Taxes: This is a Question Too Difficult for a Mathematician

Albert Einstein? Associated Press? Time magazine? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: You recently discussed one quotation by Albert Einstein about taxes, but my question is about another remark attributed to the genius. The Canadian newspaper “Globe and Mail” published the following earlier this year [GME]:

Albert Einstein said of his tax return, “This is too difficult for a mathematician. It takes a philosopher.”

Is this information accurate?

Quote Investigator: There is evidence that Einstein spoke this; however, the precise wording in the original differs. The following text appeared in an Associated Press article in the New York Times titled “Tax Form Baffles Even Prof. Einstein” dated March 11, 1944 [NTE]:

Asked what his reaction was to the maze of income tax questions, Professor Einstein, whose theory of relativity is supposedly understood by only seven persons in the world, replied:

“This is a question too difficult for a mathematician. It should be asked of a philosopher.”

The byline stated the location was Princeton, New Jersey, and Einstein did work at the Institute for Advanced Study of Princeton University in 1944. The AP wire story was widely distributed; for example, on the same day the quotation was printed in the Los Angeles Times [LAE] and the Christian Science Monitor [CME].

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The Hardest Thing in the World to Understand is Income Taxes

Albert Einstein? Leo Mattersdorf? Fictional?

Dear Quote Investigator: I have been struggling trying to figure out how much I owe to the Internal Revenue Service this year. The quote I would like you to explore does not sound very extraordinary. What makes it funny and outrageous is the identity of the person who supposedly said it:

The hardest thing in the world to understand is the income tax.

Did Albert Einstein really say this? I have seen this statement in many places, and the quote is even listed on the official IRS.gov website with an attribution to Einstein [EIS]. However, I am skeptical because no one seems to have a good reference, and the humor is too perfect.

Quote Investigator: This is a timely and entertaining query, and QI may have found the origin of this quotation. In 1963 a letter written by Leo Mattersdorf appeared in Time magazine with the following assertion: “From the time Professor Einstein came to this country until his death, I prepared his income tax returns and advised him on his tax problems.” Mattersdorf told the following anecdote about Einstein [TLM]:

One year while I was at his Princeton home preparing his return, Mrs. Einstein, who was then still living, asked me to stay for lunch. During the course of the meal, the professor turned to me and with his inimitable chuckle said: “The hardest thing in the world to understand is income taxes.” I replied: “There is one thing more difficult, and that is your theory of relativity.” “Oh, no,” he replied, ”that is easy.” To which Mrs. Einstein commented, “Yes, for you.”

LEO MATTERSDORF New York City

Einstein died in 1955, so this story appeared after his death. Nevertheless, there is solid evidence that Mattersdorf was a friend of Einstein’s, and he performed tax accounting work for him. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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The Futuristic Weapons of WW3 Are Unknown, But WW4 Will Be Fought With Stones and Spears

Omar Bradley? Albert Einstein? Young Army Lieutenant? Walter Winchell? Joe Laitin? James W. Fulbright?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a great quotation about the type of weapons that will be used in World War IV. The words are both funny and chilling, and every time I have seen the saying it has been attributed to Albert Einstein. But while I was researching five-star generals I found a newspaper story from 1949 that gives credit to a famous World War II general [OMB]:

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Omar Bradley recently got involved in a discussion with the big shots of a midwestern city where he was making a speech. The group was arguing about future wars and how they would be fought.

One of the men said: “General, the newspapers tell us that World War III will be fought with atomic bombs, supersonic planes and a lot of new weapons. These are great strides, but how about World War IV? Is it possible to get any newer and fancier weapons than these?” “I can give you the exact answer to that question,” said General Bradley, “If we have World War III, then World War IV will be fought with bows and arrows.”

Do you think that Bradley is responsible for this sobering insight instead of Einstein?

Quote Investigator: A quotation on this theme is attributed to Albert Einstein in 1948 and 1949, and his words are listed further below. However, it is unlikely that Bradley or Einstein originated this compelling motif concerning World War 4 weapons. The evidence that QI has collected points to a Bikini origin.

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Not Everything That Counts Can Be Counted

Albert Einstein? William Bruce Cameron? Hilliard Jason? Stephen Ross? Lord Platt? George Pickering?

Dear Quote Investigator: Recently I saw a comic strip titled “Baby Einstein” that contained a few quotations that are often attributed to Albert Einstein. I think the following saying is very insightful:

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.

If I use this quotation should I credit it to Einstein?

Quote Investigator: QI suggests crediting William Bruce Cameron instead of Albert Einstein. Cameron’s 1963 text “Informal Sociology: A Casual Introduction to Sociological Thinking” contained the following passage. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

It would be nice if all of the data which sociologists require could be enumerated because then we could run them through IBM machines and draw charts as the economists do. However, not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.

There are several books that attribute the quote to Cameron and cite this 1963 book. QI was unable to find earlier instances of the saying. Researcher John Baker identified this citation.

This maxim consists of two parallel and contrasting phrases:

Not everything that can be counted counts.
Not everything that counts can be counted.

The position of the two key terms “counted” and “counts” is reversed in the two different phrases. This rhetorical technique is referred to as chiasmus or antimetabole. QI hypothesizes that the two phrases were crafted separately and then at a later time combined by Cameron to yield the witty and memorable maxim.

When was the connection with Albert Einstein established? The earliest relevant cite that QI could find was dated 1986, however, this is more than thirty years after the death of Einstein in 1955. Thus, the evidence is weak, and the link to Einstein is not solidly supported. The details for this citation are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1963, Informal Sociology, a casual introduction to sociological thinking by William Bruce Cameron, Page 13, Random House, New York. (Google Books snippet view) (Checked on paper: Fifth printing, January 1967; Copyright 1963) link

Two Things Are Infinite: the Universe and Human Stupidity

Albert Einstein? Frederick S. Perls? Anonymous? A Great Astronomer?

Dear Quote Investigator: I saw a comic strip titled “Baby Einstein” that contained three quotations that are usually attributed to Einstein. Are these quotes accurate? I am particularly interested in the second quotation:

Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about th’universe!

Did Einstein really say that?

Quote Investigator: Probably not, but there is some evidence, and QI can tell you why the quote is attributed to Einstein. The story begins in the 1940s when the influential Gestalt therapist Frederick S. Perls wrote a book titled “Ego, Hunger, and Aggression: a Revision of Freud’s Theory and Method.”

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