pushing on

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.


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