A few years after the 2008 financial crisis, I remember watching a CNBC segment where an orthodox economist (maybe Larry Summers?) was debating the merits of the much-loathed Wall Street bailout, fittingly called TARP, as if a weighted tarpaulin was smothering John Q. Taxpayer. The pecuniary pundit’s adversary was one of the hard-money devotees who used to be a regular on the financial channel: Jim Grant or Marc Faber or Peter Schiff. Or maybe it was the dependably cantankerous Rick Santelli.
I can’t remember the who’s who of the clashing personalities, but the point made by the bailout backer stood out: had Uncle Sam refused to pony up tens of trillions of greenbacks, the entire system would have collapsed. Never mind moral hazard; never mind perverse incentives; never mind mincing the dollar’s value like an onion in an industrial meat grinder to shore up Goldman Sachs’s balance sheet. Lest Washington and the Fed backstopped the big banks, the world would be thrown back into the Stone Age, and we’d be reduced to a primitive state of bellum omnium contra omnes because ATMs would all read “insufficient funds.”
The commentator putting forth this argument used the indisputable disputational trick of citing a hypothetical “counterfactual,” as in, “You need to consider the counterfactual. Had Congress and President Bush not given the Fed authority to paper over a galaxy-size asset loss, then we’d all adopt anthropophagy to survive.” Ben Bernanke, the Fed chairman who oversaw TARP’s deployment, used the same argument to justify the unprecedented liquidity mainlining. In a 2012 speech at Jackson Hole, Bernanke praised the central bank’s reaction while admitting “the counterfactual—how the economy would have performed in the absence of the Federal Reserve’s actions—cannot be directly observed.”
Why bring up this vain back-patting from a decade ago? Because the dodgy use of academese term “counterfactual” is about to have a resurgence. With the country seemingly on the cusp of a real return to normality after the coronavirus pandemic, the federal government, along with many states admins, will no doubt claim competence in seeing us through the nouveau pneumonic plague. Twelve months of dire warnings, of washing our hands raw, of entreaties to wear six masks at once, of avoiding physical contact with loved ones outside our homes, of accepting a calendar-length pause on life, of sacrificing social life for the sake of society—all will be deemed necessary agents that quelled the spread of COVID-19.
Admission of error, of shortsightedness, of keeping businesses closed for too long, of kneecapping children’s social development by shuttering schools, of fretting over near-nonexistent fomite spread, will not be tolerated.
The elite government-medical-pharma complex will be invariant in its insistence of “Mission Accomplished.” Dr. Fauci will make George W. Bush look like Alexander the Great post the Battle of Gaugamela.
And why should the medical bureaucracy come clean about any misgivings? Fauci and friends know they’re facing a crisis of confidence, and are sweating under the press of nonstop scrutiny. They’ve been caught fibbing before. Their squirrely answers on when masks can be doffed and Grandpa can be hugged have already won them the gold at the goal-post shifting contest at this summer’s Olympics in Tokyo.
Any more acknowledgements that prescriptive mistakes were made could topple the puissant reputation medical professionals spend a packet, and their 20s, earning.
Then there are the governors, namely those of blue, lockdown-happy states, who, being politicians, are more likely to admit to marital infidelity than a governing flub. Just ask Andrew Cuomo, if he hasn’t killed your bubbe or ogled your wife yet. When COVID-closures are finally lifted, you won’t get an apology that your favorite Vietnamese one-arm joint filed Chapter 7, and its proprietor self-deported back to Hanoi. The loss of so many small businesses—of so much local color—will be deemed “the price we had to pay” by those who’ve never opened a QuickBooks account. And how can that assertion possibly be expostulated?
The epistemological deficiency of the counterfactual claim is its biggest strength. It can’t be disproven. It’s pure postulation, with the propounder counting on you being too cognitively lazy to rack your grey matter over whether the six-foot distance span was a suitable precaution. The counterfactual is Bastiats all the way down: no matter the facts, no matter the logic, no matter the data, no matter the immutable laws of economics, “that which is unseen” is always a screen to ward off criticism.
After being fed noble lies, we’re about to have our ears full with the biggest whopper of all: every societal casualty incidental to our collective COVID response was unavoidable. Little Johnny is going into the fourth grade unable to read? Sorry, that was an educative sacrifice made so Aunt Ethel could live. Wait, ol’ Ethel died in her Lansing nursing home because a bus chockablock with corona-positive seniors was forcibly admitted? Well, sorry, her local hospital may or may not have reached full bedding capacity. Wait, she might not have died if the Whitmer administration had done a better job distributing vaccines? Yeah, well, the former president was saying mean things about the governor and she just had to rejoin. Retweets were lying in the street!
Counterfactuals are built-in rhetorical excuses. And we’re about to have a dump truck load poured on top of us. You can listen to the evasive sophistry or believe your lying eyes.