Our work is based on a pretty simple premise: humans have a capacity for telling, listening to and responding to stories.
Sometimes – most of the time – our work criticizes a Nudging oligarchy in politics, media and business that weaponizes these stories to influence our behavior in ways that benefit their personal aims. And yes, sometimes we celebrate the way in which story-telling brings us closer together as people.
Today is different. Today, we are asking for a story. Now is the time to tell us the story of how we get out of this.
Now is the time to tell the world our Escape Story.
We have observed in our institutional research that we believe there is now a cohesive Narrative about the depth of the recession that Covid-19 and our mitigation response will induce. Everybody knows that everybody knows it will be deep. But as we very appropriately deal with the mechanics of keeping households and small businesses afloat, lending markets functioning and most importantly, our offensive against Covid-19 thriving, there is something else happening in narrative space:
Attention is slowly moving from the depth of the recession to its breadth and length.
Today, anyway, this framing is still pretty young. The narrative of “short and deep” pain is everywhere. Schools are holding on to two-week closures. Events are postponed, not cancelled. When I speak to local business owners, they tell me about their confidence and fears in context of a month of disruption. Maybe two. Newly minted work-from-home parents doubling as substitute teachers are posting their plans to cover a similar horizon. We observe largely the same thing in markets as well. Most sell-side research, macro letters and financial media commentary is focused on exactly this language. Short and deep.
Below is a shared language-driven network graph of articles published in financial media this month about a prospective recession. The bold nodes and connecting lines are those we think are indicative of language relating to the brief expected tenure of such a recession. This language is central, connected and everywhere.
There is a meta-game in this.
If you want to sound sober-minded and thoughtful – but you also want to sell something – the right game to play in this situation is absolutely to be as bombastic as you want about the depth of our present struggle, but to intimate that uneven breadth and briefer than usual length mean that it will create as many opportunities as challenges. That’s a chalk strategy for mayors, governors, presidents, macroeconomic researchers, sell side shops and fund managers alike.
Of course, the fact that there is a meta-game component to it does NOT make it wrong.
But it should raise the question in our mind as to how strong their confirmation bias is on this point. It should make us consider what that means if and when the narrative DOES shift from “short and deep” to “brutal and long.” And then, it should make us consider what it means if the reality underlying that narrative makes that transition, too.
Having lived in Houston after Hurricane Harvey, I remember what it was like to come home after mucking out houses and moving waterlogged furniture and heirlooms out of friends’, neighbors’ and strangers’ homes. For six, maybe eight weeks, we all did it. You strip off your moldy, soggy drywall-coated clothes, take a long shower, and you feel good. Wrong word. You are overwhelmed with a million emotions, but you feel energized. Engaged. It was NOT hard to get up the next morning to do it again.
I also remember what it was like after six to eight months, when the problems for some went from short and deep to brutal and long. When optimistic, helpful-sounding early conversations with insurance companies had soured and turned hostile. Dishonest. When savings, IRAs, 401(k)s and the generosity of family ran out. When the passage of time transformed preoccupation with a personal financial tragedy into a relationship tragedy and an occupational tragedy.
I have no idea if that’s the reality that awaits us here. Seriously. A brief, heroic struggle may be our lot. But when scenes from New York City hospitals hit the news later this month, and when scenes emerge from the next city in line, the first question we will ask ourselves is “How much worse is this going to get?” The next question we will ask ourselves is, “How much longer is this going to last?” It’s a question we will ask as citizens, community members, business people and investors alike.
There is hope:
We are not powerless against a transition of the narrative to brutal and long.
We are not powerless against a transition of reality to brutal and long.
To those in positions of political leadership: If you want to blunt the fear-based behaviors of American households, if you want to blunt the overhang on markets of a shift in narrative from short and deep to depression, if you want to sidestep some portion of the volatility which has the capacity to stifle every part of human ingenuity when faced with an interminable problem, tell America a story.
Tell America the story of how and when we will have ramped Covid-19 testing capacity and throughput so that vast swaths of Americans can be routinely tested.
Tell America the story of how presidents, governors and medical professionals are working together NOW to establish a detailed, explicit plan through which we will rely on this massive testing to permit us to systematically bring parts and regions of the American economy out of social distance and back online.
Tell America the story of how and when we will be able to see and hear the details of that plan everywhere.
Tell America the story of how and when those procedures will be put in place.
Tell America the story of how we will keep testing to ensure that we can move rapidly to contain any resurgence of the pandemic on our shores as we emerge from social distance.
Or if I’m wrong on the details – it’s happened before – tell America the true story.
Either way, tell us our Escape Story. And then make it real.