A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from December 15, 2008
“You can’t push a string” (economics adage)

Pulling a string is easy; pushing a string is difficult, with the string quickly losing its straightness. The term “pushing (on) a string” has been cited in print since at least 1910.

In Congressional hearings for the Banking Act of 1935, on March 18, 1935, Congressman Thomas Alan Goldsborough was talking about the government’s ability to control the economy with Marriner S. Eccles, governor of the Federal Reserve Board:

Mr. GOLDSBOROUGH. You mean you cannot push a string.
Governor ECCLES. That is a good way to put it, one cannot push a string.

Google Books appears to show a “push on a string” comment in a Congressional hearing from 1934. John Maynard Keynes is also given credit by some for the economic “push on a string” comment, although there is no evidence that Keynes used the phrase before 1935.

“An army is like spaghetti—you can pull it, but not push it” was the philosophy in 1941 of George S. Patton Jr. (1885-1945), a United States Army general who commanded the Seventh United States Army in the Mediterranean and European Theaters of World War II.

“You can’t shoot pool with a rope” (a male impotence joke) is a similar saying.

Wikipedia: Pushing on a string (phrase)
Pushing on a string is a metaphor for influence that is more effective in moving things in one direction than another. If something is connected to you by a string, you can move it toward you by pulling on the string, but you can’t move it away from you by pushing on the string. It is often used in the context of economic policy, specifically the view that “Monetary policy [is] asymmetric; it being easier to stop an expansion than to end a severe contraction.”

According to Roger G. Sandilans and John Harold Wood the phrase was introduced by Congressman T. Alan Goldsborough in 1935, supporting Federal Reserve chairman Marriner Eccles in Congressional hearings on the Banking Act of 1935:

Governor Eccles: Under present circumstances, there is very little, if any, that can be done.
Congressman Goldsborough: You mean you cannot push on a string.
Governor Eccles: That is a very good way to put it, one cannot push on a string. We are in the depths of a depression and… beyond creating an easy money situation through reduction of discount rates, there is very little, if anything, that the reserve organization can do to bring about recovery.

The phrase is, however, often attributed to John Maynard Keynes: “As Keynes pointed out, it’s like pushing on a string...”, “This is what Keynes meant by the phrase ‘Pushing on a string.’”

The phrase is also used in regard to asymmetrical influence in other contexts; for example, in 1976 a labor statistician, writing in the New York Times about Carter’s policies, wrote that

in today’s economy, reducing unemployment by stimulating employment has become more and more like pushing on a string.

The appearance of the phrase in a 1910 medical book suggests that it was proverbial at the time Goldsborough used it:

If the arm muscles have been thus taxed the arm drops as if paralyzed and can no more be forced to do work in chronic fatigue than we can push on a string.

Wikipedia: T. Alan Goldsborough
Thomas Alan Goldsborough (September 16, 1877 - June 16, 1951) was a U.S. jurist and politician.

Goldsborough was born in Greensboro, Maryland. He attended the public schools and the local academy at Greensboro, later graduating from Washington College of Chestertown, Maryland, in 1899. In 1901, he graduated from the law department of the University of Maryland at Baltimore, was admitted to the bar the same year, and commenced practice in Denton, Maryland. He served as prosecuting attorney for Caroline County, Maryland, from 1904 to 1908. He also served as regent of the Smithsonian Institution from 1932-1939.

Goldsborough was elected as a Democrat to the Sixty-seventh and to the nine succeeding Congresses. He served from March 4, 1921, to April 5, 1939, when he resigned, having been appointed an associate justice of the District Court of the United States for the District of Columbia. He served in that position until his death in Washington, DC, and is interred in Denton Cemetery of Denton, Maryland.

Thomas was great-great-great-grandson of Robert Goldsborough and great-grandson of Charles Goldsborough. Goldsboro, Maryland, is named after the family.

Some sources credit him with introducing the phrase pushing on a string—a metaphor for the difficulty experienced by the Federal Reserve in trying to end an economic contraction—in a 1935 hearing.

Google Books
To Establish the Federal Monetary Authority: Hearings Before the Subcommittee of the Committee on Banking and Currency, House of Representatives, Seventy-third Congress, Second Session, on H.R. 7157 as Amended, and Reintroduced as H.R. 8780, Bill to Establish the Federal Monetary Authority and ...
By Committee on Banking and Currency, United States Congress. House. Committee on Banking and Currency, United States, House, Congress
Published by U.S. Govt. print. off.
Pg. 71:
Mr. KING. You can prevent overissuance of this bank-deposit currency, but it is very hard to prevent underissuance of the same thing. As somebody said, you can push on a string but it doesn’t produce very good results.

Google Books
Banking Act of 1935: Hearings Before the Committee on Banking and Currency, House of Representatives, Seventy-fourth Congress, First Session, on H.R. 5357, a Bill to Provide for the Sound, Effective, and Uninterrupted Operation of the Bankng System, and for Other Purposes
By Committee on Banking and Currency, United States Congress. House. Committee on Banking and Currency, Frank Arthur Vanderlip, E. A. O’Neal, United States, Fred H. Sexauer, J H Jr Rand, Congress, J. H. Rand, Jr, House
Published by U.S. Govt. Print. Off.
Pg. 377:
Mr. GOLDSBOROUGH. You mean you cannot push a string.
Governor ECCLES. That is a good way to put it, one cannot push a string.

9 July 1962, Traverse City (MI) Record-Eagle, “Can’t Push on a String” by Sylvia Porter, pg. 4, cols. 4-5:
Thomas Alan Goldsborough, Democratic Congressman from Maryland: “You mean you cannot push on a string.”

Marriner S. Eccles, governor of the Federal Reserve Board: “That is a good way to put it, one cannot push on a string.”

This memorable exchange occured on March 18, 1935, at the hearings of the House Committee on Banking and Currency on the Banking Act of 1935—more than a quarter-century ago. Immediately, the expressive sentence, “You cannot push on a string,” became part of the language of economists and financiers who were increasingly reaching the unhappy conclusion that in the depression atmosphere ofthe 1930’s—when businessmen and individual consumers just didn’t want to borrow heavily for any purpose—no amount of outpouring of easy credit and cheapening of interest rates could compel them to. The answers to the nation’s recovery from the slump of the 1930’s, the experts finally agreed, had to be found in other directions—and the Goldsborough-Eccles dialgoue capsulized that agreement.

During all the years since the 1930’s this colorful “string” tale has remained in the back of my head, never forgotten, but submerged because conditions in the 1940’s and 1950’s were so dramatically different from those of the 1930’s that the allusion wasn’t apt.

Now, though, it is back on my lips and coming out on this typewriter—for now, after 27 years, once again we are finding out that “You cannot push on a string” with easy money—meaning that in a period of sluggish business, of no inflation, of excess plant capacity, of ample goods, of fierce competition, abundant and cheap credit by itself can be of only limited effectiveness in buoying the economy.

Once more, we have to find the answers to breaking out of this phase of lagging growth in other directions.

Take out a piece of string, try to pull on it and you’ll see you can make the string do what you want it to do.

Translated into terms of monetary (credit) policy, this means that in a boom-inflation period, the Federal Reserve System can clamp down on credit, slash the amount of funds available for loans, thereby compel a reduction in borrowing and spending—and thus curb the boom. The Federal Reserve did this successfully several times during the 1950’s—in fact, too successfully in 1959, for its credit clampdown then helped pave the way for the 1960 recession.

Put that string back on a table and try to push on it, though, and you’ll see you haven’t anywhere near the game control.

Translated into terms of monetary policy, this means that in a period of slow business or recession, the Federal Reserve System can pour funds into the economy, push borrowing costs way down, but it cannot compel you or me to use those funds. If you’re a businessman in an industry which has excess capacity and you’reworrying about your profits and future sales, you’re not going to borrow lots of money to expand and modernize your plants, no matter how easy and cheap the loan. If you’re head of a family needing a house or another big ticket item but you’re worrying about your job, losses in the stock market, a recession, you’re not going to borrow lots of money to finance your plans either—no matter how easy and cheap the loan.

23 January 1971, New York (NY) Times, “Buy-Power” (letter to the editor) by Stanley K. Sheinbaum, pg. 28:
Similarly, lower interest rate, also incentives, have done nothing to stimulate this kind of business spending. John Maynard Keynes once said, “You cannot push a string.” If the consumer market does not exist, then higher potential profits by the route of either lower money costs or lower taxes hold little promise for business, which must ultimately sell its product.

Google Books
Economics: A Text with Included Readings
By Richard T. Gill
Published by Goodyear Pub. Co.
Pg. 274:
(This is sometimes put in terms of the maxim: “you can pull on a string, but you can’t push a string.")

19 June 1979, New York (NY) Times, pg. B9 ad:
Pushing a String
("Credit Allocation: An Exercise in the Futility of Controls” from Citicorp, Public Affairs Department—ed.)

South Carolina Trial Law Blog
February 13, 2005
You Can’t Push String
I was watching the SC Senate debate on gutting medical malpractice (I refuse to use the term ‘reform’) and Senator Land was doing an excellent job of rebutting the need to limit medical malpractice cases. His argument was that the price of insurance was the cost of doing business, but if the doctors need some help, let’s give them some help. But not on the backs of the folks most seriously injured by doctors. Simple. Common sense.

Senator Land was saying (and I’m paraphrasing from memory) “Have you ever tried to push a string? It doesn’t work. No matter how hard you try” and he used his hands showing a piece of straightened string and then made a pushing motion, showing the string bunching up. But it was a good simple way to say, regardless of how good the cause is, the solution just won’t work. I don’t know if I’m doing the argument justice in type, but it was very effective in person.

New York (NY) Times
Stocks & Bonds
Shares Fall on a Rate Cut Considered a Disappointment to Fed Watchers

Published: December 12, 2007
“It’s that old saying that you can’t push a string,” said Len Blum, a partner at Westwood Capital, a boutique investment bank in New York. “You can’t make banks lend.”

Rogue Columnist
March 07, 2008
It’s a recession. Any questions?
If there’s any question left that the nation is in a recession, today’s news about a net loss of 63,000 jobs should provide the painful answer. That’s the worst showing in five years and marks back-to-back monthly job losses. Foreclosures have hit a record high. The credit crunch is worsening, hurting everything from well-capitalized companies to municipalities. Home equity has fallen to levels not seen since 1945. Oil prices have hit records and will keep rising, whatever small dips come along the way. The Fed is pumping liquidity into the market as fast as it can, but, as Alan Greenspan once said, “You can’t push a string.”

The Wall Street Journal
September 18, 2008, 10:53 am
Drop of Oil: Be Careful What You Wish For
Posted by Keith Johnson
Laughing, you can’t push a string on inflation. If oil goes deflationary then we are all in real problems. LOL
Comment by Dee Illuminati - September 18, 2008 at 12:42 pm

Seeking Alpha
The Bank of Uncle Sam?
by: Zachary Oxman
November 14, 2008
Smarty_Pants Nov 14 09:39 AM
The FED, USTreasury, President, and the lame-stream media can blather on all they want about banks needing to loan but it won’t help. As Keynes noted, “You can’t push a string.”

Workers World
Artificial stimulus fails to reverse global contraction
By Fred Goldstein
Published Nov 20, 2008 10:38 PM
As they say on Wall Street, you can’t push a string.

New York (NY) Times
The Conscience of a Liberal - Paul Krugman blog
November 21, 2008, 10:12 am
Pushing on a string
Bernanke’s problem, and ours. This picture shows the target Fed funds rate, the usual tool of monetary policy; the 10-year Treasury rate; and two rates that actually matter to the private sector, the mortgage rate and the rate on Baa-rated corporate bonds. The Fed has had no success in reducing mortgage rates, and corporate borrowing costs have gone up, not down. Add in falling expectations of inflation, and in real terms monetary policy has gotten tighter, not easier.

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityBanking/Finance/Insurance • Monday, December 15, 2008 • Permalink