Mark Carney, Stephen Gordon and the Globe and Mail’s credibility problem

I’ve been following Stephen Gordon since he was the first to really publicize the Harper government’s unconscionable scrapping of the mandatory long-form census. His economic analyses in the Globe and Mail, Maclean’s and Worthwhile Canadian Initiative have been for the most part solid and level-headed.

So I was surprised to see him go into a full-on meltdown over the Globe and Mail’s weekend story about how some factions in the federal Liberal party spent their summer vacation courting Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney for the Liberal leadership race.

In allowing himself to be courted, Gordon argues, Carney and the Liberals who dared to try to drag the formally non-partisan Governor into the muck of partisan politics have, at worst, destroyed the Bank’s hard-won credibility as a non-partisan arbiter of Canadian monetary policy.

That’s not good, I thought.

But then I read the actual Globe story, and it’s pretty clear that Gordon has way, way overreacted.

First off, I’m not a Liberal party supporter or apologist, as Gordon was labelling some of his critics on Twitter yesterday. I’m just someone who can read a newspaper article. And when you break the article down, what Daniel Leblanc, Steven Chase and Jane Taber have provided us with is a circumstantial, anonymously sourced argument that’s more innuendo than reportage. It’s bad data.

Much of the article focuses on Liberal feelings about Carney (“Liberals sensed that Mr. Carney was one of theirs, and that he could be sold to the party membership”) and speculation on hypotheticals (“One of the concerns among Liberals about Mr. Carney’s potential candidacy last summer was whether he could successfully jump into the world of politics from his non-partisan position at the Bank of Canada.”) In other words, idle gossip.

But let’s go through the more substantive (relatively speaking) parts of the Globe story, shall we?

  • The Globe alleges, relying on “dozens of” mostly anonymous sources, that a faction of the federal Liberals wanted to draft him as leader (perhaps because that worked out so well last time? But I digress.).
  • Carney, according to anonymous sources, “responded to inquiries by seeking clarification about the job, but also about what it would take to beat Mr. [Justin] Trudeau at the convention next April. ‘He asked questions,’ said a well-known party organizer who was tasked by Liberals with finding answers for Mr. Carney.”
  • Carney gave “a surprising speech to the Canadian Auto Workers and a human-interest interview with a Nova Scotia Web publication that focuses on political and business news.”
  • Carney “stayed for close to a week at Liberal finance critic Scott Brison’s Nova Scotia seaside home last summer, a visit that took place as members of the opposition party mounted the effort to recruit him.”

Are you shocked? I’m shocked. Let’s go!

On the first point, which forms the bulk of the article, I really find it hard to muster much outrage. We’re talking about the same party that thought it would be a swell idea to draft as leader a Harvard professor who had been out of touch with Canadian politics for three decades. So to the extent that trying to draft a sitting governor of the Bank of Canada might be a bad idea, I’m hardly surprised that they tried: their leadership track record isn’t exactly stellar. (And, it bears noting, that this was only a faction within the party.)

What matters, though – and this brings us to the second point – is that Carney obviously at some point said, “No thanks.” Essentially, Gordon’s argument against Carney is that he didn’t say no fast enough. Why he didn’t I don’t pretend to know (and the Globe writers shed no light on this issue), but isn’t the important thing that he did?

If “He asked questions” is the most damning thing they could find (again, from an anonymous source), then I’m not sure what the fuss is about.

I would’ve hoped Gordon had a more nuanced and realistic view of what it means to be a non-partisan civil servant. This might just be me, but I take it as a given that everybody has political leanings. I spent six years (as an economist!) with the non-partisan Library of Parliament (several of them on the House Finance Committee, giving me a bit of familiarity with both monetary policy and the politics of monetary policy. Anyway.) The Library provides research services to committees and parliamentarians from every party, and I can tell you that to a person we a) had political opinions, and yet b) managed to put these aside and provide the best possible service to everyone, be they socialist, conservative or separatist. It’s not the Bank of Canada, and I was about as far from having the power of a Bank Governor as you can be and still be part of the same political system, but the principle is the same. Given that we all have political (and often partisan) leanings, who wouldn’t ask questions if they were being bombarded by requests to lead a (3rd-place) federal party?

Would Gordon argue that we should re-examine former Bank Governor David Dodge’s tenure because he addressed a Liberal party conference in March 2010? Dodge wasn’t governor at the time, but it’s not like most people change their political inclinations depending on whether they’re in office or not.

On to the third point, in which the Globe writers attempt to show that aggressive Liberal courting influenced Carney’s actions. What’s amazing about their evidence is how little there is. This is the Globe’s best effort at putting this story together. And yet think about what’s not in here, even though they talked to “dozens” of people and the only person on the record in this article in any substantive way is John McCallum.

Dozens of anonymous sources and there’s nothing touching even remotely on Bank policy. There’s no hint of impropriety, that a Bank Governor appointed by the Liberals Conservatives [edited because I goofed on who appointed him] has done anything less than his best while working under (or alongside) a Conservative government. (Shouldn’t that undercut their argument just a bit?)

The best these three journalists can come up with after working on this story for weeks is that he gave a speech to the Canadian Auto Workers, talked about his running habits to a provincial-news website and expressed concern about income inequality.

One example in particular shows how weak their argument is. Leblanc, Chase and Taber write:

As governor, Mr. Carney startled more than a few central bank watchers in 2011 by sympathizing with the frustrations of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

The implication being that such opinions mark him as being either sympathetic to the Liberals or that he was expressing such opinions because he wanted to make himself politically palatable should he decide to seek the Liberal leadership.

How preposterous are these assertions? Try Googling “Occupy Wall Street” and “Ben Bernanke,” head of the U.S. Federal Reserve. The first hit (out of 7.5 million) is from New York magazine: “Ben Bernanke on Occupy Wall Street: ‘I Can’t Blame Them’.” To the extent that Canadian “central bank watchers” were “startled” by Carney’s OWS opinions (again, no evidence is given) suggests not that Carney is a Liberal plant, but that Canada needs a brighter breed of central bank watchers.

It’s all pretty thin gruel.

As for the other fact in the Globe story, that Carney and his family spent almost a week in Brison’s cottage, while he was being courted by the Liberals: We know that Brison and Carney have been friends for about a decade. Would Gordon have been suspicious of the two families spending time together if he’d heard about it, say, two years ago? Maybe, but I think most people would’ve probably let it slide.

The optics problem, such that it is, results from Carney staying with Brison while he was being courted by a faction of the Liberal party. And yet even from this article it seems that this courtship was almost completely one-sided. And Carney said no.

I understand Gordon’s concerns. If there were evidence that Carney had been acting as a partisan that would not be good news for what is supposed to be a non-partisan institution. But Gordon errs in not considering the source and quality of the report in question. To repeat myself, the Globe report is an anonymously sourced article that fails to provide anything beyond innuendo and circumstantial evidence. Just because it’s in Canada’s paper of record doesn’t mean that it’s above suspicion. Remember the Globe’s kid-gloves treatment of serial plagiarist Margaret Wente.

In his battle against the cancellation of the mandatory long-form census, Gordon demonstrated that he understands the importance of high-quality data, and how our understanding of the world is damaged when we are forced to rely on poor information.

Maybe Mark Carney allowed himself to be swayed by a Liberal faction looking for (yet another) saviour. But before reaching that conclusion I’d want better information than what Leblanc, Chase and Taber have served up, and so should Gordon.

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