Book Review: Value(s)

Mark Carney. Value(s): Building a Better World for All. Signal, 2021.

By: /
29 September, 2021
Mark Carney, then governor of the Bank of England, in October 2019. Leon Neal–WPA Pool/Getty Images

For months, Mark Carney’s entry into federal politics seemed like a matter of where, not if. The former governor of the Bank of Canada and Bank of England made no secret of his support for the Liberal government and its policies, and he was mooted as a candidate in ridings from Edmonton to Ottawa. But while his announcement that he didn’t intend to run for the Liberal Party of Canada in the 2021 federal election was a bit of a surprise, it shouldn’t be interpreted as the end of his political aspirations. His recent book Value(s): Building a Better World for All, is exactly the kind of thing an aspiring politician would write.

Carney, of course, is not your average aspiring politician. He has scaled heights that some Canadian prime ministers don’t ever reach and was a front-row observer of (and participant in) one of the biggest economic crises in modern history. Over the last decade, he’s taken a leading role in the growing global fight against climate change, one that has been increasingly driven by the financial communities in London and New York. As the UN special envoy on climate action and finance, and the vice chair and head of transition investing at Brookfield Asset Management, he is more powerful and connected than all but a small handful of Canadians.

Not surprisingly, his book reflects the sense of ambition and purpose that has defined Carney’s career. Fittingly enough for a book whose title has a double meaning, Value(s) is actually two books in one. The first, and longer one, is a love letter to the power of markets, and a lament that they’ve strayed so far from their potential.

“We simply cannot take the market system, which produces such plenty and so many solutions, for granted,” Carney writes. “In recent decades, its widespread adoption has lifted billions of people out of poverty and helped extend life expectancy. And it is driving breakthrough technologies from genomics to artificial intelligence that could transform for the better the way we work, connect and live.”

Carney’s love letter to markets is both a history of finance and money and a crash course in economic theory, and it’s one that Carney supports with an almost encyclopedic listing of the names of important philosophers and thinkers. At times, this strays into some pretty conspicuous name-dropping, and the sheer volume of information being shared makes it a particularly tough slog for anyone who isn’t deeply interested in the minutiae of macroeconomics or inside-the-bubble details of the global central banking community.

But it’s a worthwhile slog, given the broader point Carney is trying to make. He is clearly dismayed by the degree to which markets have become the tail that wags society’s dog. “In recent decades, subtly but relentlessly, we have been moving from a market economy to a market society. Increasingly, to be valued, an asset or activity has to be in a market; the price of everything is becoming the value of everything.” Or, as Italian economist and former national minister of Economy and Finances Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa once told him, “When we grant an entity infinite wisdom, we enter the realm of faith.”

The COVID-19 crisis, Carney suggests, is our opportunity to put markets back where they belong. “This crisis could help reverse that causality, so that public values help shape private value.” Or, as Pope Francis told him and an assortment of other high-powered bankers — there’s that name-dropping — “your job is to turn the grappa back into wine, to turn the market back into humanity. This isn’t theology. This is reality. This is the truth.”

Sandwiched around this treatise on the proper role of markets is a political manifesto of sorts, one that calls for more inspired leadership on everything from climate change to the post-COVID-19 economic recovery. He meditates on what true leadership really looks like, whether it’s elected leaders like New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel or bankers and financiers like Jamie Dimon and Christine Lagarde. “Leaders today have a chance to plan the future,” he writes. “A decade or so ago, transformative leadership in the U.K. was to ‘make the weather.’ Now leaders can literally change the climate. Such ambition is the best of purpose-driven capitalism.”

Few people on earth today have had a better opportunity to witness these sorts of leaders up close and personal than Carney, and it stands to reason that he’s learned plenty from them. And, in a way, it feels like Carney wrote this part of the book for himself, both in order to help him approach the next chapter of his life and understand how he ought to write it. That he took a pass on public life for the time being doesn’t suggest that he’s given up on becoming an elected leader. It may simply reflect his willingness to bide his time — and perhaps his ability to read the room. 

After all, the 10-point plan for a sustainable recovery that he lays out in his book is probably nine points too many in our current political environment of memes and talking points. The rough ride he was given by former finance critic and Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre during a May 27th parliamentary committee meeting may have been a wakeup call about the nature of partisan politics, one that isn’t nearly as civilized as what Carney was probably accustomed to as a central banker.

If Carney wants to live up to the prescription he offers in Value(s) and restore morality and meaning to our markets, he’ll have to make the choice to lead from the front.

When it comes to climate change, Carney’s signature issue, political power is not nearly as important in Canada as it used to be. That’s because while the federal government has made progress on climate policy, it’s been people like Carney — the bankers and stewards of financial capital — who have been the most powerful engines of change lately. They are the ones forcing oil and gas companies to embrace things like “ESG” (environment, sustainability and governance) metrics and driving the increasingly ambitious net-zero commitments from seemingly every major corporation and company. As the world approaches yet another critical moment at this November’s UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Carney surely understands that he is better able to exert his influence from outside Parliament rather than inside it.

But at some point, Carney will need to take his own advice. “In the end,” he writes, “to lead is to choose. Just because something is uncertain is not reason enough for a leader to throw their hands up and sit on the sidelines.” If Carney wants to live up to the prescription he offers in Value(s) and restore morality and meaning to our markets,as well as our country and society, he’ll have to make the choice to lead from the front. As he wrote, “if leaders can’t make the call, there will be consequences from that inaction. And over time, if they can’t decide, someone else will.”

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