A joke is often told that U.S. President Harry Truman (1884-1972) wanted to hire a one-armed economist. Why a one-armed economist? Truman’s economists kept telling him: “On the one hand this...on the other hand that...” There is no evidence, however, to associate the joke to Truman’s administration (1945-1953).
The “one-armed economist” joke possibly appeared in 1958 and definitely appeared in print by 1961. None of the 1960s citations mentions Harry Truman. A 1966 citation credits Charles E. Wilson of General Motors; other citations mention that a “large firm” is seeking to hire the one-armed economist.
Memoirs and proceedings - Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society
1958 (Google Books date might be incorrect—ed.)
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...”
The life and times of the British business man
By Roy Lewis and Rosemary Stewart
London: Phoenix House
The retort to this is the story of the large firm which advertised for a one-armed economist. This proved hard to come by, and when the managing director was asked by the university appointments board why an unmutilated specimen would not do, replied, “We must have a one-armed one to advise us. All the others keep saying, ‘On the one hand you could do this, but on the other hand you could do that.’”
15 January 1963, Trenton (NJ) Evening Times, “Businessmen Hedge Predictions For 1963,” pg. 40, col. 3:
It has been said that the perfect economist or business expert should have only one arm. Then he could not hedge his predictions with “but on the other hand.”
16 July 1963, Doylestown (PA) Daily Intelligencer, “The Lighter Side,” pg. 4, col. 2:
WASHINGTON—(NEA)—A panel of economists reviewing business prospects for the second half of 1963 at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce board of directors meeting came up with some cute observations on their trade.
“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...’”
How Business Economists Forecast
By William F. Butler and Robert A. Kavesh
Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall
(I am reminded of an after-dinner remark by Mr. Charles E. “General Motors” Wilson that he wished he could find a one-armed economist who would not say “on the one hand” and “on the other hand.")
Google News Archive
8 December 1975, Ottawa (Ontario) Citizen, “Hunches vs. computers” by Don McGillivray, pg. 9, col. 1:
A few years ago, most of the economic forecasts would have been stated in terms that would make us long for a one-armed economist. “On the one hand, this may happen,” they would have said. “But on the other hand, that may happen.”
Samuelson and Neo-Classical Economics
By George R. Feiwel
Boston, MA: Kluwer. Nijhoff
Harry Truman is sometimes quoted as saying, “What I want is a one-armed economist, who won’t pussyfoot with ‘on the one hand this, on the other hand that.’” With respect, this is foolish. What he’d have is a cripple. For one-armed economists come in two dogmatic varieties, those with a right arm only and those with only a left. And then you need a two-armed eclectic to adjudicate between them. [Samuelson 1980s]
On the Other Hand ...:
Essays on economics, economists, and politics
By Herbert Stein
Washington, DC: AEI Press
The title of this book is inspired by President Truman’s remark that he wished he had a one-armed economist, who would not say, “on the one hand...and on the other hand...” But the president was wrong. He needed an economist who would say on the other hand, and sometimes on a third or fourth hand. On few economic policy issues in the United States is all the plausible evidence on one side. Presidents, pundits, and even economists frequently need to be reminded of that.
On the Third Hand:
Humor in the dismal science, an anthology
Edited by Caroline Postelle Clotfelter
Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press
2. “As President Truman said, ‘I wish that I had a one-armed economist, so that he wouldn’t say on the one hand and on the other hand.’” If that was what Mr. Truman wanted, he was wrong. Economics is an uncertain science. To all the questions difficult enough to reach the President, the answers are uncertain. if the answers could be given with 100% confidence, the decisions could be made by a lesser official. It is the President’s role to decide what to do when no one “knows"what to do. It is the role of the President’s economic advisers to tell him of his options and of the POSSIBLE consequences of his decision. It is their role to tell him that on the one hand this might happen and on the other hand that might happen. If the President isn’t told that, he doesn’t have the information he needs.
On the Intersection of Business and Government
By Murray L. Weidenbaum
Although we each believe that our analyses are carefully balanced, a motivating spirit has been president harry Truman’s famous if not mythical call for a one-armed economist—one who avoids saying, “On the one hand...and then on the other hand...”
New York City • Banking/Finance/Insurance • (0) Comments • Thursday, December 30, 2010 • Permalink