Assume a can opener

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

"Assume a can opener" is a catchphrase used to mock economists and other theorists who base their conclusions on unjustified or oversimplified assumptions.[1][2]

The phrase derives from a joke which dates to at least 1970 and possibly originated with British economists.[3] The first book mentioning it is likely Economics as a Science (1970) by Kenneth E. Boulding:[4]

There is a story that has been going around about a physicist, a chemist, and an economist who were stranded on a desert island with no implements and a can of food. The physicist and the chemist each devised an ingenious mechanism for getting the can open; the economist merely said, "Assume we have a can opener"!

The phrase was popularized in a 1981 book and has become sufficiently well known that many writers on economic topics use it as a catchphrase without further explanation.[5][6]

Examples of usage[edit]

The joke and its application to economists were taken up in the 1981 book Paper Money by George Goodman (under the pseudonym "Adam Smith"),[7] wherein he applied the story to the then-tendency of economists to assume that inflation would go away, and mocked the notion that economists are "the high priests of this esoteric mystery."[8] In contrast, he asks "why the economists are always wrong."[9] The phrase "assume a can opener" became "his nagging accusation against the deductive logic and analytical models of economists."[10]

Italian finance minister Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa used the phrase in 2006 to illustrate that "Very often, when economists comment, they assume politics away."[11] It has been used in Australia to describe "a treasurer who has lost all touch with reality"[12] and politicians "assuming away" the problem of getting a global greenhouse gas deal.[13] It was used in India to describe American economic policy toward China.[14]

It has been extended beyond economics to describe diplomats and negotiators working toward peace in the Middle East, who have been described as behaving "as if the conflict were just a big misunderstanding" and "[assuming] leaders who did not exist, as a way to conjure a preferable reality."[15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Mankiw, N. Gregory (2010). Macroeconomics (7th ed.). New York: Worth Publishers. pp. 238–239. ISBN 1-4292-1887-8.
  2. ^ Kaletsky, Anatole (2010). "11 "There is no can opener"". Capitalism 4.0: The Birth of a New Economy in the Aftermath of Crisis. New York: Public Affairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group. p. 156. ISBN 978-1-58648-871-0.
  3. ^ Barry Popik: “Assume you have a can opener” (economics joke about opening a food can). In: The Big Apple. December 5, 2010
  4. ^ Kenneth E. Boulding: Economics as a Science. McGraw-Hill, 1970, p. 101
  5. ^ Drum, Kevin (August 18, 2010). "First, Assume a Can Opener..." Mother Jones. Retrieved 18 March 2013.
  6. ^ "Monetary policy: First, assume a can-opener". The Economist. November 28, 2012. Retrieved 18 March 2013.
  7. ^ Silk, Leonard (March 22, 1981). "Bullish about the system". The New York Times. Retrieved March 18, 2013.
  8. ^ "Straight talk given on economic mess". Daily Times. March 28, 1981. Retrieved 18 March 2013.
  9. ^ Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher (March 9, 1981). "Books of the Times: Review of Paper Money by Adam Smith". The New York Times. Retrieved 18 March 2013.
  10. ^ Silk, Leonard (March 22, 1981). "Bullish about the system". The New York Times. Retrieved 18 March 2013.
  11. ^ Norris, Floyd (November 24, 2006). "High and low finance: Temptations of a minister of finance". The New York Times. Retrieved 18 March 2013.
  12. ^ McCrann, Terry; Herald-Sun (June 8, 2011). "Swan's speech a laugh a minute". Herald Sun. Retrieved 18 March 2013.
  13. ^ Carmody, Geoff (March 2, 2011). "Doing nothing is preferable to this". The Australian. Retrieved 18 March 2013.
  14. ^ Kemp, John (April 5, 2011). "Easy money will keep pressure on commodities". Reuters India. Retrieved 18 March 2013.
  15. ^ May, Cliff (February 17, 2009). "Peace Processing 101". Gettysburg Times. Retrieved 18 March 2013.