Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins

“These facts and Opinions look so similar!” Docter, P., & Del Carmen, R. (2015). Inside Out. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

We have seen that our mindsets are powerful enough to affect our physiology. We have also seen that building support for new ideas requires a compelling story. And we understand that solving complex problems requires frame innovation.

What happens when we end up like Joy, in the movie Inside Out, and have a hard time seeing the difference between facts and opinions? Without the grounding discipline of reflective practice, it’s likely that you’ll be influenced by the most compelling story. When that’s the case, even data may be unable to overcome a story with momentum.

Throughline: The Mystery of Inflation

In this post, with the help of Ramtin Arablouei and Rund Abdelfatah, hosts of NPR’s podcast, Throughline, we’ll explore how the United States’ successful inflation control program was brought to an end by an opposing story.

We’ve chosen the complex problem of inflation because it is relevant to today’s economic situation and also because, as Jerome Powell, the head of the U.S. Federal Reserve says “inflation is like this ethereal force that actually changes the way we live our lives, yet very few of us actually understand why it happens and what we can do about it.”

As Ramtin Arablouei and Rund Abdelfatah, hosts of Throughline, explain “what you believe to be the cause of inflation probably depends on how you view the world, what you think the causes of economic success and failure are for the country.” Put another way, your frames about the world, politics, and economics will influence your beliefs about the current economic system.

Compare the differing points of view of two experts on the cause of inflation. Meg Jacob, historian at Princeton University, says current inflation is a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, ongoing pandemic supply chain issues and corporations raising prices in an opportunistic way to bring in record-breaking profits. While John Cochrane, senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, says the root cause of the inflation we’re experiencing right now is big government spending, especially during the pandemic. Each expert is presenting a plausible story to explain the current economic state. Were we to undertake Kees Dorst’s Frame Creation process we might be able to work through to the root of the problem. It seems more likely, however, that we continue down the path Annette Simmons sums up as “whoever tells the best story wins.”

Inflation was a problem for the United States during and after World War II. Having only just recovered from the Great Depression of the 1930s, World War II sparked an economic boom. Employment and pay increased but available consumer goods decreased as the American government forced manufacturers to produce military equipment.

The Roosevelt administration responded to inflation in by implementing a four-pronged program:

  1. The Office of Price Administration (OPA) instituted price controls. These lists were printed in newspapers and retailers and merchants were required to hang them in their stores. The OPA printed price lists in several languages and distributed them directly to housewives.
  2. A Rationing program was introduced to prevent runs on supply. Each household was issued a rationing booklet and was required to surrender a ration coupon when purchasing items.
  3. Enforcement was ensured through fines, and by enlisting an army of volunteers; housewives who inspected and reported violations to the OPA. Consumers had the right to sue for three times any overcharge or fifty dollars, whichever was greater.
  4. A communication and advertising campaign supported the OPA emphasizing support of the program as the patriotic duty of all Americans.

This is the first story, that supporting the OPA program was the patriotic duty of every American and would contribute to the ultimate victory in World War II.

Did it work? Yes. Prior to the price controls and rationing program, inflation had been rising by more than 20%. After the program was in place inflation stabilized and the consumer price index rose only 2 percent. Total food costs, constituting one-third of the average family budget, decreased by 4 percent. Interestingly, the percentage of protein consumed by the bottom proportion of the population increased while this was not the case for the top proportion of the population.

Can you guess the opposing story?

1n 1945 Republican-backed industries faced off with Democrats and housewives insisting that the end of the war meant that price controls were no longer necessary. Peace time released industries from military production and they returned to producing consumer market goods; cars instead of tanks. The four years of rations and price controls had been challenging for industry and the end of the war created an opportunity for them to challenge the OPA story with a story of their own.

The National Association of Manufacturers led a public relations campaign against the OPA. It took out entire pages in newspapers to get their message across, blaming price controls for the lack of available goods. Their story, in conflict with the facts, was that the OPA policies created artificial shortages that encouraged black markets. The campaign heated to the point that meat producers chose to withhold their product from the market in a 1946 “packers’ strike” rather than sell under controlled conditions. The resulting meat shortage reinforced the anti-OPA story.

Did it work? For industry’s interests, yes. For inflation control, no. Republicans won the 1946 mid-term election and took over Congress for the first time since 1930. Prices increased. Wholesale meat prices soared 89%, and by 1947, the rate of inflation was back to 20%.

Even though data proved that the OPA effectively controlled inflation, a robust program of price controls and rations has not been reintroduced in the United States. The National Association of Manufactures was successful in the efforts to brand the OPA measures as being against the “American Way” and also creating the consumer association of the product shortages with the OPA program.

Notes for Designers:

The power of story can work for us or against us. Unexamined stories (mindsets) can lead us to miss our blindspots and confirm existing biases. Unquestioned frames can make us vulnerable to manipulation or exploitation. When we are the storyteller we need to ensure that we craft our stories well enough to resonate with our audiences.

Check out these resources to improve your own storytelling abilities.

Jacobs, M. (1997). “How About Some Meat?”: The Office of Price Administration, Consumption Politics, and State Building from the Bottom Up, 1941-1946. The Journal of American History, 84(3), 910. https://doi.org/10.2307/2953088

Kolbert, E. (2017, February 19). Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds. The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/02/27/why-facts-dont-change-our-minds

Simmons, A. (2007). Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins: How to Use Your Own Stories to Communicate with Power and Impact. AMACOM.

The Mystery of Inflation: Throughline: NPR. (n.d.). Retrieved August 17, 2022, from https://www.npr.org/transcripts/1115418829

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