Pushing on a Rope

Pushing Rope

I have spent most of my life boating. When I was 13 living on Long Island, I had a 10-foot home built rowboat that taught me many things. I moved onto sailing a 12-foot sailfish … essentially a surf board with a sail. Lots more things to learn, including what not to do when it flips over.

One of my favorite seamanship warnings was “never put yourself in the position where you would have to push on a rope.” It seems very hard to imagine anyone would deliberately doing that, but I have to admit, there have been times when I approached a dock and didn’t consider the wind or tide I did put myself in a position like that.

So, I did some checking online to see where this wisdom started. Once again, Wikipedia had the answer. It originated with the idea of pushing on a string. 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…” [3] “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.

When will we learn from history? I think we all know the adage: if you fail to learn from history you are doomed to repeat it. Here we are.

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