Can’t Somebody Bring Me a One-Handed Economist?

Harry Truman? David Boyd Chase? Ben Turner? Charles E. Wilson? Charles Frederick Carter? Edwin C. Johnson? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Economists, lawyers, scientists, and other experts often provide tentative and inconclusive advice to clients. These wily advisers avoid definitive statements and employ locutions such as: on the one hand, but on the other hand. Here are four comical phrases describing the decisive advisers desired by clients:

  • One-handed economist
  • One-armed lawyer
  • One-armed tax man
  • An expert with only one hand

U.S. President Harry Truman apparently wished for a one-handed economist. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest published evidence of this family of quips known to QI appeared in 1936 within an editorial published in multiple Scripps-Howard newspapers, e.g., “The Evansville Press” of Indiana 1 and “The Knoxville News-Sentinel” of Tennessee. 2 The editorial criticized the political platform of the Republican party because it embraced two stances concerning soil conservation that were contradictory. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:

One the one hand, they condemn the New Deal soil conservation farm program because it tends “to promote scarcity and to limit by coercive methods the farmer’s control over his own farm,” but on the other hand they favor “protection and restoration of the land resources, designed to bring about such a balance between soil-building and soil-depleting crops as will permanently insure productivity.”

Strictly on a reading of the piece it becomes obvious that what the Republicans need is a one-armed platform writer.

Harry Truman was the President between 1945 and 1953; hence, this type of quip was circulating while he was in office; however, QI and other researchers have not yet found solidly-dated contemporary evidence indicating that Truman employed the joke. On the other hand, a 1974 citation and later testimony did attribute the two phrases “one-handed economist” and “one-armed economist” to Truman. See details further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1951 an instance appeared in the “Pittsburgh Post-Gazette” of Pennsylvania. The joke was told by a tax expert who was relaying the words of an anonymous businessman. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 3

David Boyd Chase, the New York tax consultant, told the Pittsburgh Advertising Club about an executive who was interviewing a number of tax experts for a job with his company. He informed Mr. Chase: “We want a one-armed tax man. Every time we ask one of these experts if an item is deductible, he says, ‘Oh, sure, but on the other hand—’ We want one who has no other hand.”

In 1955 “The Montgomery Advertiser” of Alabama quoted the words of a judge who employed the jest: 4

Judge Ben Turner of Mobile in nominating Burnie Jones for vice president, of the Alabama State Bar shouted: “We want a one-armed man for president, not a man who talks with both hands. What I mean is, we don’t want a man who sticks out one arm and says ‘Now, on the one hand,’ and then sticks out another arm and says: ‘Now, on the other hand’.” And that’s where the crowd broke into loud laughter and applause.

In 1956 the quip was ascribed to Charles E. Wilson who was the leader of General Motors in the 1940s and early 1950s before he moved to the Pentagon: 5

Note for job-hunters: Defense Secretary Charles E. Wilson has an opening for a new top-level adviser. Chief qualification is that he must be one-armed! Wilson says so many subordinates in presenting problems take so much time saying “on the one hand this and the other hand that,” that he could use a “good one-handed man.”

In 1957 a columnist in a South Dakota newspaper discussed U.S. technical advisers operating in Ankara, Turkey. The joke was attributed to an anonymous Turkish person: 6

Said a Turk, “Yes, they are very useful, but what we need most is One Armed Lawyers.” The American inquired “What do you mean?” The Turk continued, “Well, whenever I talk to one of your legal experts, he begins by saying, ‘on the one hand,’ and ends by ‘but on the other.’ It would be much simpler if they had some One Armed Experts, we would know their minds.”

In 1959 Mr. Hawke speaking in the Parliament of Western Australia attributed an instance to one of his friends: 7

This friend of mine came to me quite upset and asked me to introduce him to a one-armed lawyer. I asked him, “Why a one-armed lawyer?”; and he said, “I have been to a two-armed lawyer; and all he said was, ‘On the one hand this, and on the other hand that.”‘

The economist Charles Frederick Carter published a piece titled “Are Economists Any Use?” in the “Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society: Memoirs and Proceedings” for the 1959-1960 issue. He included a version of the joke: 8

Monotony has now been dispelled, however, by the discovery of the firm which advertised for a one-armed economist, the previous holder of the office having been no good because he always said “On the one hand this . . . on the other hand that . . .”.

I suppose we should be encouraged that people at least make jokes about us; but the nature of the jokes suggests a public image of the economist which is hardly flattering.

In 1960 the joke was credited to Edwin C. Johnson who was once the Governor of Colorado: 9

Former Governor Ed C. Johnson of Colorado, plagued with an attorney general who always gave him the pro and the con in citing the on the one hand and the on the other hand arguments, once quipped: “What Colorado needs is a one handed attorney general.”

In 1963 a news service printed a remark from the research director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce who attributed the quip to an anonymous businessman: 10

“A New York banker told me he was hiring only one-armed economists,” said the Chamber’s research director Emerson P. Schmidt. “His explanation was that he got tired of hearing his advisers say, ‘But on the other hand . . .'”

In 1967 syndicated columnist John Chamberlain shared a version of the joke with his readers: 11

Faced with such a choice, one sympathizes with the client who wanted to be represented by a one-armed lawyer who wouldn’t be able to point in two directions at once.

Edwin Nourse was one of the economic advisers of Harry Truman. Nourse died in 1974, and his obituary in “The New York Times” included an anecdote about Truman that was relayed by a fellow economist: 12

At a meeting of the American Economic Association, Walter W. Heller, adviser to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, said that Dr. Nourse was a classic “on the one hand—on the other hand” economist and that he infuriated President Truman with his failure to present a clear policy for him to adopt.

Finally, Dr. Heller said, Mr. Truman shouted: “Can’t somebody bring me a one-handed economist?”

The citation immediately above provides the earliest published attribution to Truman found by QI. Nourse resigned from the Truman administration in 1949; hence, the scenario above occurred in 1949 or earlier, if it is genuine.

Also, in 1974 a letter writer in a Victoria, Texas newspaper credited Truman with the phrase “one-armed economist” instead of “one-handed economist”: 13

There is a story about the time that he was being briefed by an economist who made the mistake of saying something like this: “On one hand we see indications of an improvement, but on the other hand” etc., etc. Whereupon President Truman reportedly expressed the wish that someone would bring him a one-armed economist.

In 1975 an opinion piece by a trial lawyer ascribed to Truman a slightly different phrase: “economist with one hand”: 14

President Truman once complained about trained economists: “Whenever I ask their opinion, they say on the one hand, so-and-so; but on the other hand, so-and-so, On the one hand, — but on the other hand. I would like to meet an economist with one hand!

In 2019 Cardiff Garcia, a journalist and host with NPR (National Public Radio), tweeted about this topic. An intern at the radio network had contacted the Truman Library, and an archivist had responded with a description of a telephone conversation from 1986: 15

So! We got in touch with @TrumanLibrary (via @theindicator intern extraordinaire @willagreer), and archivist Randy Sowell sent us this answer:

To the best of my knowledge, we do not have a recording of President Truman referring to a “one-armed economist.” However, in a telephone conversation with the Truman Library’s staff back in 1986, the late Dr. John R. Steelman, Assistant to the President, recalled that he was in President Truman’s office one day with Dr. Edwin Nourse, the first Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. Dr. Nourse, as economists are wont to do, was saying, “On the one hand … but then, on the other hand,” etc. After he left, Truman told Steelman that he had no idea what Nourse had just told him. Truman then said, “John, do you think you could find me a one-armed economist?” This was the first time Steelman had ever heard the term.

The valuable 1995 compilation “The Wit & Wisdom of Harry Truman” edited by Ralph Keyes included the remark, but the support was an indirect 1985 citation which is rather late: 16

I was in search of a one-armed economist, so that the guy could never make a statement and then say: “on the other hand.”

Paul F. Boller’s excellent 1996 compilation of “Presidential Anecdotes” included a version of the Truman tale, but the support was an indirect 1980 citation which is rather late: 17

“Get me a one-handed economist!” Truman once demanded. “All my economists say, ‘on the one hand, . . . but on the other.’ “

In conclusion, this article presents a snapshot of research on a family of jokes about one-armed and one-handed advisers. Currently, the earliest known published instance appeared in 1936, and the quip referred to a “one-armed platform writer”. The editorial team of the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain crafted the joke. In 1951 the jest referred to a “one-armed tax man” and the creator was anonymous. In 1955 the phrase “one-armed man” was comically employed by a judge.

In 1974 “The New York Times” published an anecdote from Walter W. Heller in which Harry Truman expressed a desire for “a one-handed economist” after he heard non-committal advice from his economic adviser Edwin Nourse.

An archivist at the Truman Library stated that John R. Steelman, Assistant to the President, relayed a similar anecdote in 1986. According to Steelman, after Truman met with Nourse he was unsatisfied. Truman said to Steelman, “John, do you think you could find me a one-armed economist?” Nourse resigned 1949, so the quip would have been uttered before that date.

Uncertainty remains because the comments from Heller and Steelman were communicated decades after the event described.

Image Notes: Thumbs up and thumbs down illustrations from ArtsyBee at Pixabay.

(Many thanks to Bill Mullins who located the important 1936 citation. Great thanks to the late Joel Berson who asked QI about this topic in 2017. Thanks to researcher Barry Popik who found citations beginning with the “Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society” in 1959-1960. Also thanks to Cardiff Garcia who inquired about this topic and tweeted the information from the Truman Library. Thanks to Neenerniner who pointed to Garcia’s tweets.)

Update History: On April 22, 2019 the 1936 citation was added. Also, the conclusion was partially rewritten.

Notes:

  1. 1936 June 12, The Evansville Press, Landon—and the Platform, Quote Page 6, Column 1, Evansville, Indiana. (GenealogyBank)
  2. 1936 June 12, The Knoxville News-Sentinel, Landon and the Platform (An Editorial), Quote Page 6, Column 3, Knoxville, Tennessee. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1951 November 27, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pittsburghesque by Charles F. Danver, Quote Page 23, Column 1, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1955 August 7, The Montgomery Advertiser, Origin Of The Phrase ‘One-Trigger’ Gordon by C. M. Stanley (The Alabama Journal), Quote Page 11, Column 3, Montgomery, Alabama. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1956 January 2, The Washington Post and Times Herald, TVA Precedent Cited by Ike for Aswan Aid, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)
  6. 1957 October 9, Lead Daily Call, The Backlog by Camille Yuill, Quote Page 3, Column 2, Lead, South Dakota. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1959 July 28, Hansard, Parliament of Western Australia, Legislative Assembly, Speaker: Mr. Hawke, Quote Page 517, Column 2, Published by Government of Western Australia. (Hansard at parliament.wa.gov.au)
  8. 1959 and 1960, Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society: Memoirs and Proceedings, Volume 102, Are Economists Any Use? by C. F. Carter, Start Page 57, Quote Page 58, Manchester, England. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  9. 1960 April 12, The Sacramento Bee, (Filler item), Quote Page D8, Column 2, Sacramento, California. (GenealogyBank)
  10. 1963 July 13, Indiana Evening Gazette, At Sixteen Boys Become Girl Scouts by Washington Staff (Newspaper Enterprise Association), Quote Page 6, Column 2, Indiana, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  11. 1967 April 14, Sunbury Daily Item, These Days by John Chamberlain, Quote Page 2, Column 4, Sunbury, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  12. 1974 April 10, The New York Times, Edwin Nourse, 90, Dies; Truman’s Economic Aide, Sought Anonymity by Steven R. Weisman, Quote Page 44, Column 2, New York. (The word “for” was misspelled as “ofr” in the original text) (ProQuest)
  13. 1974 April 16, The Victoria Advocate, ‘Bias’ in News Is Rapped, (Letter to the Editor from Royal H. Roussel), Quote Page 4, Column 5, Victoria, Texas. (Newspapers_com)
  14. 1975 February 12, The Millville Daily, Mobilize America for Survival by Louis Nizer (Author is a trial lawyer and author of “My Life in Court”), Quote Page 8, Column 1, Millville, New Jersey. (GenealogyBank)
  15. Tweet, From: Cardiff Garcia @CardiffGarcia, Time: 3:29 PM, Date: March 26, 2019. (Accessed on twitter.com on April 11, 2019) link
  16. 1995, The Wit & Wisdom of Harry Truman edited by Ralph Keyes, Quote Page 32, HarperCollins Publishers, New York. (Verified on paper)
  17. 1996, Presidential Anecdotes by Paul F. Boller, (Revised edition), Section: Harry S. Truman, Quote Page 288, Note Number 29 on Page 428, Oxford University Press, New York. (Verified on paper)