Speaking Of Business


Civilization and profits go hand in hand.—Calvin Coolidge. speech, New York City, November 27, 1920

Corporation, n . An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary, 1911

Most men are the servants of corporations.—Woodrow Wilson, The Old Order Changeth, in The New Freedom, 1913 [The complete sentence reads: “There was a time when corporations played a very minor part in our business affairs, but now most men are the servants of corporations.” This is the “New Freedom”?]

Money is like an arm or a leg— use it or lose it.—Henry Ford, interview in The New York Times, November 8, 1931 [Ford was nothing if not direct. This is the same man who was quoted in the Chicago Tribune of May 25, 1916, as saying, “History is more or less bunk.”]

With all their faults, trade-unions have done more for humanity than any other organization of men that ever existed.—Clarence Darrow, in The Railroad Trainman, 1909

The chief business of the American people is business.—Calvin Coolidge, speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Washington, D.C., January 17, 1925 [Coolidge complacently sums up the Roaring Twenties. But see Will Rogers, above.]

The first theory is that if we make the rich richer, somehow they will let a part of their prosperity trickle down to the rest of us. The second theory…was the theory that if we make the average of mankind comfortable and secure, their prosperity will rise upward… through the ranks.—Franklin D. Roosevelt, campaign speech in Detroit, October 2, 1932 [Another early statement of the “trickle-down” theory, and still the crucial issue in debates over whether and how to cut estate and income taxes. And see William Jennings Bryan, on page 108.]

It’s a recession when your neighbor loses his job; It’s a depression when you lose yours.—Anonymous [The line was used by at least two Presidents, Harry S. Truman and Ronald Reagan.]

For years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors and vice versa. The difference did not exist.—Charles E. Wilson, testimony, U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, January 15, 1953 [Often quoted, somewhat unfairly, in the vice versa form, “What is good for General Motors is good for the country.” “Engine Charlie,” as the GM chairman was known, to distinguish him from “Electric Charlie,” the Charles Wilson who headed General Electric, made this remark in the hearings on his nomination to be Secretary of Defense.]


You can’t mine coal without machine guns.—Richard B. Mellon, testimony, U.S. Congress, quoted in Time, June 14, 1937 [This was a year of great industrial turmoil, with hundreds of thousands of workers quitting their jobs or participating in illegal sit-down strikes.]

The trouble with the profit system has always been that it is highly unprofitable to most people.—E. B. White, 1944

The customer is always right.—Carl Sandburg, Good Morning, America, 1928 [The saying was in popular currency. It also was the motto of Selfridges, the London department store, founded by H. Gordon Selfridge, 1857–1947.]

My father always told me that all businessmen were sons of bitches, but I never believed it till now.—John F. Kennedy, private remark, evening of April 10, 1962 [The President was angry because he felt that he had been double-crossed. His administration had leaned on the steelworkers’ union to agree to a noninflationary wage increase, but the ink on the contract was hardly dry when the president of U.S. Steel came to the White House and handed JFK a mimeographed announcement that his company was increasing the price of steel anyway. The President’s private comment was all over the newspapers the next day. He later qualified the remark by saying that his father had been referring only to steel men. The administration pressured smaller steel companies to hold the line on prices, and within 72 hours U.S. Steel rescinded its increase.]

No one on his deathbed ever said, “I wish I had spent more time on my business.”—Paul E. Tsongas, quoting a letter from a friend [The thought was expressed in a variety of ways in the 1980s. Senator Tsongas (D-Mass.) cited the letter when announcing that because of illness he would not finish his 1979–85 term. He ran for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination, won by Bill Clinton, and died in 1997 of cancer-related pneumonia.]