I have recently published numerous blogs on CPSC recall data documenting the dearth of injuries and deaths from lead in the past decade. I am certainly not indifferent to the suffering of any victim, however, I note that data on injuries is a way to measure the urgency of the threat. There has been one death and three asserted injuries in the last eleven years from lead. We are a country of 300 million-plus and have a $15 trillion dollar economy - presumably, we need to prioritize.
I have also provided CPSC data on injuries and deaths from other hazards, such as cadmium (zero), pool drains (very low, but greater than lead), phthalates (zero) and pool and spa (extremely high, more in an average day than in a decade for lead, phthalates and cadmium put together). In fact, I documented the distribution of injuries and deaths among all recalled children's products over an 11-year period. At one death and three unverified injuries, lead comes in last among all recall categories with more than eight recalls over 11 years (lead and lead-in-paint accounted for 248 of 899 total recalls in the surveyed period of time). Literally every significant hazard facing children in consumer products is worse and much more dangerous than lead according to the CPSC's own data.
I have also shown that the data on recalls publicized by the CPSC tends to magnify the scale of lead recalls, making the recalls seem more threatening and the implied hazard more urgent than they really are. Among other things, the quantity of recalled products typically (if not always) includes inventory in the possession of the manufacturer. This inventory NEVER MADE IT TO THE MARKET. In addition, recall data also includes product still on the shelf at retailers. This inventory, which was sold by the manufacturer to the retailer, was never sold to consumers. Inventory in the possession of the manufacturer, its factories or its retailers has no conceivable potential to harm a child. The amount of product in the hands of consumers could be tiny. Please consider these facts when evaluating the claims of consumer groups on the "poor" effectiveness of recalls. The math gets all tangled up, doesn't it?
Call me crazy, but this seems like some rather shocking data. The deaths and injuries from lead and phthalates are so small that they are trumped in a single day by pool and spa deaths and injuries. [The reported deaths and serious injuries from pools and spas since Memorial Day, at least 210, are AT LEAST FIFTY TIMES THE NUMBER OF DEATHS FROM LEAD IN THE LAST ELEVEN YEARS. In other words, it will take more than 500 years for lead to produce as many deaths and serious injuries as the last 53 days from pools and spas (if the lead death and injury rate doesn't taper off).]
And yet the CPSC seems to have no interest in this data, their OWN data. Why? Well, the best I can say is that they believe every life is precious and thus, economics cannot be considered when designing a response to the hazard. I did not invent this view of the consumer group-dominated Commission - I asked this very question of a person in a position to know, and got this answer. So there you go.
Does this hold water, that economics are irrelevant and should never be considered? First, on the relevance of economics, I think that's a silly proposition. Of course economics matters. Please don't feign shock or disgust. Let's do an exercise: How much shall we spend to save a life? A child died from swallowing a lead charm on a single bracelet several years ago. This is the lone reported death from lead or lead-in-paint from a consumer product in at least 11 years and has been cited as a justification for the CPSIA maelstrom. In this space, I have adopted a proxy estimate of $5.6 billion in annual CPSIA compliance costs for the children's product industry (based on a submission of the HTA to support their Congressional testimony).
So, is $5.6 billion the "right" amount to spend annually to prevent the next loss of life? Sure, you say, spend the $5.6 billion each year, every life is precious. Okay, does the cumulative spend of $61.9 billion over 11 years (to match the period in which the one death occurred) sound a bit extreme? Can you think of anything else that might be a better use of $61.9 billion? [Like a new national highway system? A new electrical grid? A few more cruise missiles? A few months of national health care?] I would note that $62 billion is double the provisional losses of BP from the Gulf oil spill. That's a lot of coconuts, if you ask me.
Should we spend $61.9 billion on every cause of death? What about causes of death that are "worse", meaning that loss of life is greater? Should we spend proportionately? If our resources are limited (I used to think that was relevant but lately, who knows?), how should we allocate our limited dollars? Is it okay to prioritize? Does lead make the cut if we try to allocate rationally?
It is worth noting that the value of a life or an injury is a heavily-litigated subject. It is a staple of tort litigation to estimate damages by assessing the economic value of a life or an injury. The U.S. government also engages in the same analysis. Certain agencies are forbidden by law to issue regulations that do not show an economic profit, that is, the cost of the regulation must be outweighed by its economic benefits. [Money spent or saved by the public versus the government is not relevant to this analysis - a dollar's a dollar no matter who spends it.]
The benefits of the regulation are calculated by assessing the economic value of lives and injuries. To regulate otherwise is economically irrational - which is where the CPSC seems to be. More to the point, economic irrationality is against the weight of U.S. jurisprudence, not to mention laws limiting the ability of the government to issue regulations. Hate to sound trendy, but it is Big Government completely out of control to contend that lives are "priceless" and to assert that the cost to avoid injury or death should not be limited by economic considerations. Please note that the EPA assesses the economic "value" of a life at $6.1 million. For even more perspective, the EPA says that one IQ point lost to lead is worth $8,346. CPSIA compliance costs are not less than $5.6 billion EACH YEAR. Do the math.
Okay, this is bordering on insulting your intelligence. Yet, astoundingly, the CPSC doesn't get it. What about the behavior of the CPSC itself - do they ever consider economics? Again, at the risk of insulting your intelligence, of course they do. For one thing, they themselves have limited resources. They can't do everything they want, and have to make choices. They have a BUDGET. They can't hire everyone they want, can't inspect everything, can't process every claim immediately and so on. They also make practical judgments on some things. I reported recently the tarring the Commission received for making a practical judgment about how to implement the pool drain law. In that case, they chose to agree with the recommendations of industry, which is heresy in some circles . Certain members of Congress live in those circles . . . . No doubt the savaging of the Commission over that minor practical judgment will have the intended effect of eliminating whatever shreds of common sense or backbone extant at the CPSC and the Commission. Perhaps this is the end of their consideration of economics . . . .
Where does this leave us? Come on, guys, right where we were for the last two years! We continue to rail against this awful law, and the CPSC gets progressively more and more stone deaf. I feel increasingly like I am mumbling to myself, especially when they won't respond to their own data or other data-driven rational arguments. Given that the Dems have made their name by being totally deaf to the legitimate concerns of industry, what choices are left to us? I am turning more of my energies to the 2010 Midterm elections. I hope you will also do what you can to change the dynamic in Washington. You've seen what these people have done in the last 18 months. Ready for more?
I'm not. And I am doing something about it.