A Wrongful Celebration

Scarcely a day goes by without a reference to preparations for the new millennium. First, what's a millennium anyway? A millennium is a period of one thousand years. Does the next millennium start at the beginning of next year (2000) at the stroke of midnight? Most people think it does and they're wrong.

Here's how to think about when the new - third - millennium starts. Pretend I owe you $3,000 and I'm counting them out to you one dollar at a time and I get up to $1,997, $1,998 $1,999. Now the question is: when have I finished counting out the second thousand dollars and begin on the next - third - thousand dollars? I don't start counting out the next thousand dollars until after I add another one dollar to that $1,999 that I've already given you, making the total $2,000. I start counting out the next one thousand dollars when I've given you $2001. This reasoning also applies to counting years. The second millennium does not end in 1999 and the third begin in 2000. The second millennium ends midnight December 31, 2000 and the third millennium starts immediately afterwards in the year 2001.

All around the world there are massive plans in place to celebrate the next millennium (and 21st century) when 1999 expires. I'm not the only one aware of the mistake. There must be people in the major news network like ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN who will read this column and are intelligent enough to understand the mistake. Moreover, they have the means to get the word out. To combat public and official ignorance about the new millennium, the evening news should end with a statement like, "That's it for tonight, in the next to the last year of the second millennium." School boards could order teachers to explain the error to America's precious children. Why won't they?

If people discovered that the new millennium will begin in 2001 rather than 2000, would they cancel all the plans they are making now to celebrate and welcome in next year as the new millennium? Some of the plans are gigantic and costly. Some airlines plan to have flights over the international date line so passengers can experience the "new millennium" twice. New York City is coughing up mega-bucks for a mega-ton crystal ball to replace the current one that has been descending New Year's eve. Web sites around the world, including one at the White House, have clocks counting down the "last" days, hours, and minutes left in the second millennium. The U.S. is not the only country with costly celebration plans.

I suspect there will be no efforts to cancel plans for next year's celebration in light of the error being made known. In fact, I suspect that some people will be downright angry at the suggestion that they're celebrating nothing but the start of another year and not the new millennium. How do we explain this? Let me speculate.

The math error might be explained by the fact it's the first time in anybody's life that all numbers change at year-end instead of only one or two as it has been all of our lives. My second explanation is not as flattering. That is, people believe that the new millennium starts next year. Despite evidence to the contrary, they want to hold on to their beliefs simply because that's what they believe and it's better that way.

Let me propose a middle ground. Keep the celebration plans but call it celebrations for the last year of a century that featured man kind's greatest achievements as well as his unparalleled brutality.

Walter E. Williams


January 11, 1999

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