I first came across Maya Eilam’s fabulous infographic of Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 story shapes in 2016. Kurt himself wrote his master’s thesis on it which was rejected by the University of Chicago, and once described it as his “prettiest contribution” to culture – you can find further details about the idea in this article by Stephen Johnson.
The reason I bring Kurt’s story shapes up now is that I have been struck by how, instead of stories making shapes, the shapes are now making our stories. Take inflation, for example.
Yesterday we were told that the headline inflation rate (that average of an average of an average which disguises a continued food inflation rate above 17% alongside much else driven by the manic desire to reduce all inflationary pressures within the economy down to a single number) had fallen further than expected to 7.9%. Cue media stories about the Bank of England being under less pressure to raise interest rates further and the Daily Express to confuse inflation falling (ie the percentage increase in prices falling from one positive number to a slightly smaller positive number) with prices falling.
Last month it was all about Rishi Sunak telling us to hold our nerve and that there was no alternative. In May we apparently had an inflation “surprise” with sugar and milk in particular soaring. In April, the Mirror described inflation as a “living nightmare” and in March the BBC were reflecting on how the hyper-inflation in Germany in 1923 had shaped economies and politics in the 100 years since. And so it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut says throughout Slaughterhouse 5.
Behind all of these stories and the frequent use of the word “surprise” lie expectations of the story arc. These have been partly set by the OBR forecasts from November last year:
This is then compared, month by month in forensic detail, with the emerging reality from the ONS:
This is despite us being fairly early in the OBR’s narrative and broadly following the suggested trajectory, although not as quickly as either the Bank of England or Rishi Sunak’s pledge need it to be. We appear to want our fairy stories to be quite precisely predictable at times.
But which of Vonnegut’s story shapes are we in? Sunak must hope he is Man in Hole and will eventually escape to the sunlit uplands, whereas many of us fear that he is instead condemning us to the From Bad to Worse narrative arc. Under these circumstances, muddying the waters and gaslighting are reasonably successful policies for the government as they can tip us into the less electorally damaging Which Way Is Up? as a story, a strategy employer very successfully by first Big Tobacco and then Big Oil to stop us acting in our own best interests for decades. If you also bring in Brexit, then you are starting to talk about the creation myths on the second row.
Our economics and politics are driven by the stories we tell ourselves. Therefore, to create economic and political change, we need to create new stories to tell. Which brings me to Neil Gaiman and his suggestion that the stories may be living off us as much as we are living off them:
You can just view people as this peculiar byproduct that stories use to breed. Really, it’s the stories that are the life-form — they are older than us, they are smarter than us, they keep going. But they need human beings to reproduce, much as we need food… we need things to keep ourselves alive. Maybe stories really are like viruses…
If stories really are like viruses, then I would really like a vaccine to roll out against some of the economic stories active in the population. The pandemic of daft economic ideas about the cost of climate change for instance, or the idea that a country’s debt is like a household’s. Both have been regularly debunked only to keep returning, often in slightly mutated form, to live amongst us again.