Category Archives: Upton Sinclair

It Is Difficult to Get a Man to Understand Something When His Salary Depends Upon His Not Understanding It

Upton Sinclair? H. L. Mencken? William Jennings Bryan? C. E. M. Joad? Christopher Matthews? Paul Krugman? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Financial incentives can compromise the critical faculties of an individual. Here are four versions of this insight:

  1. Never argue with a man whose job depends on not being convinced.
  2. It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.
  3. It can be very hard to understand something, when misunderstanding it is essential to your paycheck.
  4. It is rather pointless to argue with a man whose paycheck depends upon not knowing the right answer.

I think either muckraker Upton Sinclair or curmudgeon H. L. Mencken employed this expression. Would you please trace it?

Quote Investigator: Upton Sinclair ran for Governor of California in the 1930s, and the coverage he received from newspapers was unsympathetic. Yet, in 1934 some California papers published installments from his forthcoming book about the ill-fated campaign titled “I, Candidate for Governor, and How I Got Licked”. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

I used to say to our audiences: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1934 December 11, Oakland Tribune, I, Candidate for Governor and How I Got Licked by Upton Sinclair, Quote Page 19, Column 3, Oakland, California. (Newspapers_com)

Whatever is Not Nailed Down is Mine and Whatever I Can Pry Loose is Not Nailed Down

Collis Huntington? Richard Ballinger? David Starr Jordan? Upton Sinclair?

Dear Quote Investigator: Collis Huntington was one of the top railroad tycoons in the 1800s. His business skills helped to build the first transcontinental railroad in the United States and many other rail links. But his detractors considered him ruthless and greedy. These negative traits are displayed in an extraordinary saying that he supposedly pronounced:

Whatever is not nailed down is mine. What I can pry loose is not nailed down.

Is Huntington really responsible for this colorful expression? I have found some books that claim with varying degrees of certainty that he said it. However, I have not found any direct evidence. Could you look into this question?

Quote Investigator: Collis Huntington was one of the Big Four railroad barons in the 1800s and QI will be glad to research this saying. The image above is part of a railroad bond that features his portrait. There is no evidence that Huntington said this controversial quotation. He died in 1900 and the words were popularized starting in 1910 by David Starr Jordan who was the president of Stanford University.

Jordan applied the phrase to several individuals and groups of people whose conduct earned his disapproval. He said the words were the “motto of the exploiter“.  Yet, Jordan never put the saying directly into the mouth of any individual that he criticized. Instead, he said that the phrase was a guiding principle or motto of those he disliked. Indeed, a commentator in 1914 stated that Jordan himself had coined the saying, and it had thenceforth achieved nationwide circulation.

In 1922 Jordan disparagingly said that Collis Huntington used the quotation as his “code of ethics.” The prominent muckraking commentator Upton Sinclair echoed Jordan’s statement about Huntington in one of his books in 1923. Over a period of time the facts were garbled and by the 1960s and 1970s some writers claimed that Huntington himself spoke the quotation. Thus, the words of a severe critic of Huntington were reassigned to Huntington himself.

Here are selected citations in chronological order.

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