Category Archives: John Maynard Keynes

Education Is the Inculcation of the Incomprehensible Into the Ignorant by the Incompetent

John Maynard Keynes? Josiah Stamp? Ernest Brown? Anonymous?

university07Dear Quote Investigator: The most outrageous quotation about education that I have ever heard has been attributed to the famous economist John Maynard Keynes. Here are three versions:

1) Education is the inculcation of the incomprehensible into the ignorant by the incompetent.

2) Education: the inculcation of the incomprehensible into the indifferent by the incompetent.

3) Education is the inculcation of the incomprehensible into the indolent by the inept.

Recently, I encountered an attribution of this alliterative remark to Josiah Stamp who was an industrialist, an economist, and a director of the Bank of England. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in a book titled “Ideals of a Student” by Sir Josiah Stamp. The preface was dated September 1933, and Stamp wrote that the section containing the quotation was based on a commencement address he delivered “at Toronto this year”. Stamp was probably referring to the University of Toronto. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

What is the position of education in all this? Well, its place in this scheme ought to be easily visible to all of us. The time has gone by when we can say that education is “the inculcation of the incomprehensible into the ignorant by the incompetent.” Now upon us students is the responsibility: for these complexities of economic life require certain qualities of judgment.

Stamp used quotation marks to signal that the expression was already in circulation; hence, he appeared to disclaim authorship. He also expressed disagreement with the statement. Nevertheless, in the following years his name was firmly attached to the saying.

The connection to John Maynard Keynes was established by 1962 when the diplomat Abba Eban wrote an article stating that he heard the saying from Keynes at Cambridge during the 1930s. The detailed citation for this article is given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1933, Ideals of a Student by Sir Josiah Stamp, Chapter 2: On the Democratic Hope, Quote Page 53, Published by E. Benn, London. (The preface was dated September 1933 and in the preface Josiah Stamp stated that chapter 2 was based on a commencement address he delivered “at Toronto this year”, i.e., at the University of Toronto in 1933) (Verified with scans; great thanks to Stephen Goranson and the Duke University library system)

My Only Regret Is That I Have Not Drunk More Champagne In My Life

John Maynard Keynes? Apocryphal?

keynes02Dear Quote Investigator: Quotations that were supposedly spoken by famous people shortly before death are notoriously unreliable. I heard that the prominent economist John Maynard Keynes on his deathbed was asked whether he had any regrets, and he said something like:

I should have drunk more champagne.
I only wish I had drunk more champagne.
My only regret in life is that I did not drink more champagne.
My only regret is that I have not drunk more champagne in my life.

Is one of these quotations accurate, and when was it said?

Quote Investigator: There is evidence that Keynes made a remark similar to this, but he was not speaking from his deathbed. Keynes attended King’s College, a constituent college of the University of Cambridge in England. He maintained a strong connection to the College throughout his life. For many years he was a lecturer in economics at Cambridge, and he also acted as Bursar for King’s College.

After the death of Keynes in 1946 a memoir was prepared by direction of the Council of King’s College and was published in 1949. This memoir included an instance of the quotation: 1

His own leisure was admirably as it was variously employed: in inspecting his pigs; in attending a sale of pictures; in perusing (unlike some bibliophiles) a minor Elizabethan poet, his latest acquisition; in listening to a piano recital, recumbent in a box of the theatre he had built; in gossip and good talk and a glass of wine. ‘My only regret’, he said at the close of a College feast, ‘is that I have not drunk more champagne in my life.’ And so it was that he knew what leisure could give and desired that all should share the gift.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1949, John Maynard Keynes, 1883-1946, Fellow and Bursar, (A memoir prepared by direction of the Council of King’s College, Cambridge University, England), Quote Page 37, Printed at the University Press, Cambridge, Printed for King’s College, Cambridge University, Great Britain. (Verified on paper)

The Market Can Remain Irrational Longer Than You Can Remain Solvent

John Maynard Keynes? A. Gary Shilling? Harold R. Evensky? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The gyrations of financial markets can be startling. I am reminded of the following words of wisdom attributed to the economist John Maynard Keynes:

The market can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent.

Supposedly Keynes said this after he performed a series of highly leveraged trades, and he was humbled by the market. But I have been unable to find any evidence of this maxim before the 1990s. Since you explored another Keynes saying in February I am hoping this one might interest you.

Quote Investigator: Master linguistics researcher Barry Popik and the volunteer editors of WikiQuote have located crucial citations for this quotation [BPRI][WQMK].

The earliest known evidence for this saying appeared in a column by A. Gary Shilling in Forbes magazine in February 1993. Keynes was not mentioned when the aphorism was employed by Shilling [AGSF]:

Above all, in 1993 remember this: Markets can remain irrational a lot longer than you and I can remain solvent.

The journalist Jason Zweig was working at Forbes in 1993, and he believes that he heard the expression “numerous times” before Shilling’s column appeared. He thinks the phrase was in use by the late 1980s [JZFJ]. So Shilling may not be the originator though his name is connected to the earliest and strongest written evidence.

Another remark that has been credited to Keynes for decades may have influenced the attribution of this statement:

There is nothing so disastrous as a rational investment policy in an irrational world.

There is a conceptual overlap between these two quotations, and they share the focal word “irrational.” The reassignment of the statement from Shillings to Keynes may have been facilitated by the existence of this earlier saying. This link leads to the previous blog post exploring this alternative comment.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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There Is Nothing So Disastrous As a Rational Investment Policy In an Irrational World

John Maynard Keynes? Milton Friedman? A. Gary Shilling? Albert J. Hettinger, Jr.? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Forbes magazine has a fascinating searchable database called “Thoughts On The Business of Life” that contains “more than 10,000 quotes.” The following saying interests me, but the database doesn’t appear to include citations so I am not sure if it is accurate [MKFQ]:

There is nothing so disastrous as a rational investment policy in an irrational world.

— John Maynard Keynes

Can you find out when and where Keynes said this?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence QI has located for this saying is dated 1963. It appeared in the book “A Monetary History of the United States 1867-1960” by Milton Friedman and Anna Jacobson Schwartz, but the words were not written by Friedman or Schwartz. Near the end of the volume a commentary by Albert J. Hettinger, Jr. was appended and the following passage was included [AHMK]:

And Lord Keynes, here a “decision maker,” told the 1931 annual meeting of the investment trust of which he was chairman: “I have reluctantly reached the conclusion that nothing is more suicidal than a rational investment policy in an irrational world” (quoted from memory, without verification of exact phraseology).

So Hettinger in 1963 presented a quotation that he attributed to Keynes speaking in 1931. But Hettinger explicitly disclaimed knowledge of the precise wording used by Keynes. Later writers used a different phrasing that replaced “more suicidal than” with “so disastrous as” to yield the most common modern version of the saying.

Keynes died in 1946. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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When the Facts Change, I Change My Mind. What Do You Do, Sir?

John Maynard Keynes? Paul Samuelson? Winston Churchill? Joan Robinson? Apocryphal?

keynessamuelson03

Dear Quote Investigator: John Maynard Keynes was an enormously influential economist, but some of his detractors complained that the opinions he expressed tended to change over the years. Once during a high-profile government hearing a critic accused him of being inconsistent, and Keynes reportedly answered with one of the following:

When events change, I change my mind. What do you do?

When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?

When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?

When someone persuades me that I am wrong, I change my mind. What do you do?

Because there are so many different versions of this rejoinder I was hoping you might determine if any of them is real. Is there any truth to this anecdote?

Quote Investigator: No direct evidence that Keynes made a comment of this type has been located by QI or other researchers. The earliest statement found by QI that fits this template was not spoken by Keynes but by another prominent individual in the same field, Paul Samuelson who was awarded the 1970 Nobel Prize in economics. He was well-known to students for creating a best-selling economics textbook.

On December 20, 1970 he was interviewed by a panel on the television program “Meet the Press.” The transcript of the show was published the next day in the “Daily Labor Report” from the Bureau of National Affairs, Washington. Austin Kiplinger of Kiplinger Publications asked Samuelson about inflation. Boldface has been added to excerpts [PSDR]:

KIPLINGER: Returning to this matter of how much inflation we can absorb effectively, you may remember that Dr. Sumner Schlicter at Harvard shocked, I guess, the American Public after World War II when he said some inflation was not only inevitable but perhaps also desirable to promote growth. My question is do you agree with that general assessment and if so, how much should we have and how much is acceptable?

DR. SAMUELSON: I do agree with it and I suffer for expressing my agreement. Different editions of my textbook have been quoted. In the first edition I said a five percent rate is tolerable. Then I worked it down to three percent and then down to two percent and the AP carried a wire “Author Should Make Up His Mind.” Well when events change, I change my mind. What do you do?

Intriguingly, in 1978 Samuelson used a version of this expression again, and this time he credited the words to Keynes. His statement was reported in the Wall Street Journal in an article by Lindley H. Clark Jr. [PSWJ]:

Paul Samuelson, the Nobel laureate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, recalled that John Maynard Keynes once was challenged for altering his position on some economic issue. “When my information changes,” he remembered that Keynes had said, “I change my mind. What do you do?”

It is possible that Samuelson was consciously or unconsciously echoing a remark of Keynes when he spoke in 1970, but there is no compelling support for this because he did not credit Keynes during the television interview.

Here are some additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Capitalism: The Nastiest of Men for the Nastiest of Motives Will Somehow Work for the Benefit of All

John Maynard Keynes? E. A. G. Robinson? Fictional? Anonymous?


Dear Quote Investigator: Many times I have seen the following quote attributed to John Maynard Keynes:

Capitalism is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone.

I cannot find a source. Also, I do not believe that Lord Keynes would ever say “most wickedest”. (I have seen the quote without the two “most”s.) It’s a pretty well-turned phrase though, so somebody must have said it. I thought maybe Shaw had something like this but have come up blank there, too. Someone from the Muckraker Era? Lincoln Steffens? Upton Sinclair? Anyway, Doctor, would you look into this?

Quote Investigator: Note, QI researches sayings that embody a variety of different viewpoints. This interesting quote has engaged the curiosity of many people. There is another similar maxim attributed to Keynes:

Capitalism is the extraordinary belief that the nastiest of men for the nastiest of motives will somehow work for the benefit of all.

This variant using the word “nastiest” appeared before the instance using the word “wickedest”, and QI believes that the “wickedest” version was created by modifying the earlier statement. This blog post will primarily trace the first variant that uses the word “nastiest”.

The earliest known attribution of the saying to Keynes was found by the outstanding researcher Ken Hirsch who shared his knowledge via Wikiquote [WJK]. The words appeared in 1951 in the book “Christianity and Human Relations in Industry” within a discussion of free markets and “the doctrine of the hidden hand” [CHR]:

… as J. M. Keynes used to put it, ‘the astonishing belief that the nastiest motives of the nastiest men somehow or other work for the best results in the best of all possible worlds’.

The subphrase “the best results in the best of all possible worlds” alludes to Voltaire’s satirical character Dr. Pangloss and his philosophy in “Candide”. Indeed, the entire statement credited to Keynes has a satirical edge. However, Keynes died in 1946 and this statement has not been found in his writings.

QI has located a similar remark that appeared a decade earlier in 1941 in a book written by a close colleague of Keynes named E. A. G. Robinson (Edward Austin Gossage Robinson) titled “Monopoly” [ERM]:

The great merit of the capitalist system, it has been said, is that it succeeds in using the nastiest motives of nasty people for the ultimate benefit of society.

Robinson did not attribute this description of the capitalist system to Keynes; instead, he used the locution “it has been said”. Hence there is no clear attribution beyond Robinson himself.

Robinson worked with Keynes, and it is possible that he heard the phrase from Keynes. Alternatively, Keynes may have read the phrase in Robinson’s book and repeated it to someone else. But there is no direct evidence for either of these conjectures. It is commonplace for quotations to be reassigned to individuals of greater prominence. Thus, it is possible that Robinson’s quote was slightly altered and then simply reattributed to Keynes who was a famous economist in 1951 as he is today.

Here are selected citations in chronological order.

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Better to Remain Silent and Be Thought a Fool than to Speak and Remove All Doubt

Abraham Lincoln? Mark Twain? Biblical Proverb? Maurice Switzer? Arthur Burns? John Maynard Keynes? Confucius? Anonymous?

lincolntwain05Dear Quote Investigator: Here are two versions of an entertaining saying that is usually credited to Abraham Lincoln or Mark Twain:

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.

It’s better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than open it and remove all doubt.

The phrasing is different, but I think these two statements express the same thought. When I mentioned this adage to a friend he claimed that it was in the Bible, but it does not sound very Biblical to me. Can you resolve this dispute?

Quote Investigator: There is a biblical proverb that expresses a similar idea, namely Proverbs 17:28. Here is the New International Version followed by the King James Version of this verse: 1

Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue.

Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise: and he that shutteth his lips is esteemed a man of understanding.

The quotations that the questioner listed use a distinctive formulation that is certainly more humorous. In the biblical version one is thought wise if one remains silent, but in the questioner’s statements the word “wise” is not used. Remaining silent simply allows one to avoid the fate of being thought a fool or stupid. This maxim has many different forms, and it is often ascribed to Abraham Lincoln or Mark Twain. However, there is no substantive evidence that either of these famous individuals employed the maxim.

The wonderful Yale Book of Quotations (YBQ) 2 investigated the saying and presented the earliest known attribution to Lincoln in Golden Book magazine in November 1931: 3

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.
— ABRAHAM LINCOLN.

Since Lincoln died in 1865 this is a suspiciously late instance, and it provides very weak evidence. Further, YBQ indicated that the phrase was in use years before this date with no attachment to Lincoln. The ascription of the saying to Mark Twain is also dubious.

When Ken Burns filmed a documentary about Mark Twain in 2001 a companion book was released, and it listed the following version of the quote in a section titled “What Twain Didn’t Say”: 4

Better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt.

The earliest known appearance of the adage discovered by QI occurred in a book titled “Mrs. Goose, Her Book” by Maurice Switzer. The publication date was 1907 and the copyright notice was 1906. The book was primarily filled with clever nonsense verse, and the phrasing in this early version was slightly different: 5

It is better to remain silent at the risk of being thought a fool, than to talk and remove all doubt of it.

Most of the humorous content of “Mrs. Goose, Her Book” has the imprint of originality, and based on currently available data QI  believes that Maurice Switzer is the leading candidate for originator of the expression. This 1906 citation was also given in “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs”, an indispensable new reference work from Yale University Press. 6

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading

Notes:

  1. Proverbs 17:28 has many translations. Here is a link to a webpage with several from the Online Parallel Bible Project of Biblos.com. (Accessed Bible.cc on October 24, 2012) link
  2. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: Abraham Lincoln, Page 466, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1931 November, Golden Book Magazine, Volume 14, Quote Page 306, Published by The Review of Reviews Corporation, Albert Shaw, New York. (Verified on paper)
  4. 2001, Mark Twain by Dayton Duncan and Geoffrey C. Ward, Based on a Documentary by Ken Burns, Section: What Twain Didn’t Say, Page 189, Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Verified on paper)
  5. 1907, “Mrs. Goose, Her Book” by Maurice Switzer, Page 29, Moffat, Yard & Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  6. 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, Page 83, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)