Economics is the science which studies human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses.

Lord Robbins[1]

[This is Larry again. We’ve decided [no, let me own up to this, I’ve decided] to do one more piece from the early years of Galaxy Science Fiction. As usual, Phil’s our presenter, mostly because he’s the one who found that stash of old sci-fi magazines in the Zoo files and won’t let loose of them. But he does have a good eye; his first selection sent G on vacation; the second certainly provoked me; and this one no doubt will give us a lot more to think and talk about. I say “no doubt,” of course, because I have no idea what he’s going to say.]

Yes you do; we talked about it yesterday; that’s when you put the stupid Robbins quote at the head of this piece.

[Don’t be so persnickety. I’m only doing what any moderator should: fibbing a little bit to build up suspense. What’s the name of your story?]

It’s A Bad Day for Sales, by Fritz Leiber.[2] Today the author is better known for fantasies rather than sci-fi, but this one is very definitely sci-fi; it’s about the future as seen from 1953, and packs quite a punch in a very few pages.[3]

Leiber describes a typical day in the life – I guess your can say “life”- of Robie, the first animated vending machine. Robie’s parent is Shuler Vending Machines, a small[4] company that’s trying to grow larger. Every day the company sends Robie out on Times Square to demonstrate his [his?] capabilities  –   i.e., to sell stuff to the public – and attract investors.

Robie’s appearances get a lot of TV and print coverage, and are popular as well. For many people it’s “fun” when he wheels up to sell them things.

[Now wait a minute, that’s not even believable! Who would enjoy being accosted on the street by a very large machine for any purpose, much less for sales? It would be like dealing with a robot panhandler!]

Would you believe, the same people who respond to Jay Leno and other media luminaries when those notables prowl the streets doing interviews?[5] That is, ordinary folks who want their quarter hour of fame, or perhaps just something different in their lives. In any case, let’s get back to the story.

There’s one other bit of prediction in the Leiber piece. In this future there’s also a Hot War going on in the world. You remember the difference between a Hot War and a Cold War, don’t you? The cold ones don’t involve shooting or bombing, at least on a major, world-wide scale. Well, in Leiber’s story there’s a Hot Truce when Robie rolls out to make his sales pitch.[6]

[I think we ought to remind people that we’re discussing fiction, not a news report. I wouldn’t want anybody to take this blog out of context.]

Agreed. Anyway, Robie is an impressive fellow. The lower part of his body is a metal hemisphere with wheels, its rim covered in sponge rubber; the upper is a metal box that can swivel and duck, with black holes in various places. [7] All-in-all, Robie looks a bit like a turtle. He’s programed with a number of sales routines, can interact in a limited way with the public, and accepts money and delivers product on the spot. After all, he is a vending machine.

So this day he rolls out to the public and starts to sell. The first person up is a nine-year old boy; Robie offers him a “polly-lop” [i.e., candy]; the boy eats it and Robie tries to sell him a drink. No response.[8] A little girl interrupts; she also wants free candy. Robie isn’t going to give away candy all day, so instead he tries to sell her a comic book. He starts with Junior Space Killers, but when she tells him she’s a girl, he switches to Gee-Gee Jones, Space Stripper.

[Apparently Robie doesn’t recognize children for what they are. To me the second item is really inappropriate for a little girl. But today, of course, society is dealing seriously with LGBT tastes and concerns, and who knows where public opinion will wind up? Perhaps Fritz Leiber was being prophetic here.]

I don’t think so. My guess is he thought this little episode was a joke, and used it to illustrate the limits of Robie’s programming.

Anyway, an older woman interrupts, sends the children away, and twirls around demonstrating her shape to Robie and the crowd. Correctly recognizing her gender, Robie attempts to sell her “Mars Blood” cosmetics for $ 5.00.[9] (Robie accepts bills as well as coins).  The woman slips away and Robie proceeds to demonstrate some of his other tricks, which mostly involve crossing the street. But unbeknownst to Robie, or the crowd, there’s a foreign missile approaching NYC, and Times Square. It’s hard to detect, because it’s very high up and clothed in an anti-radar paint.[10]

[Anti-radar paint? Stealth technology? Good Heavens!]

The missile detonates in the air while Robie is demonstrating and trying to sell soft drinks. The heat and radiation burn or kill most of the crowd. Robie doesn’t recognize this, in large part because he doesn’t identify bodies on the ground, alive or dead, as customers. The little girl returns; she was shielded by the crowd, and escaped most of the blast effects. She tells Robie, “I want my mother!”

He has one program for that kind of distress. He whistles for the police, but none come. Fortunately the mother exits a nearby store, hears the whistle, collects her daughter, and leaves. Robie then tries to sell soft drinks to the rescue crews, who look “more robotlike in their asbestos suits than he in his metal skin.”[11]

Robie’s sponsors expected him to sell a lot that day, but with the explosion and all that it turned out to be a bad day for sales.

[What a parade of images! Comic, frightening, gruesome, sarcastic, and all at the same time!  But let’s talk about the blast for a second. It seems to me that the blast described was similar of what people might have seen at Hiroshima or Nagasaki at the end of World War II. But those were minor weapons compared to what we have today. When did thermonuclear weapons, the so-called H-bombs, come into play?]

I looked it up. The H-bombs, the real city-busters, were officially acknowledged (by us) in 1954.[12] This story was published in 1953. It’s unlikely the author knew much, if anything, about H-bombs when he wrote this.

[So the story could have been much worse, if he had updated it after 1954.

Now for my second point. Suppose there is a nuclear “exchange” between us and some other power. Our government and intellectuals looked at that kind of thing back in the early 1960s, and saw U.S. casualties in the tens of millions. How would our economists deal with such damage?]

It’s not my field, but to me it seems losing tens of millions of consumers would be very bad for the economy. Demand would go way down, just as it would if we eliminated tens of millions of jobs by sending them to other countries. If we’re down by that many consumers, then how could our economy grow? We’d have to sell to consumers in other countries.

[If some foreign country hits us first, and knocks out our consumers, does it really make sense for us to retaliate, and knock out theirs as well? If we do that, we might not have anybody left to sell our goods to. We wouldn’t have the demand that’s necessary to help us rebuild our economy. And, we might be destroying capital in foreign countries that actually belongs to American business.]

Are you saying that, if someone attacks us we should just pass it off, bury the dead, and let the living get on with business? How does that deter our enemies?

[It doesn’t. But if economics is the study of how to allocate scarce means to ends, and both consumers and capital are scarce, why would a good economist, or business person, ever recommend we destroy our own capital, even if it’s stuck in foreign lands, or potential customers, even if they’re foreign citizens?]

Larry, I don’t have any answers. But I do have suspicions, and one of them is that economists are not our best advisors in international relations. Their world view, like Robie’s, seems a bit too limited.

Anyway, that’s my opinion. What about you, dear reader? What do you think?


[1] See Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (6th Edition, 2003) (henceforth, ODQ at __) at Lord Robbins, p. 649, n. 17. The ODQ describes Lord Robbins simply as a “British Economist.”

[2] Fritz Leiber isn’t talked about so much today, and he’s better known for fantasy fiction rather than sci-fi. But he was a big gun back in the day, and his writing still holds up. See Clute & Nicholls, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (St. Martins, 1993) (hereafter cited as SF Encyclopedia at __) at Leiber, Fritz (Reuter, Jr.), p. 705 – 707 See also SF Encyclopedia at War, p. 1296 – 1298, particularly p. 1298.

[3] It was first published in the July, 1953 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction at p. 112-119. We have that issue on file here at the Zoo, so it’s our source for this piece. We’ll cite it as 07/1953 Galaxy at __)

[4] And, should I say, also fictitious. This is fiction, you know.

[5] Remember Jaywalking?

[6] See 07/1953 Galaxy at 112: “The crowd that had been watching the fifty- foot-tall girl on the clothing billboard get dressed, or reading the latest news about the Hot Truce scrawl itself in yard-high script, hurried to look [at Robie].” Apparently the Hot Truce involves Pakistan. See 07/1953 Galaxy at 115-116: “No one in the crowd was watching the newscript overhead as it scribbled, “Ice Pack for Hot Truce? Vanadan hints Russ may yield on Pakistan.”

[7] See 07/1953 Galaxy at 113

[8] See 07/1953 Galaxy at 115

[9] That was a fairly high price for 1953. Perhaps the author was forecasting inflation for this hypothetical future.

[10] See 07/1953 Galaxy at 117: “And in that purple-dark, a silver-green something, the color of a bud, plunged down at better than three miles a second. The silver-green was newly developed paint that foiled radar.”

[11] See 07/1953 Galaxy at 119

[12] The first thermonuclear device (actually a building, not a bomb) was tested by us in November, 1952. See the Wikipedia entry on “Ivy Mike” at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ivy_Mike  A film of the test was produced, and released to the public in 1954. The Russians tested a fusion device in August, 1953. See The Wikipedia entry on Joe 4 at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joe_4  We did the same with a much larger bomb on March 1, 1954. See the Wikipedia entry on Castle Bravo, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castle_Bravo Wikipedia also has a lengthy discussion of bomb design at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thermonuclear_bomb

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