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The Incomplete Year

Max Stearns

Writers customarily post at notable junctures: birthdays, major holidays, and, of course, New Year’s. This year I struggled. In every important way, 2021 is incomplete. I then realized the importance of explaining why that’s important.

Personally, professionally, and more generally, 2021 is the year of incompleteness.

Personally, my family home is under contract. We’ll settle in 2022, and thanks to a prescheduled lease-back, we are still figuring out where we’ll live next.

Professionally, I was on leave this past fall writing a major book about how to save our failing democracy. I’ve written exactly half the chapters, plus the proposal. And yes, while that’s incomplete, it’s ahead of schedule.

I’m also about to start teaching live for the first time since March of 2020. Except the first two weeks, at least, will be by zoom.

More generally, we ridded the nation, and world, of the most dangerous administration in modern history, possibly our entire history. But the threat hasn’t abated. Signs of genuine improvement to people’s lives are strained across-the-board. Our politics has only grown more divisive. And our constitutional democracy is increasingly under threat.

Globally, we are witnessing the tragic consequences of a complete failure to take the existential threat of climate change seriously. And our approach to this pandemic has been disastrous, with vast segments of the population willing to serve as self-righteous incubators of new variants.

My book project will argue the need for fundamental reform if we are to survive as a democracy. I have very precise reforms in mind. Detailing them now seems premature. The coincidence of ending another lap around the sun seems an odd reason to open up a project that’s progressing well, yet incomplete. I’m no artist—trust me on that—but I imagine those who are avoid premature displays for fear that viewers can’t then appreciate the final product as intended, unaffected by what they saw before.

This year’s incompleteness has affected almost everyone. Many of us know couples scheduled to come together, or apart. Individuals who have contracted Covid, and who are still recovering. People who have lost their jobs, and who are still searching. And those whose personal relationships were strained past the breaking point by intense political divides, yet who still hold a faint glimmer of hope toward resolution.

My search for a better path to save our democracy is inspired by many people, especially those long suffering at the hands of a dysfunctional system and our children and future generations who desperately need us to leave them a system that works.

It’s also inspired by far greater minds than my own.

Kurt Gödel proved that no logical system is both internally consistent and complete. Every system rests at least on one premise that the system itself cannot prove. Kenneth Arrow proved that no institution can satisfy a set of modest conditions he regarded is essential to a fair and rational democracy. John Nash demonstrated that combined outcomes arise from individual decisions that often lead us to places where none of us wish to be.

Each insight is brilliant, and important; none is complete. Completeness requires applying such great insights to circumstances even the greatest minds could never foresee.

Among the many MAGA (Make America Great Again) offenses is the idea that there ever was a time in which American greatness was completed. Among the claimed offenses of CRT (Critical Race Theory), typically based on mischaracterization, is an intuition that facts that fly in the face of this fictitious historical conception must be suppressed. Completeness for such individuals is more important than any project toward improvement ever could be.

Many regard to Framers of the Constitution as a collective group of geniuses whose works were complete, notwithstanding that so little about our actual system operates as they intended. The Framers themselves didn’t view their work as complete. They anticipated that problems would arise that they could never foresee. And they embedded mechanisms that although too difficult to satisfy, allowed for ending a genuinely harmful presidential administration and for improving a system that was, from the get-go, deeply flawed.

I would never counsel against New Year’s resolutions that seek improvement, personally, professionally, and globally, in the year ahead. But I will say that anyone who imagines the optimal timing of such efforts has anything to do with artificial markers on an arbitrary calendar is sadly mistaken. If it’s urgent, do it now. If not, feel free to put it off. Just not too long.

I welcome your comments.

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