ottawa and pick out the Parliament Buildings and the Gatineau Hills beyond. His discussion, animated and fluent, ranged over the broad spectrum of Canada’s social problems. But he kept returning to what he believes is the overriding priority: the need to reform our educational institutions.

Maclean’s: What prompted you to write The Vertical Mosaic? Porter: I decided in the early

1950s I would like to do a study of power in Canada, starting particularly with economic power as being one of the principal sources of social inequality. These problems had been studied in many other industrial societies but had not been tackled in Canada. Maclean’s: Where were you then? Porter: I had come back to Canada after being away for some 12 years in the United Kingdom. 1 am Canadian-born and had lived in Canada until I was 15. 1 spent six years with the Canadian Army during the war. but I stayed in Britain after the war to study at the London School of Economics. Maclean’s: You came back to

Carleton?

Porter: Yes, when it was a very small college. Since Í had been away from Canada for some time, J spent the following summer traveling extensively and decided I would stay here and look at Canada as a society. 1 was back in England briefly in 1951 and there I tried to work out some sort of scheme by which 1 could look at power and class structure in Canada.

"Canada’s problem is that its political system leaves definition of major goals — and therefore the power — to the corporate elite"

Maclean’s: You say early on in your book that the 1950s marked “the high tide of post-war affluence." Do you think we reached a peak of prosperity during that decade?

Porter: I think that in the 1950s there was a peak in the belief that we were an affluent society. And indeed, compared to the underdeveloped countries, obviously we were affluent. But we weren't as affluent as we thought we were. It misled us into thinking we lived in a society where everybody enjoyed abundance. I think it's quite remarkable that the 1960s are a decade in which the whole orientation of theorizing and investigating is toward this problem of poverty and inequality.

Maclean’s: In your book you are generally dealing with statistics relating to the mid-1950s. Do you think there’s been much change over the past 10 years?

Porter: If you mean income distribution statistics, I don’t think they've changed. Obviously, inflation has lifted the entire range higher — that is, there are more

people earning more than $3,000 now than there were five or 10 years ago. But there would be very little difference in the overall income distribution in society. Maclean’s: You wrote that the middle-class life-style promoted by television and consumer magazines couldn't be achieved on less than $8.000 a year. Would the cost be $10.000 now?

Porter: I suspect it would be pretty hard to live a middle-class life-style on less than $10.000 at the present time. And by middle-class life-style I mean a separate home for the family, because you have to talk in terms of families rather than individuals. Lots of people own their own homes but they have to share them with other people. They rent out the bottom or top parts of them. So they're not necessarily leading the middle-class life. Maclean’s: What else is involved in the middle-class life?

Porter: It means holidays, sometimes abroad. It means all the necessary medical and dental facilities. It means looking forward to university training for your children. It means two cars if you live in the suburbs, and dishwashers and plenty of other kitchen and power-tool gadgetry. Middle-class people also have all kinds of status-type extras, such as sending their kids to ballet lessons or nursery schools. Central Mortgage and Housing was saying the other day that the lowest level of income eligible for an NHA mortgage was something more than $8.000. It was quite incredible, considering that the National Housing Act was supposed to benefit everybody.

Maclean’s: So you think that the people who can afford these things, the upper-middle class, is still a very small segment of society — about 10 percent?

Porter: I don't see any reason to feel the basic picture has changed. The proportion of the total population represented by the top 10 percent of income families would be about the same. Because nothing has happened to change it. Maclean’s: In your book you make some pretty harsh criticisms of Canada’s present educational systems.

Porter: The educational systems as they exist certainly don't educate enough Canadians for the sort of occupational structure that is now emerging. As long as our educational

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continued from page 9

Who gets favored treatment in our schools? The middle class

systems are as inadequate as they are, they cut down the opportunities for advancement to the very top.

Maclean’s: So you think better education is the key problem in the sort of society we are moving into?

Porter: It's certainly the key in the sense that the more educated you are the less likely you are to become a welfare problem. The more educated the entire labor force, the more viable and the more productive this whole society becomes. But education is more than that. It is the key to the individual's opportunity to do what he wants. I would argue that the most important thing we have to do now is improve the educational systems we now have.

Maclean’s: What’s wrong with the present systems?

Porter: In Canada and the U.S. there arc various selective factors in the schools that work against lowerand working-class kids. Any type of streaming or tracking in elementary schools tends to pattern the child's educational experience for a very long time. And if you look at the distribution by class in most of these streaming systems, it's the middle-class kid who gets an early start. The workingclass child doesn't do well at the early selection procedures.

Maclean’s: Why not?

Porter: Teachers don’t expect him to learn quite as well as the bright, clean, middle - class child, the tidy, well - behaved, middle - class child. When middle-class children enter secondary schools they get selected and directed by guidance teachers, by principals and by a whole host of middle-class individuals who tend to operate the system with certain preconceived ideas. And so the middle class is over-represented in the academic high-school streams and the working or manual classes are overrepresented in the shorter academic courses and technical courses. Canadians are quite wrong if they feel they don’t have a streaming system. It's just that it operates within a public educational system. The moment you start building up school classes on the basis of performance and ability you have the social-class problem arising. Maclean’s: And this is mainly because of background?

Porter: Indeed. There's no genetic or biological reason why working-class children, on the average, aren't exactly the same as the middle-class children. But what happens is that environmental influences greatly favor the middle-class child. In my book I said that no society in the modern period can afford to ignore the ability which lies in the lower social strata. The fact remains that in absolute numbers there are more of the highly intelligent in lower classes than in the higher.

Maclean’s: So you are in favor of tree university education?

Porter: Absolutely. And the students should be paid a living allowance while they're at university. I think it's one of the most pressing educational reforms we need. Because even when the low-income children do get to universities they tend to take the aca-

demic programs that are the shortest and least expensive — the pass-arts degree — because it’s a quick journey back into the labor market. Lowerclass students seldom make it into the honors or professional courses or go on into graduate work. We’ve got to relate talent to training by making people’s financial resources an irrele-

vant factor. Universally, too. I wouldn’t even bother with a means test.

Maclean’s: Would this completely

eliminate class bias in education? Porter: Of course not. If you look at countries that have totally free systems. you still have class-biased institutions. But removing all fees is the

first stage. Only after that would it be realistic to tackle some of the other problems that make educational systems class biased. Countries like England. France and Sweden — which have free systems and liberal grants — are now in a position to work out thorough-going educational reforms. Maclean’s: And you think such educational reforms take priority over any other reforms that could produce social equality?

Porter: Yes. Mind you. 1 think it's im-

portant and essential to have anti-poverty programs to deal with the present adult population. It’s important to have manpower retraining schemes that try to give workers skills more appropriate for the kind of economy we now have. And it's important to establish basic income levels.

Maclean’s: What about simply imposing a limit on incomes with prohibitive taxes?

Porter: I think there are certain features of our tax system that we could certainly do a great deal with. But this idea of soaking the rich in order to redistribute it to the poor — the money doesn’t go very far once you start spreading it around among the poor. All efforts to out-tax the rich everywhere have tended to fail because all taxing systems have enough loopholes that ways can be found around them. So one despairs of trying to create the egalitarian society in a Robin Hood fashion. However, I think in Canada we could escalate our graduated taxes a good deal more than we have.

Maclean’s: So it comes back to education again.

Porter: I suspect that if one is concerned about the egalitarian society of the future, the so-called post-industrial society, the principle of equality is best served through really implementing systems of educational opportunity. For instance. I'd pay lower-income families allowances to keep children in high school. That’s absolutely essential. Because, you see, you can’t really get rid of the inequalities that arise from the pressure on large low-income families to send their kids into the labor market.

Maclean’s: What else would you do? Porter: After equality on the basis of educational opportunity, I would

make very substantial efforts to break up inheritance. This strikes me as one of the sources of inequality. And I would have much heavier death duties and estate duties than exist at present. Maclean’s: In effect, hitting at the upper-middle class as well as the very rich?

Porter: I certainly don't see why

well-educated children who are adults should inherit large sums of money at all. That’s nothing to do with incentives. I’m prepared to accept the argument that differential incomes are needed to provide incentives. But I don’t think that applies to inheritance. Maclean’s: One modern aim of middleclass parents is to be able to give or leave their children enough money to put a down payment on a house. Do you approve of that?

Porter: No. That's a good example of the kind of inequality I mean. It's very nice to have middle-class parents who will put a down payment on a house. But I wouldn’t consider it essential to keeping a good society going. Working-class families simply don’t have such opportunities. Maclean’s: Won’t we reach a stage where nobody can afford a house? Porter: Why have houses? This again is simply a reflection of a class structure which supposes a person doesn’t have status until he has a house and grounds.

Maclean’s: Not just status, privacy. Porter: I assume you can still have privacy in an apartment house. But we may have to give up such middleclass ideas as complete privacy. One is struck by the poor private housing in Europe in contrast with the very lovely public places — streets, park, and so on.

Maclean’s: So all in all we’ve got to revise our thinking about the great

JOHN PORTER continued

“Don’t downgrade the value of money: poverty Isn’t blessed”

North American dream of affluence. Porter: 1 think we are already revising it. Politicians, for example, don't talk in those terms any more. The onward-and-upward theme that used to be the Canadian motto during the days of C. D. Howe has been dropped. Politicians now talk more of the need to create a new kind of society. All sorts of doubts have been thrown on the quality of society we have at the moment. Unfortunately, however, the federal government seems to be withdrawing as a creator of opportunities. But that’s another problem.

Maclean's: In other words, we're all socialists now?

Porter: There's been a drift both toward and away from socialism. Obviously. the kinds of incentives socialists hoped they would be able to rely on haven't proved out. Increasingly, we see that high levels of consumption and high levels of output aren't necessarily related to socialistic or capitalistic forms of government. Rather, it's got something to do with industrialization.

Maclean’s: You said earlier we are in a post-industrial society. What do you mean by that?

Porter: People these days are talking about the society that was spawned by the Industrial Revolution as being past. We’re going through another industrial revolution, one in which the emphasis is on cybernation, science and technology with very greatly increased productive potential. This j'vw society will radically change the character of life. It's going to be a very different kind of society. Maclean’s: In that brave new world, or indeed even now, is there much point in aspiring to be very rich? What does money buy you?

Porter: It's very foolish to downgrade the value of money for what it can provide. It can obviously provide a great range of things — all of which are, in a way. freedom. I would never want to say that poverty is blessed. I think that's one of the great misconceptions of Western Christendom. And as long as it holds as a value — the idea that money isn't very important, that not very nice people have money — it will be a great impediment to people who are re-educating themselves in order to have better jobs.

Maclean’s: Money must remain as a reward?

Porter: It's very important that every society pays attention to the kind of reward system it has. The more complex the society becomes, the more arduous it is to learn and the longer people must postpone economic gratification in order to learn. There is also a greater responsibility taken on by the people who assume the higher positions. This obviously requires a system of differential rewards, differential remuneration. But we must look carefully at the kinds of differentials that are necessary to operate the system, to keep it going.

Maclean’s: Are some types ot activities over-rewarded?

Porter: Perhaps. Some of the highest incomes are earned not by business-

men but by actors and artists and people in the cultural field. They're rewarded because they have scarce talent and scarce talent will always demand extra rewards. I don't think differential rewards are bad. providing they don't involve the impoverishment of others.

Maclean’s: What about high fees

charged by lawyers and medical specialists?

Porter: You can't ask a guy to go through the elaborate training of becoming a doctor without some form of reward. But some groups tend to create artificial scarcities. Doctors tend to do this in terms of the restrictions they impose on the qualifica-

lions needed to enter educational institutions. But again, these are things of the past. 1 think, increasingly, you’ll find that the state will take over education, will take over the administration of health, and that doctors will increasingly be put on salaries. But they will have to be salaries that provide a high enough incentive for people to become doctors.

Maclean’s: What about the top businessmen. the corporate elite? Are they over-rewarded? continued

Porter: Well, we are taxing them as much as we can. We are trying to close up tax loopholes and we are trying to narrow down the possibilities for capital gains. But unless we arc prepared to establish a system of controls — which might be worse than what we have — we have to live with the market system. There is a market for a top executive and lie'll be paid what the market will give him. But il you raise a man's salary say to $120,000 a year from $100,000 you are probably giving him only another $5.000 take-home pay for handling a lot more headaches.

Maclean’s: So the extra money probably doesn’t buy him many more goods and services than he already has. But does it buy power?

Porter: I he corporate elite obviously have power in the sense that they arc very important in making the major developmental decisions in this country, of what’s going to be invested where. I hey decide what sort of demands are going to be made on governments to do certain things, to build roads instead of universities. They have a certain amount of irresponsible power when it comes to problems of pollution, for instance. Any time there is a government move against the freedom and liberty the corporate world enjoys, the economic elite usually tries to move in. The present case involving drug companies and brand-name drugs is one example. So is the lobbying by insurance companies in relation to government-sponsored types of insurance.

Maclean’s: And this elite runs Canada?

Porter: There’s no doubt about that. Modern industrial societies are run by a small handful of people. And it is possible for this small handful to be very cohesive as a group, very much oriented to the same values, reflecting very much the same background and having common outlooks on many things.

Maclean’s: And the elite in Canada perpetuates itself by recruiting its members from among very rich or the upper-middle class? You discovered that there was very little movement from the lower-middle to the uppermiddle class.

Porter: That’s absolutely right. It’s largely an exclusive elite in the sense that it is almost totally British — in some sectors the French arc even excluded. It is a relatively small group of native-born Anglo-Saxons. But in some other societies the political system is much more independent, much more active in mobilizing the resources of the society in terms of overall goals. It’s not so much that Canadian elites are unified, but that the political elite at the national level is so totally ineffective.

Maclean’s: Why is that?

Porter: Well, in my book I showed that the majority of the political leaders in Canada have been drawn from the middle class. The upper class doesn't seem attracted to the turbulence of politics, and in any case the privileges they enjoy are not threatened by the holders of political power. Nor is there any tradition of working - class participation in politics. Canada has never produced political leaders through the trade-union or working-class movement. There has

been no Lloyd George, no Ernest Bevin, no Ben Chifley.

Maclean's: And there haven’t been many academics in government either.

Porter: That’s right. And this, of course, is why everyone is so interested in Trudeau. I think the real problem with Canada is that its political system is being dismantled in a way and is ineffective to cope with national problems. Education is a very good example. The very treatment of edu-

cation is scandalous when viewed as a problem of national resources. Politicians talk of mineral resources and forest resources, but neither of these arc anything compared to the importance of human resources. The political system leaves the definition of major goals — and therefore the power — to the corporate elite. I think this is one of my major criticisms of contemporary Canada.

Maclean’s: What do you think of Pierre Baton's The Smug Minority?

Could he have written it without your original research?

Porter: A lot of people have said that he couldn't. I've only read the last part and thought it was a very brilliant piece of writing. A journalist has a role to present ideas in a somewhat more simplified, more straightforward, more popular form than academics. Maclean’s: Talking about elites, do you yourself happen to belong to Ottawa's Rideau Club?

Porter: Good God, no. ★