Narrating Numbers

Powerful narratives, like mythologies and shared histories, have a transformative ability. But there is an obstacle. Huge chunks of the modern world evade being turned into digestible stories. Economics shapes contemporary life at every point yet our stories fail to reflect this. Economics is a social science used to analyse and describe production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services. Just saying that aloud is boring. Which is the problem.

Classic form TV news bulletins still frame the popular discourse. The broadcast itself is a series of stories. It works well for politics, social affairs, sports, and weather. But it breaks down when it's time for economics. Almost an anti-story the finance report gets annexed off towards the back end of the program, with a completely different style of presenter, someone somber and grey. The lexicon of acronyms used to express the information is so alien that charts are needed. But even then they often give off this murky vibe that they might not actually know what they're talking about. They say things like, 'Interest rates went up today, which saw the price of crude oil remain stable.' At the very least they're hard to understand. 

But it gets worse. Recent history saw financial journalists completely blindsided by the Global Financial Crisis of 2007- 2008. And in turn so was the public. The people who watched Bloomberg fastidiously and read the Financial Review before checking emails each morning were not warned ahead of time. Even more lousy, in the decade since a clear engaging explanation of exactly what happened has not occurred. A gigantic disastrous blow yet the regular citizens who suffered most never got to find out who swung the weapon. And because voters never grasped a narrative they could not understand things well enough to know what changes to demand from their politicians. This lack of story beget US financial institutions being even more hardwired now than ten years back.

Turning financial data into stories is very very very hard. Take cinema, the greatest story form of the 20th Century, and look at the two most profitable films made about finance recently. In The Wolf of Wall Street, screenwriter Terence Winter deliberately omitted the particulars of the securities fraud committed by Jordan Belfort because it was too hard to comprehend and cumbersome to explain to the audience. Instead he focused on the charismatic narcissism of the lead players as they partied their way to perdition. In The Big Short, director Adam McKay hired Hollywood starlets to play themselves and instructed them to break the fourth wall as they explained credit default swaps. It sort of worked but mostly it was a clunky way of delivering information.

In 2017 the biggest event in economics might just be quantitative easing. The unending introduction of new money into the existing money supply by central banks should be a big deal but it's definitely not a big story. No one is able get the message across. William Shakespeare is the greatest story teller in human history. But even he would battle to move audiences with tales of collateralized debt obligations as they pertain to structured asset backed securities. Thus far, economic concepts simply cannot be kept in the layperson's mind. As vital as they might be to civilisation they resist with a full court press against being dragged into the common social understanding. They can be explained and even understood in the moment but quickly they disappear from mind almost totally like a strange psilocybin mushroom experience.