The Real Cause of Problems Is Solutions

Eric Sevareid? Ernest Thompson? Paul Dickson? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Every solution to a problem inevitably creates a new problem. This ruefully defeatist viewpoint has inspired a logically twisted adage. Here are two versions:

The real cause of problems is solutions.
The chief cause of problems is solutions.

This notion has been attributed to U.S. journalist Eric Sevareid. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In July 1968 Eric Sevareid penned a piece in “The Progressive” magazine discussing the popularity of copying machines. These devices performed the useful task of duplicating the text and pictures displayed on paper sheets. Unfortunately, copying also encouraged the excessive proliferation of paper. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

In 1965, these duplicating machines produced about ten billion copies of stuff. In two more years, the figure will be up around seventy billion copies . . .

The more somber thinkers, however, feel nothing serious will or can be done until the world runs out of trees for making paper. That, of course, will create other problems, but that is the nature of progress.

The greatest intellectual discovery of this generation is that the real cause of problems is solutions.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In September 1968 columnist Ernest Thompson of “The Ada Evening News” in Oklahoma reprinted the adage without attribution: 2

The greatest intellectual discovery of this generation is that the real cause of problems is solutions.

Thompson’s article also contained material from another columnist named Ralph McGill. 3 Thus, QI does not think this instance of the adage represents an independent coinage.

In 1972 the book “Community Organization and Social Planning” discussed the unforeseen effects of urban concentration and referred to Sevareid’s remark. The accompanying footnote correctly pointed to “The Progressive”: 4

These individual actions have cumulative and “unanticipated consequences” that create imbalances and tensions in the functioning of social institutions—clearly the case in the rapid urbanization process that is going on around the world. Sevareid put this succinctly when he wrote that “the greatest intellectual discovery of this generation is that the real cause of problems is solutions.”

In 1978 a slightly different version of the saying appeared in “The Official Rules” by Paul Dickson. This instance used the word “chief” instead of “real”, and Sevareid received credit. Dickson asserted that the phrase was spoken during a television broadcast in 1970, but QI does not have access to a transcript of the show and has not yet verified this claim: 5

Sevareid’s Law. The chief cause of problems is solutions.
(Eric Sevareid, on the CBS News for December 29, 1970.)

In 1973 “Sevareid’s Law” appeared in “Malice in Blunderland” by Thomas L. Martin Jr. 6 The book was reviewed in “The Wall Street Journal” in 1974, and the eponymous law was reprinted: 7

Conservative critics of CBS commentator Eric Sevareid may be surprised at Mr. Martin’s discovery of Sevareid’s Law: “The chief cause of problems is solutions.”

In 1978 a newspaper in Kansas City, Missouri published a profile of a teacher who repeated the adage to his students with an anonymous attribution: 8

“Every day, at least once, I tell them the saying that the chief cause of problems is solutions. That is a brilliant statement, whoever came up with it.”

In 1997 “Simpson’s Contemporary Quotations” contained the following quotation attributed to Eric Sevareid together with a 1974 citation: 9

The chief source of problems is solutions.
Reader’s Digest Mar 74

In conclusion, Eric Sevareid deserves credit for this saying based on the July 1968 citation in “The Progressive”. The earliest instance used the word “real” instead of “chief”. Sevareid may have also used an instance with “chief”, but QI recommends using the 1968 version.

Image Notes: Picture assembled from public domain images of “Copy” and “Do Not Copy” from OpenClipart-Vectors on Pixabay combined with a public domain duplication icon from Clker-Free-Vector-Images on Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Mark Halpern whose inquiry sent to the Wombats mailing list led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to S. M. Colowick who identified the citations in “The Progressive” and “Community Organization and Social Planning”. Many thanks to Donna Halper who located the citation in “The Ada Evening News”. Top thanks to Dave Wilton and Donna Halper who accessed scans of “The Progressive”.)


  1. 1968 July, The Progressive, Paper by Eric Sevareid of CBS News, Start Page 16, Quote Page 16, The Progressive Inc., Madison, Wisconsin. (Verified with scans from Opinion Archives)
  2. 1968 September 6, The Ada Evening News, Questions by Ernest Thompson, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Ada, Oklahoma. (NewspaperArchive)
  3. 1968 August 24, Tulare Advance-Register, Get those votes by Ralph McGill, Quote Page 6, Column 3 to 5, Tulare, California. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1972, Community Organization and Social Planning by Robert Perlman and Arnold Gurin, Chapter 3: Concepts and Practice, Quote Page 48, Published jointly by John Wiley & Sons Inc. and The Council for Social Work Education, New York. (Verified with scans)
  5. 1978, The Official Rules by Paul Dickson, Quote Page 167, Delacorte Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  6. 1973, Malice in Blunderland by Thomas L. Martin Jr., Chapter 1: Kludgemanship, Quote Page 23, McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  7. 1974 March 14, Wall Street Journal, Politics and People: Sons of Rules and Laws by Alan L. Otten, Quote Page 15, Column 3, New York. (ProQuest)
  8. 1978 May 25, The Kansas City Star, Pessimism an Enemy In Course on Future, (Remark made by teacher Bob Buller), Start Page 1W, Quote Page 5W, Column 1, Kansas City, Missouri. (NewsBank Access World News)
  9. 1997, Simpson’s Contemporary Quotations: The Most Notable Quotes Since 1950, Revised Edition, Edited by James B. Simpson, Section: Humankind, Topic: Wisdom, Philosophy, and Other Musings, Person: Eric Sevareid (commentator), Quote Page 388, Column 2, HarperCollins Publishers, New York. (Verified with scans)