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The Davos Man in disguise Despite his best efforts, Mark Carney can't hide his gilded roots

Will normal people understand him? (Photo by Stefan Wermuth - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Will normal people understand him? (Photo by Stefan Wermuth - WPA Pool/Getty Images)


March 19, 2021   6 mins

In these isles Mark Carney is mainly known as the smoothly suave former Governor of the Bank of England, imported from Canada by George Osborne in 2013 at no small cost to the taxpayer. The tagline “reassuringly expensive” could have written for him. After his term at the Bank ended last year, Carney headed back in Canada (“bloody Ottawa”, he said in one recent interview), where he’s making yet another mountain of money and is clearly a bit bored. So he’s written a book setting out his ideas about fixing economics and politics and generally saving the world.

Carney, of course, is a near-perfect specimen of homo financicus, a recent offshoot of common humanity that seems to sleep less, read more, earn more, do more than the rest of us. Among other things, Value(s) could be a field-guide to the subspecies: its PhD-holding author runs marathons, gets up before dawn to meditate and read the Classics. He analyses international finance with penetrative intensity. A father of four, he’s 56 years old but doesn’t even have the grace to look it. Some people think he looks like George Clooney. If he sometimes sounds a bit pleased with himself, we should remember that he has quite a lot to be pleased about.

But if Carney himself is relatively easy to describe, his book is much less so. Several famous names have had a go. Subtitled Building a Better World for All, it comes larded with glowing quotes from the likes of Bono (“a radical book that speaks out accessibly”) and Christine Lagarde (“Indispensable”). These endorsements are a pointer to the worst thing about the book: Carney’s namedropping. He frames the entire narrative as the result of a slightly over-written lunch with the Pope, and his cast of characters comes from the upper slopes of Davos. Not that Carney is wowed. Most super-famous people are disappointingly normal, he declares, though he admits to being impressed by Emmanuel Macron, the Grand Shiekh of the Al Azhar Mosque, Bono himself, and Greta Thunberg.

Unlike some of the names thus dropped, Thunberg’s walk-on part in this book makes sense. The author meditates long and hard on the greatest problem facing twenty-first century politics: climate change. He’s impressive on the technical and intellectual challenges involved in making huge changes now to avert a disaster that could still be several decades and many electoral cycles away. But can a matinee idol technocrat with a big brain and sharp suit take the people with him? Is Value(s) Carney’s first step into real politics?

He certainly likes to talk about “leadership”, dedicating page after page to the topic. But sadly, it turns that out what he means, most of the time, is “management”. Cue endless lists of the sort of bland wisdom familiar to anyone who’s ever set foot in a business school:

“Leaders are different in that they have to decide. In the end, to lead is to choose
 When you take decisions as leader, it will obviously help greatly if they are the right ones
 People will respect a leader who has integrity and who is benevolent, but they won’t always follow them if they are not deemed to be competent.”

Sometimes this stuff is sprinkled with some erudition and cod humility: “When I worked at the Bank of England, I would remind myself each morning of Marcus Aurelius’ phrase ‘arise to do the work of humankind’.”

Frankly, the classical references are easier to swallow than some of the jargon. Carney’s thoughts on the nature of the company, corporate purpose and how to encourage businesses to behave better — and make a profit by doing so — are genuinely impressive. If politicians engage with them, we may end up with a better, fairer and more sustainable capitalism. But Carney’s editors haven’t helped him welcome new readers to the subject. See, for instance: “IIRC is working with IASB, GRI and SASB to create a cohesive interconnected reporting system (though the IMP work).” To which even readers who like to think they’re au fait with corporate governance reform might say: WTF?

Carney’s lapses into impenetrable jargon are understandable; he’s never really had to communicate clearly to the masses. Yes, central bankers talk in public, but generally as opaquely as possible. Among his global colleagues, Carney was a chatty charmer, but the bar was low. He talks a good game about always remembering the need to win and maintain public confidence — and even makes a stab at claiming deep legitimacy for independent central banks by invoking Magna Carta. But the truth is that, while those banks are given considerable autonomy by politicians to take decisions that have profound effects on the lives of voters, they are not directly accountable to those voters.

Carney is no rabble-rouser. His idea of the BoE getting down with the people is updating the portraits on bank notes. More telling is what he doesn’t mention. Nowhere, in almost 600 pages, does he find space to discuss quantitative easing — the “extraordinary” monetary policy that continued on his watch. Creating new money to buy bonds, and lower interest rates, had a profound social and political impact. It saved businesses and saved jobs; without it many people, especially younger and poorer ones, would have suffered significant hardship. But the side-effect was pumped-up asset prices. Effectively, central banks made people who own property much richer, and made it much harder for people who don’t own property to buy it. Voters are owed more of an explanation for this than Carney offers.

But when you have a hammer, problems look like nails. If you’ve worked as a carpenter, you tend to want to make things out of wood. And so Carney is keen to take the model of independent central banking into climate change policy, proposing “independent Carbon Councils” that would make quite profound decisions about the price of carbon emissions. He’s careful to maintain that, in the end, elected leaders must sign off big distributional decisions, but makes no bones about trying to find ways to keep those decisions away from voters: “Delegating responsibilities helps insulate decisions with significant long-term implications from short-term political pressures.” Never mind addressing such pressures, let’s just duck them — a novel approach to “leadership”.

For all that, Carney’s book is still good — and the best bits are very good indeed. Unlike some global-minded liberal types, he recognises that the nation still matters. He sees patriotism as not just legitimate, but a way of actually helping countries work together on big problems. He understands that markets haven’t worked for everyone and won’t without sensible state action. He offers a lot of ideas about things like skills, education and employment that would make economies more productive and societies fairer. And his critique of “market societies” in which common values have been eroded, and individualism trumps social obligation, should be read and absorbed by every technocratic centrist wondering why those terrible populists do so well despite their terrible policies. “Building social capital requires a sense of purpose and common values among individuals, companies and countries,” Carney says.

That might sound like an uncontroversial statement of post-liberal orthodoxy — but remember that Carney himself is no post-liberal. He’s not just a Goldman Sachs-educated archduke of Davos: he’s a potential Liberal Party prime minister of Canada. And whereas the current holder of that title, Justin Trudeau, has largely embraced the identity politics that is rendering liberalism illiberal and unattractive, Carney’s book has no time for any of that — or for Trudeau himself. Other technocratic leaders get approving namechecks, but there’s not a single word about Canada’s current PM. Subtle, eh?

Value(s) has enough ideas to fill a manifesto, but gives no overt sign that Carney is plotting a political career — an omission that suggests he wants to keep his options open. Could homo financicus make a sudden evolutionary jump to become a full-blooded politico? Less accomplished men have done so before him: Macron is an ex-banker who had a fraction of Carney’s experience when he took the ElysĂ©e; Trudeau, on the other hand, was a supply teacher. Barack Obama a law lecturer.

But those leaders are not the real comparators here, not least since they have all, in different ways, failed to live up to expectations. The liberal centre, the tribe of just-do-what-works technocrats, has lacked truly successful leaders since Bill and Tony were taken from us. Clinton and Blair were policy wonks and globalists who could still instinctively feel the mood and priorities of people who loved their communities and their countries. They have had no true heirs. Obama talked the talk, but in the end couldn’t hide his scorn for “bitter” people who “cling to guns or religion”. David Cameron put on a decent act but lacked conviction or spine. Even his greatest fans wouldn’t claim Joe Biden will define an era in the way Clinton and Blair did.

Could Mark Carney take the good ideas from his impressive book and try to make them work in the messy world of politics?  If he did and it worked, he’d be the closest thing the real world has seen to the West Wing’s Jed Bartlet: a liberal intellectual technocrat with a devout Catholic’s social conscience — every sensible centrist’s political fantasy. But then, fantasies are fictional for a reason.


James Kirkup is Director of the London-based Social Market Foundation

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Alison Houston
Alison Houston
3 years ago

Pass the sick bucket. ‘Bill and Tony’ our saviours! Yes, let’s have some more of that kind of thing only with even more green cr*p, hypocrisy, narcissism and Messiah complex. It’s just what the world needs for the Great Post Covid Reset. I can’t wait.’

Last edited 3 years ago by Alison Houston
G Harris
G Harris
3 years ago

When an ex-Goldman Sachs alumni, the central banker largely seen as responsible for creating Canada’s housing bubble, keen proponent of the very worst Project Fear predictions right off the bat in 2016 and fierce admirer of Bono, Greta Thunberg and Emanuel Macron no less speaks out I feel we should all sit up and listen.

Last edited 3 years ago by G Harris
Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  G Harris

Exactly. Anyone who takes Bono seriously should not be taken seriously.

Walter Lantz
Walter Lantz
3 years ago

I tend to agree that it appears as if Carney is trying to keep his political options open.
The Trudeau Liberals are already pushing the Great Reset which is optimistic-sounding code for “we have to come up with a new economic plan because the old one is gone”.
In 2016 Trudeau dropped this nugget: “There is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada,” Trudeau said, concluding that he sees Canada as “the first post-national state.” so perhaps Carney’s nod to nationalism is meant to distance himself from that ideology.
On the other hand, although Carney doesn’t mention Trudeau he does make mention of Bono and Thunberg which are two established heroes in Trudeau’s woke brigade.
The traditional corporate power base behind the Liberal throne has always been in Quebec so if Carney is serious he’ll have to negotiate that roadblock.
Currently there are rumblings of the minority Liberals calling a snap election which may spell the end of Trudeau’s career so perhaps Carney is chumming the waters to see if he gets any nibbles.

Philip May
Philip May
3 years ago
Reply to  Walter Lantz

Insightful post. That said, I’m concerned that Trudeau, aided and abetted by the enabler in chief Singh will win another term.

Walter Lantz
Walter Lantz
3 years ago
Reply to  Philip May

I’ll agree with that although Singh and the NDP (akin to UK’s Labour for those that don’t follow Canadian politics) have been made almost irrelevant as the Liberals have pretty much eaten their Leftie lunch. The vaccines are finally being delivered and the printer is spitting out cash as fast as the Liberals can change the toner cartridge so many Canadians are fine with Trudeau. They don’t even really care about the long list of scandals. Trudeau is like the puppy that keeps peeing on the floor, people can’t stay mad at him ‘cuz he’s just so darned cute.
I would expect the Libs would like to get re-elected before they have to start a serious claw-back of the intergalactic amount of borrowed money they’ve spent.
.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
3 years ago

Fine piece. It’s not a surprise that Carney, like Cameron no doubt, appears bored and is looking for, um, ‘meaning’. The sentence “… He sees patriotism as not just legitimate, but a way of actually helping countries work together on big problems…” hides the horns of the clash between ‘meaning’ and ‘values’ in the 21st century and all of humanitys’ past over the last half millennia or so. And one victim of that clash is of course the notion of the ‘nation state’.
The overt blurring of national demarcations at the top end is illustrated by the type of situation where someone like Mark Carney (whom I rate very highly), who as a hired gun can operate in the highest echelons of the governance of a nation, which de jure requires building advantage for that nation against competitor nations, before leaving to govern something in his (nominal) home nation, and potentially carry out actions designed to, de facto, undo precisely the work done in his previous gig – because his loyalties now lie elsewhere. So is a central bank like the BoE no different from a football team then? Come to that, would Osborne have as blithely hired someone else equally impressive from, say India? Or China or Russia? Or are there a bunch of ‘hidden variables’ which set the parameters of who can be hired?
It all begs the question: does the idea of nation states even have any meaning left at all, in the face of globalisation?

Last edited 3 years ago by Prashant Kotak
Mike Moschos
Mike Moschos
3 years ago

I typically have a bit of a chuckle when I read a line like this: “the liberal centre, the tribe of just-do-what-works technocrats.” I’ve always wondered what the proportions are of people who actually believe that their enlightened rationalists seeking and employing, to the best of their ability at least, some ultimate truth vis a vis optimal policy choices, and what size share of them know that their simply pursuing the policy choices that stand to most benefit the large swath of the upper middle class that they happen to belong to.
On foreign policy, Clinton and his crowd began the process for gearing America up for the Iraq invasion and occupation –“CURVEBALL” appeared in 1999, the false link between Saddam and Al-Qaeda was being propagated by US foreign policy elites in the mid 90s, the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, etc.– and pursued failed “nation building” projects in other places (such as Somalia) that, in most cases, seemed to just cause misery. He, along with the international community (mainly the IMF and multinationals), rapaciously for forced incredibly harsh austerity on Mexico (the Peso crisis bail out) that is probably the origin of most of their problems to this day and, effectively, did the same with Haiti (the semi-secret IMF contract Haiti had to sign as part of Operation Uphold Democracy) just not as bad.
The Clinton admin deregulation he did of finance was the primary cause of the 2008 crisis, the two main things they did here were the repeal of Glass–Steagall (which prevented commercial banks from acting as investment banks) and Andrew Cuomo’s, who was the head of the department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) during Clintons last couple of years (HUD was the primary regulator of Franny May and Freddie Mac the USA’s gov. sponsored home mortgage companies), rules changes for Franny and Freddie which caused them to quickly go from having next to no actively in the subprime mortgage market to diving neck deep into them.
NAFTA, Permanent Normal Trade Relations for China, all the behind the scenes negotiations related to the WTO, all these things really just stood to benefit most of the rich and a very large segment of the upper middle class. Not to say that no benefits reached anyone else, but even if you think we’re better of with them than without them (which I don’t) they still could have been done very differently and have been much more worker friendly.
This is all because “the liberal centre, the tribe of just-do-what-works technocrats,” are really just a very large share of the upper middle class and the rich perusing their own narrow self interests and desires while dressing their policy choices as the most optimal policy course that can be determined through rational analysis. Its a heck of a trick that has served them well, and still does, partly because part of the trick is that a Neoliberal never has to admit their wrong.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

There is nothing ‘in disguise’ about Carney.

Clay Trowbridge
Clay Trowbridge
3 years ago

Did Mark Carney attain his position of influence while actually believing the expressed forces behind leadership, or was it his ability to convince the public that his fiction of the goodness of the rulers is reality? “People will respect a leader who has integrity and who is benevolent, but they won’t always follow them if they are not deemed to be competent.” Did he not know that ” Propaganda is the executive arm of the invisible government. ” as written by Edward Bernays? Or, Zbigniew Brzezinski,1972, “Shortly, the public will be unable to reason or think for themselves, they’ll only be able to parrot the information they’ve been given on the previous night’s news.” And Mika re President Trump, “He could have undermined the messaging so much that he can actually control exactly what people think, and that, that is our job.”
Marcus Aurelius and the obligation to “arise and do the work of mankind.”. Not Albert Camus and “The welfare of humanity is always the alibi of tyrants.” ?
I highly recommend the reading of chapter 9 of “Davos Aspen & Yale”

Clay Trowbridge
Clay Trowbridge
3 years ago

“Davos Aspen & Yale” written by Theodore Roosevelt Malloch. He worked closely with Dr. Schwab and knew the half nutty brilliant professor, raised under Hitler’s rule well. Schwab is both a mechanical engineer and a professor of economics. IMO, he would rebuild most of humanity into motorized Tinker Toys while Davos attendees and friends would wine and dine better than Nero. Most people would own nothing and be happy. Lord Bertrand Russell, 1951, “Diet, injections, and injunctions will combine, from a very early age, to produce the sort of character and the sort of beliefs that the authorities consider desirable, and any serious criticism of the powers that be will become psychologically impossible. Even if all are miserable, all will believe themselves happy, because the government will tell them that they are so.”
power comes out of the barrel of a gun and whatever we have had to eat, drink, breathe, and injected into our bodies and minds.

Andrew Roman
Andrew Roman
3 years ago

Mark Carney has become one of the chief advisers to Justin Trudeau on the Great Reset. All the power of a cabinet minister without the inconvenience of having to be elected.
Carney may run in the next election with a view to becoming Finance Minister.

Julian Pellatt
Julian Pellatt
3 years ago

” … smoothly suave …” That says it all!

peter lucey
peter lucey
3 years ago

I’m not sure if the book answers the question I’d most like to ask Mr Carney: “When would it be necessary to raise interest rates?”
His entire history is vague threats to raise IRs and never doing so. OK for the asset rich I suppose.