May 26, 2011
Famous Quotes from (Maybe) Famous People - A Little Help?
Posted by Peter Conti-Brown

I have been vexed in my efforts to source several famous nuggets of axiomatic wisdom.  

1. "Markets can remain irrational a lot longer than you and I can remain solvent." "Everyone" knows that John Maynard Keynes made that trenchant observation, and it gets dropped cleverly in most popular challenges to the efficient markets hypothesis. But I can't find the original source - Skidelsky doesn't use it in his one-volume biography, and every time I've seen it I get sent to secondary sources that quote other secondary sources. 

[update: we have a winner! A hearty e-high five to Jason Zweig, author of this excellent article in the WSJ.] 

2. The Federal Reserve's job is to "take away the punch bowl just as the party gets going." Attributed to William McChesney Martin, the Fed Chairman for almost two decades. Robert Bremner's otherwise exhaustive biography quotes it, but doesn't source it. I'm too intimidated by Meltzer's Volume 2, Book 1 to see if it's there ("punch bowl" doesn't show up in the index, and the Martin entries are too numerous for me to verify just now). But the quote has spawned an entire progeny of other variations, including references to spiking the punch bowl with grain alcohol.  (btw, as it turns out, when you google "grain alcohol" and "punch bowl", the results aren't all about monetary policy).

3. More a nugget than an axiom: Burke's "epistemological modesty." David Brooks wrote a very thoughtful op-ed that referenced the term in 2009, and I heard him use it again on NPR a couple of nights ago, where he attributed it to Burke. Except, I can't find Burke using that term, and my other searches for the original coinage have come up empty. 

The hunt is on: anyone who can find the original primary source for any of these three will get a mysterious but extraordinary prize (it will probably be an e-high five and a shout-out on these pages, both of which are extremely rare and highly appreciating commodities). 

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