What is the principal goal of the CPSC - to protect consumers from unsafe consumer products, or to punish legal transgressors? If consumers haven't been harmed, how should this aftect the agency's decision to punish?
These questions come to mind when considering the most recent punishment meted out by the CPSC. In particular, on February 4th, Schylling Associates ("Schylling") agreed to pay a $200,000 fine for lead-in-paint violations disclosed in 2007. How does this fine affect the CPSC's mission?
Background: I have no personal knowledge of this situation, although I know the company and some of its principals, and I have had no contact with anyone associated with the fine. My summary of L-I-P recalls from 2007 shows five Schylling recalls, although the CPSC press release does not relate to all of them. The recalls total about 80,000 pieces sold from June 2001 to May 2003. The fine works out to about $2.50 per unit for violations almost seven years old or older. No injuries were reported since the sales began almost nine years ago.
Schylling apparently promptly recalled one of the items upon discovery of the infraction in March 2002 and also terminated the factory. Here is Jack Schylling's letter to his dealers describing this incident. This item comprised a relatively small portion of the defects. Schylling apparently (mistakenly) believed that the other L-I-P problems had been resolved and therefore did not recall them until 2007 (see below).
In August 2007, a Chicago Tribune article featured a defective Schylling top purchased in an online auction; consequently, several additional L-I-P violations dating back to 2001-2003 were uncovered, promptly disclosed to the CPSC and recalled properly.
Judging from the press release and the settlement agreement, this is a messy fact pattern with some poor judgments. bad operational execution and some violations of serious rules. Schylling was a repeat offender, albeit by all appearances not because of bad intentions. No one was hurt.
That Schylling was in the wrong is only part of the story. Was the fine the right move by the CPSC?
The Schylling Fine is Excessive and Unrelated to the CPSC's Mission to Protect Consumers. The CPSC is not the Department of Justice. They are the Consumer Product Safety Commission - the agency "is charged with protecting the public from unreasonable risks of serious injury or death from thousands of types of consumer products under the agency's jurisdiction." I do not believe this fine is consistent with their mission.
In this case, the fine is removed from the protection mission, as all defective pieces were recalled from the market voluntarily and pursuant to voluntary disclosure. This is "good behavior" since the company sought to mend its ways and fix the problem. In addition, because the offenses lasted two years ending almost seven years ago, this matter is old and cold. Addressing it now seems to unfairly reach back in time. Finally, the amount of the fine is arbitrary and therefore unfair. The size of the fine cannot be related to other fines for similar offenses.
Manufacterers Are Likely to React Badly to Fines Intended to Make Examples. If the mission of the agency is to protect consumers, all of its activities must be judged against that mission. In this case, the fine for Schylling would need to make consumers safer to be consistent with the mission. Ironically, I think it is quite possible that this excessive fine may endanger consumers by discouraging manufacxturer cooperation.
The striking thing about this fine is not simply its excessive size - it is that the fine seems motivated by retribution, not consumer protection. This company appears to have tried, perhaps ineptly or even improperly, to do the "right thing". They turned themselves in voluntarily. The product was removed from the market voluntarily, although not with all the required CPSC disclosure or as timely as possible.
Ultimately, to be successful, the CPSC needs manufacturers to come forward. The trust factor is crucial. When the CSPC acts to squish people who turn themselves in, perhaps to set an example, businesses may conclude that they cannot afford to throw themselves on the mercy of the CPSC. The Schylling action reinforces the notion that the CPSC is not a trustworthy partner. And this is a very damaging notion for consumers.
Here at the Nuremberg Toy Fair, the tradeshow is abuzz with several examples of companies who suffered grievous losses by disclosing problems to the CPSC. These issues were never of a life-threatening nature. However, the CPSC defaulted to remedies that placed the maximum risk on the manufacturer. Now, to make matters worse, the CPSC is adding large, arbitrary penalties for companies that come forward. Do the math - manufacturers may well see disclosure as a bad deal. Highly publicized punishments like Schylling destroy trust. While some manufacturers may be "scared straight", many others may simply drop off the radar altogether.
Other agencies in the U.S. government see things more clearly. Customs, for instance, grants full immunity from penalties if you confess your sins before official notice of an investigation. While this too is painful, at least you control you control your own fate and pay no penalties. Customs' policy encourages disclosure, which is what Customs wants. I contend that disclosure is what the CSPC should want, too - it needs to know what defectivce products are "out there" to protect the public.
A big fine was not the agency's only possible remedy here. It did not have to hit Schylling with a huge penalty, or any penalty at all. Schylling could havc agreed to implement new safety procedures or to conform to certain standards for future behavior. The CPSC also could have agreed with Schylling on some sort of public service. These options would have sent a strong message to Schylling about the consequences of future infractions, while encouraging openness and cooperation with the manufacturing community.
Unfortunately, a reasonable approach would not satsify a ravenous pack of Democratic members of Congress, consumer groups and newspaper editorial boards who are demanding blood. Giving in to populist outrage buys the CPSC time . . . but at a high cost. A punishment-oriented CPSC will be defeated by its own shortsightedness. As more and more people slink into the shadows, this CPSC might accuse the manufacturing community of venality and launch even stronger actions against bad behavior. A safety police state is possible. Is that what we want?
If the CPSC persists in this approach, it will soon eat its own cooking. It's time for the mania and blood lust to end, and for rationality to return to safety administration. Fear does not have drive regulation of these markets.