It is, I think, relatively well-known that English includes a conditional verb form. Like most elements of the English language, it is the subject of some debate. Well and good. I like a little bit of ambiguity in my discourse. Languages are like butterflies -- if you see one pinned down, it's probably dead.
I intend no pinning. Rather, I propose we do some after-the-fact analysis. A butterfly passed this way. Let's take a look at his tracks.
On May 29, 2013, PBS's Paul Solman posted what amounts to a challenge to the ubiquitous Paul Krugman's spend-your-way-to-full-employment strategy. In a sense, the post was little more than a question mark appended to a previous interview. In that interview, Krugman had repeated to a playfully doubtful Solman his assurances that interest rates were a matter of little concern (for the time being), and that low employment more or less obliged government spending on the part of the US government. Solman's recent post followed a sharp uptick in US borrowing rates, hence the question mark.
That should suffice for context.
Within the post, I ran across this snippet:
Paul Krugman: I'll turn deficit and debt hawk once we're out of this depression, but not now. This is a time when it's very costly to try to bring down government debt and quite likely self-defeating. It probably fails even in purely fiscal terms.
[In other words, if the government borrowed less, it would so slow the economy, tax receipts would go down by more than the amount borrowed.]
Behold, "if-then" at play. With that example in mind, let me explain why I love (and hate) the conditional so very much.
First, it wraps uncertainty in certainty.
Will the government borrow less?
But if it does, Solman's neat summary asserts with great assurance that tax receipts will plummet, and the economy will slow to a crawl.
Second, it smacks of logic.
The cold, unbeating heart of symbolic logic runs thus: p-->q.
In other words, if p, "Santa Claus is coming to town," then q, "You'd better watch out."
Logic doesn't easily make it into language without conditional statements, which makes the conditional quite a boon for high powered logicians such as we.
On the other hand, any semi-literate demagogue can tie an egregious non-sequitur up in a neat conditional bow and leave the gaping masses with a reassuring sense of causality.
Third, it assumes a warrant for any claim it makes.
Consider the following:
If I ate this meatloaf, I would surely die.
Perhaps we all know that the meatloaf is sham, a petroleum prop for a TV commercial.
Perhaps I am terribly allergic to tomatoes.
Perhaps the meatloaf is known to be the exclusive property (and favored delicacy) of the violent and impulsive dictator in whose palace I am employed as a butler.
The conditional smoothly elides all of these specific relevancies and proceeds with no ado at all to its conclusion.
This is wonderful because it can save a great deal of time. For example, it is unlikely other members of the serving staff will need to be reminded of the dictator's homicidal tendencies, much less his existence.
But again, on the other hand, there might not be any warrant at all. I might be telling a vicious lie in order to get out of eating a dish I don't particularly relish, in which case, how much easier to tell a lie when I need not explain why my falsehood is, in fact, true!
Back to Solman and Krugman. Like so many discussions of economics, theirs is chock-a-block with conditional statements, such as the following riff on the classic Keynesian coal mine absurdity (Bury bottles and dig them up again).
Krugman: My version of that was we have to invent a threat from space aliens. It would require us to do a lot of infrastructure spending to prepare for the alien invasion. And if, two years later, we say "whoops, no space aliens, but gee we have full employment," that would be fine.
Let's consider this fragment in light of my love-hate relationship with the conditional.
1. Economics is a discipline of uncertainty. Note Krugman's careful "likely" and "probable" in the topmost quote. Predicting the future is hard, and intelligent forecasters of causality know the value of the initial if. Any economist who deigns to leave it off faces certain ridicule when his predictions inevitably fail. Greenspan is a smart man, and his 2007 predictions for runaway inflation may yet come true (51:15); in the meantime, however, his credibility has suffered under rock bottom interest rates, despite his liberal use of qualifiers, "inconclusive" being among the most exculpating. So by all means, economists, continue to use the conditional as a vehicle for injecting logical conjecture into deep uncertainty. It may not save you from a fall into ill-repute, but it will at least provide plausible deniability, and I will better respect you as rhetors.
On the other hand, when the best economists around the world must so interlard their predictions with uncertainty that they cannot be said to make definitive statements at all, are we in any way obliged to integrate their recommendations into our policy? Exactly how certain is Krugman that we would reach full employment after two years of alien prep? Not certain enough not to say, "if."* Do we base trillion dollar policy decisions on that kind of rhetorical hedging? And if we don't, what do we base them on? The arrogant fools who presume certainty?
2. Deliberately illogical economics would seem to be a terrible basis for policy. But again, with reference to point one, what good are logical castles in the air? They are more intellectually satisfying than illogical ones, but they are still ultimately unfounded. A million tons of infrastructure ought not to balance on a single, tenuous "if." And with reference to point three, who is actually qualified to inspect all that floating architecture? Is the "logic" really logic? If p, really q for sure? Or are the two just juxtaposed for effect?
3. Most people, including most policy makers, know less about economics than economists, who already admit uncertainty greater than many meteorologists. When the weather man on TV starts talking to me about upper level airflows, static ridges, and unstable depressions, I more or less have to take his word for it. And I like weather. I know what all of those things are and how they work. In books. But can I just take a jaunt up to thirty thousand feet and inspect the jetstream? As long as he tells me it is flowing West to East, I pretty much have to believe him. Economics is worse. Our policymakers tend to know less about economics than I know about hurricanes (which isn't much), and no one can fly a beefed-up C-130 into the eye of the whirling digital storm of microsecond trading that constitutes a modern stock exchange. (Not to say there isn't any data being gathered. Rather, there is too much.) Thus, any plausible warrant for claims about our economic future will likely (see, I'm careful too) sail right past most legislators without being properly inspected, much less considered at all. More probable is that opponents will only object to claims on the grounds that they directly contradict other claims, which, while a good indicator of general ignorance, provides no hope of progress or resolution, as even Monty Python have made clear.
At this point I should probably deal with the objection that I am conflating conditional statements with what is (sometimes) called the conditional mood/mode. You are right. I am. How to justify it? I bring up the conditional as a verb form, specifically, the modal "would," only as a gateway to the general uncertainty of conditional statements as a whole. What first called my attention to this problem was a profusion of, "If politician X had done Y, we wouldn't have gotten into the economic mess we are in now," claims from all sides of the political spectrum. I sometimes like conditional, but there are times when I begin to feel that the most powerfully uncertain conditional perfect form ought never to be used in serious discussion -- that its proper place can be found only in rows between poor losers after board games, or poorly-researched amateur military history.
As a colleague of mine once put it (quite pithily), "Hubiera no existe." Apparently neither does any solid foundation for economic policy.
*A crucial objection is that linguistic convention obliges the "if" even in situations of great certainty such as, "Every time I eat this berry, I get sick. Surely, certainly, most definitely, if I were to eat it again, I would get sick." This is a substantive counter-claim, and one that I will have to leave for my next post, as it requires a great deal more analysis of context.