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

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

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.

In 1933 Keynes wrote a letter to the magazine The Economist on the topic of a gold standard for currency. Keynes stated “my recent advocacy of gold as an international standard is nothing new.” The following quotation is presented because it illustrates a situation in which Keynes did not change his mind, and he used understated humor to respond to the periodical [MKEG]:

I apologise for occupying your space. But since there are people who deem it creditable if one does not change one’s mind, I should like to get what kudos I can from not having done so on this occasion!

In 1945 an anecdote about Keynes and Churchill was published in Life magazine. Keynes was depicted as someone who was known to change his mind on economic questions [MKLF]:

Keynes is always ready to contradict not only his colleagues but also himself whenever circumstances make this seem appropriate. So far from feeling guilty about such reversals of position, he utilizes them as pretexts for rebukes to the less nimble-minded. Legend says that while conferring with Roosevelt at Quebec, Churchill sent Keynes a cable reading, “Am coming around to your point of view.” His Lordship replied, “Sorry to hear it. Have started to change my mind.”

In 1961 Paul Samuelson testified before a Congressional Committee concerned with the “Impact of Automation on Employment.” He noted that several jests are made about the field of economics, and he presented one quip that featured the supposed mutability of opinions held by Keynes [PSCH]:

One of the jokes is that if Parliament asked six economists for an opinion on any subject they always got seven answers. Two from John Maynard Keynes. I think when we economists examine the seven answers we find that the discrepancies among them are not as great as the layman thinks.

In 1970 Paul Samuelson spoke a version of the saying, and it was broadcast on television as noted earlier in this article [PSDR]. In the Wall Street Journal in 1978 Samuelson attributed a version of the remark to Keynes. This is the first citation that QI is aware of in which Keynes who died in 1946 is credited, and the details were given above [PSWJ].

In 1979 James S. Earley reviewed a volume of the “Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes” in the “Journal of Economic Literature.” Earley ascribed a version of the saying to Keynes, but he did not point to a location within the volume he was reviewing for the phrase [MKJE]:

The critical problem was to close the “Inflationary Gap” as Keynes dubbed it, but to do so with improved equity, and a positive contribution to postwar high employment. One is reminded of one of Keynes’s ripostes. When accused of often changing his mind, he retorted, “When I find new information I change my mind; What do you do?”

In June of 1983 Paul Samuelson wrote an article for the Keynes Centenary that appeared in the Economist. He presented another version of the saying that he credited to Keynes [MKSK]:

Keynes provided his own impeccable defence of being protean. “When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?”

In August of 1983 the Wall Street Journal printed another version of the saying in an article by the journalist Lindley H. Clark Jr. In 1978 Clark quoted Samuelson presenting a version of the remark and attributing it to Keynes. In 1983 Clark directly credited Keynes with a somewhat different version of the quotation [MKLC]:

When someone kidded British economist John Maynard Keynes because he had altered his views on an economic question, Lord Keynes replied: “When I’m wrong, I change my mind. What do you do?”

In 1986 an article in “The Economic Journal” about the notable economist Joan Robinson claimed that she had a favorite anecdote about Keynes that included a version of the saying. Robinson was at Cambridge with Keynes and knew him well [MKJR]:

Her favourite story about Keynes is that when someone remonstrated with him for being inconsistent, he responded: ‘When someone persuades me that I am wrong, I change my mind. What do you do?’

The quotation continued to mutate and propagate after 1986, and many additional citations are available. But here the presentation skips to 1999 when the saying was attributed to the powerful quotation magnet Winston Churchill in the Florida Times-Union [WCFU]:

Winston Churchill once said to a woman berating him for changing his position, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, madam?”

Next the presentation skips to 2011 and an inquisitively skeptical journalist who writes for the Wall Street Journal. Jason Zweig wondered about two quotations attributed to Keynes: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir” and “The market can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent.” He doubted that Keynes said either of them, and he contacted an expert [MKJZ]:

In an e-mail in 2003, Keynes’ most authoritative biographer, Lord Robert Skidelsky, told investment advisor William Bernstein that he believed they were “both apocryphal.” This week I asked another renowned expert on Keynes, Donald Moggridge of the University of Toronto, if he could identify the source of either of the oft-quoted remarks. “The simple answer,” Prof. Moggridge replied by e-mail, “is there is no evidence.”

In conclusion, there is some evidence that Keynes made a remark similar to the one under investigation, but this evidence is weak and problematic. Keynes died in 1946 and the first known attribution to him is dated 1978. There are so many variants of the quotation that it is not possible to select a single one. Samuelson, for example, gave more than one version over the years.

The connection to Winston Churchill is tenuous because the attribution occurred at such a late date and because Churchill’s name attracts spurious ascriptions.

Oddly, Samuelson himself might deserve credit based on the 1970 citation, but he, in effect, disclaimed credit in 1978. So the case is unresolved. Thanks for this interesting but difficult query.

(Many thanks to Eric Columbus for raising this question and motivating this exploration.)

Update history: On September 30, 2011 the 1999 citation for Winston Churchill was added.

[PSDR] 1970 December 21, Daily Labor Report, Number 246, Page X-3, Column 1 and 2, Full Text Section, [Transcript of “Meet The Press”: NBC Radio and Television Program; December 20, 1970; Interview with Professor Paul A. Samuelson], Bureau of National Affairs, Inc.: Washington, D.C., Alexandria, Virginia. (Verified using scanned images from the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Special thanks to the wonderfully helpful librarian at UA)

[PSWJ] 1978 October 13, Wall Street Journal, U.S. Monetary Troubles by Lindley H. Clark Jr., Page 22, New York. (ProQuest)

[MKEG] 1933 March 25, The Economist, Letter to the Editor of the Economist from J. M. Keynes dated March 20, 1933, Page 642, Column 1, London, England. (Verified on microfilm)

[MKLF] 1945 September 17, Life, Close-Up: Lord Keynes by Noel F. Busch, Start Page 118, Quote Page 122, Volume 19, Number 12, Time Inc., New York. (Google Books full view) link

[PSCH] 1961 March 20, Congressional Hearing, Eighty-Seventh Congress, First Session, House of Representatives, Subcommittee on Unemployment and the Impact of Automation of the Committee on Education and Labor, Impact of Automation on Employment: Statement of Dr. Paul A. Samuelson, Professor of Economics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Start Page 120, Quote Page 139, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington D.C. (Hathitrust) link

[MKJE] 1979 June, Journal of Economic Literature, Reviewed work: [The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes. Volume 22. Activities 1939-1945: Internal War Finance, Edited by Donald Moggridge; John Maynard Keynes], Review by James S. Earley, Start Page 539, Quote Page 540, Column 1, Volume 17, Number 2, American Economic Association. (JSTOR) link

[MKSK] 1986, The Collected Scientific Papers of Paul A. Samuelson, Volume 5, Edited by Kate Crowley, Paper Number 305, The Keynes Centenary: Sympathy from the other Cambridge by Paul A. Samuelson, [1983 June 25, The Keynes Centenary, The Economist, Pages 19-21], Page 275, Column 2, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Google Books preview) link

[MKLC] 1983 August 23, Wall Street Journal, How the Fed Might Find Peace and Tranquillity: Speaking of Business by Lindley H. Clark Jr., Page 33, New York. (ProQuest)

[MKJR] 1986, The Economic Journal, Supplement: Conference Papers, On the Influence of Piero Sraffa on the Contributions of Joan Robinson to Economic Theory by G. C. Harcourt, Start Page 96, Quote Page 99, Footnote 3, Volume 96, Blackwell Publishing for the Royal Economic Society. (JSTOR) link

[WCFU] 1999 September 18, Florida Times-Union, Editorial, Term Limits: Fowler’s dilemma, Section Metro, Page B-6, Jacksonville, Florida. (NewsBank)

[MKJZ] 2011 February 11, Wall Street Journal: MarketBeat Blog, “Keynes: He Didn’t Say Half of What He Said. Or Did He?” by Jason Zweig. (Wall Street Journal website; Accessed blogs.wsj.com 2011 July 22) link