I'm reading this article: ¿Qué hay realmente detrás de las multimillonarias donaciones de Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg y la nueva generación de filántropos tecnológicos?

Towards the middle of the article, there are these two sentences:

"Pero que tengan tanta libertad de acción y no necesiten rendir cuentas es también peligroso", añade.

Y advierte que el hecho de que nadie los fiscalice "es algo que debería asustarnos".

In the first sentence, I kind of get why subjunctive is used ("tengan", "necesiten"). It's the speaker's opinion that it's "dangerous".

However, I'm confused by "fiscalice" in the second sentence. We're talking about a fact, so why is subjunctive used?

  • I'd add that in reported speech you have to be careful not to mix the feelings of the speaker with the actual facts. Is it true that nadie los fiscaliza? Maybe so, but the reporter is not dealing with that, but with a warning (advierte que…) about that supposed fact from someone else. – pablodf76 Mar 30 at 14:31
  • This is such a nice question. My attempt of explanation is that the author is considering an hypotesis, an hipotetical condition/situation. No matter it is a fact, the author is "abstracting" from reality, not describen the real world but the "logic" world, in which "anything" that satisfies that is dangerous. That's how I'd justify this. – FGSUZ Mar 30 at 21:44
up vote 3 down vote accepted

The subjunctive is indeed complicated in Spanish.

You are right that in the first case it is the opinion on the part of a speaker that leads to the use of the subjunctive. Even if it is a fact that they have freedom to act and that they don't need to render account, we need the subjunctive there because the situation is considered to be dangerous:

  • También es peligroso que tengan tanta libertad de acción y no necesiten rendir cuentas --> Que tengan tanta libertad de acción y no necesiten rendir cuentas es también peligroso.

Similar sentences whose subject starts with "que" will use the indicative mood if no opinion is stated:

  • Que la tierra gira alrededor del sol es algo que hasta un niño debería saber. (= Hasta un niño debería saber que la tierra gira alrededor del sol.)

In the other case -- which is definitely harder to explain -- the subjunctive is optional. We could in fact also say:

  • Y advierte que el hecho de que nadie los fiscaliza "es algo que debería asustarnos".

I think that the subjunctive there, apart from introducing some slight uncertainty, can be accounted for by the fact that, if we take "es algo que" out, the subjunctive will be, if not required, at least much more usual than the indicative:

  • Debería asustarnos que nadie los fiscalice.

I was curious to see the context before the two sentences you quoted. The Callahan quotes are from an interview he did with BBC Business Daily. Here's what he actually said in this section (which starts at approximately the five-minute mark). The journalists over at BBC Mundo removed some repetitive material and pulled out Callahan's message in a pithy way with some artful paraphrasing. Your two sentences are in bold.

Philanthropy by its nature is               "La filantropía, por su propia          
not very democratic.  These                 naturaleza, no es muy democrática       
philanthropist foundations,                 Los filántropos,  las fundaciones, no   
they're accountable to nobody;              rinden cuentas a nadie", subraya        
they can do what they want                  Callahan.  "Pueden hacer lo que         
with their money and that can               quieran con su dinero y eso puede       
be a very good thing, because               ser muy bueno, porque pueden            
they can take the kinds of risks            asumir riesgos que los gobiernos        
that government officials can't             y las empresas no, porque los           
take, who are accountable to v              primeros deben rendir cuentas           
oters, or that corporations can't           ante sus votantes y los segundos        
take, because they're accountable           ante los accionistas. En ese sentido    
to shareholders.  Philanthropists           los filántropos tienen mucha            
have a lot of leeway to push                libertad de acción para impulsar        
forward dramatic ideas that may             ideas muy rompedoras", explica.         
be unpopular or may be risky.                                                       
The downside is they're not                 "Pero que tengan tanta libertad de      
accountable and have a lot of               acción y no necesiten rendir            
leeway, right?  So the same thing           cuentas es también peligroso",          
that's a strength of philanthropy           añade.                                  
is also a danger because you have                                                   
particularly now, these billionaires        Y advierte que el hecho de que          
who already have so much power              nadie los fiscalice "es algo que        
in our society - they will power            debería asustarnos".                    
through their political donations,                                                  
through their control of big                                                        
corporations like google or facebook                                                
or amazon, and now they're also                                                     
moving into the area of civil society                                               
through their large-scale philanthropy                                              
and exercising a lot of power there.                                                
So this is a scary thing.                                                           

Wikipedia in English has some helpful material:

The subjunctive is a grammatical mood (that is, a way of speaking that allows people to express their attitude toward what they are saying) found in many languages. Subjunctive forms of verbs are typically used to express various states of unreality such as wish, emotion, possibility, judgment, opinion, obligation, or action that have not yet occurred.

Subjunctives occur most often, although not exclusively, in subordinate clauses, particularly that-clauses. Examples of the subjunctive in English are found in the sentences "I suggest that you be careful" and "It is important that she stay by your side." (The corresponding indicative forms of the verbs in bold would be are and stays.)

The most useful parts of this for your question, I think, are "judgment" and "Subjunctives occur most often in that-clauses."

Wikipedia in Spanish has something helpful too:

Toma el carácter subjetivo de posible, probable, hipotética, creída, deseada, temida o necesaria.

Here, the most relevant part for your question is "hipotética."

The pundit explained in the interview that this new type of philanthropy is uncharted territory. That's the trigger for the subjunctive here.

It might be helpful to think about these sentences this way:

But the prospect that [these neophilantropists] could have so much leeway and not need to be accountable is also dangerous.

He warns that the prospect that no one would be providing financial oversight is something that should frighten us.

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