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A Professor’s Message for the Holidays

It’s time to put aside your troubles and celebrate.

At Christmas, your creditors, competitors and even the neighbor who complains about your son’s electric guitar offers a smile and wishes you well.

I understand that even Donald Trump will quietly acknowledge Hillary Clinton as a cheery, charitable and clever woman.

That may be hoping for a bit too much, but this is the season we manage to reach into our reservoirs of charity and optimism to proclaim that in the New Year we will find peace with our adversaries, lose those extra pounds and finally live within our means.

We embrace hope, in part, because we remain so powerfully challenged.

Coping with Islamic terrorism, solving environmental problems threatening the planet and managing the economy to accomplish a just prosperity are tough tasks even for gifted minds like those of Barack Obama and Angela Merkel, but since biblical times tribal enmities, human excess and poverty have bedeviled our golden vision for humanity.

Still, we live at the cusp of a new and better age.

Believe what you will about climate change—the earth is getting decidedly warmer, the ice caps are melting and the consequences for civilization could be devastating. Quarreling nations must each do their part, or significant portions of the planet will become virtually uninhabitable and many fewer humans could be walking around 100 years from now.

Believe what you like about the recent Paris Climate Conference—I for one concluded Obama promised too much from America and got too little from China and others in return—virtually every nation in the world managed to put aside their differences and pledge some contribution toward accomplishing an epic transformation to a less carbon dependent civilization.

Accomplishing this agreement, no matter how imperfect, is something to celebrate. The last time humanity forged such common purpose was at the point of a Roman sword.

In that new civilization, human beings will be freed from the debilitating burdens thrust upon Adam and Eve when they were cast from Eden. We will no longer need toil in the fields or dark and dangerous factories.

Technology is not just about emails, selfies and Skyping your daughter who took a job in Australia. Over the next two or three decades, it will become possible to assign virtually all the mindless, backbreaking and dangerous tasks to robots that don’t use a whole lot of energy—or at least energy that soils the atmosphere.

Heretofore technologically intractable tasks like picking lettuce, framing a building or mounting a crown to repair a tooth will be wholly taken up by machines equipped with remarkable dexterity and artificial intelligence.

By the end of this century, the technology of the first Star Wars movie will seem Stone Age, and scholars will wonder how 20th century futurists lacked so much imagination about the potential of science.

The real challenge—if we don’t manage to destroy ourselves through war, greed and denial of the imperative for environmental stewardship—finally will become equipping each human being with the means to engage in intellectually demanding and creative work and to share in the bounty.

Access to technology and energy are already remarkably cheap, and globalization is making their benefits ubiquitous—bold commercial innovations are emerging from even the poor countries of Africa. By this century’s end, continued progress could put much of economics—the study of scarcity—out of business.

Measuring and boosting GDP will no longer be the logic of progress.

And that’s this professor’s message for Christmas and the New Year. It’s all before us if we can finally embrace our nobler instincts and see the grand potential of our creator’s most precious gift—the human mind.

Peter Morici is an economist and business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist. He tweets @pmorici1.

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