If Something Cannot Go On Forever It Will Stop

Herbert Stein? Paul Krugman? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Economic trends are sometimes unsettling. For example, political commentators in countries that develop large foreign trade deficits often complain that the situation is untenable. A prominent economist responded to this fretting with a tautology. Here are four versions:

  • If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.
  • If it can’t go on forever it will stop.
  • If something can’t go on forever, it won’t.
  • Things that can’t go on forever, don’t.

Would you please help me to identify the creator of this saying together with a citation?

Quote Investigator: In May 1985 economist Herbert Stein wrote a column in “The Wall Street Journal” in which he discussed the shift in the U.S. balance between foreign debts and foreign assets. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

What economists know seems to consist entirely of a list of things that cannot go on forever, and this may be one of them. But if it can’t go on forever it will stop. And if we never do anything that we can’t go on doing forever we will never do very much.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading If Something Cannot Go On Forever It Will Stop


  1. 1985 May 10, Wall Street Journal, My Foreign Debt by Herbert Stein, Quote Page 24, New York. (ProQuest)