Thursday, November 4, 2010

CPSIA - Dear President Obama

An Open Letter to President Obama:

Dear President Obama,

Tuesday's election results were a message to your administration. The "shellacking" you experienced was a referendum on your economic policies as well as a passionate call for smaller government.

Readers of my blog have heard all about these issues for two years. It is frustrating to me that you and your administration remain in the dark. You weren't listening.

My industry, children's products, suffered mightily at the hands of your administration. Admittedly the problem began on Mr. Bush's watch but it was your Democrats who refused to relent or admit their errors. Since passage of the Consumer Product Safety "Improvement" Act in 2008, your party has refused to consider our industry's increasingly pathetic pleas for mercy. The result has been utter market chaos and dramatic financial loss. This regulatory "railroad job" has driven many of us into politics against you and your party out of desperation and profound anger over this undeserved and insensitive treatment.

If you take the midterm election results seriously, you must reexamine the impact of this law on our industry and promptly offer sensible relief.

The problems with the CPSIA can be divided into four categories - Cost, Complexity, Risk and Intrusion. Please give up the idea that these problems can be overcome with tax relief or some sort of economic incentive. If you break my leg, I won't be able to get up and run like an Olympic champion no matter how many carrots you dangle in front of my nose. It's time to be accountable for the damage that the CPSIA wrought - and then directly address it.

Cost: The many ridiculous new rules in the CPSIA dramatically raise the cost of operating our businesses. It goes far beyond the asphyxiating testing costs that the CPSIA imposes. Wasteful administrative costs are skyrocketing in every direction. For instance, tracking labels do not magically appear on our products - we must hire people to redesign each of our products and our manufacturing processes, and we must hire yet more people to make sure we don't screw up these tasks. We sell or manufacture literally thousands of skus (items) - but have had only one tiny recall in the last 26 years. This is PURE UNADULTERATED WASTE. We nevertheless must incur these costs to keep the CPSC happy.

These well-documented costs come from somewhere. You may wonder why we're not hiring. [In fact, I have previously disclosed in this space that our head count continues to decline, an uninterrupted trend since 2007 to this very day.] Well, we must fund these unproductive costs from productive activities - sales, marketing, product development - you know, activities that produce new revenue. [Please note: your proposed tax increases will be paid from the same kitty.] Unlike you, we can't solve our money problems by printing more dollar bills - we have to EARN them. If you make us waste our money, we must shrink our business to pay these new costs. WE GIVE UP GROWTH TO PAY THESE WASTEFUL COSTS.

I find it exasperating to have to explain this to you.

Complexity: We now face perhaps 3,000 pages of new safety rules and laws applicable to our business. I have never included rules on childcare or infant items in this total. For those miserable companies who stubbornly persist in making this kind of item, their total is probably well in excess of 3,000 pages. Each word of those pages is a possible felony.

The pre-CPSIA total was about 100 pages of rules, most of which were inapplicable to our business. There was very little to remember - which made it easy for us to administer our business. We could teach the rules, we could remember the rules, we could follow the rules, we could set up sensible priorities oriented around safety (not merely compliance). This is no longer the case.

Face it, President Obama, NO ONE understands these new rules. I include the CPSC on that list. There are just too many rules, and they are riddled with inconsistencies, flaws and head scratchers. The rules are also a mess, existing in many forms, in many places, never correlated or conformed, and are certainly not indexed. The rules have no underlying logic, so it is not possible to anticipate how any rule should work or does work - you have to find the rule and study it, preferably with an expensive lawyer helping you. Even finding a particular rule is quite a treasure hunt.

We are pretty busy - this does not enhance our productivity.

I believe that unless one is a rabbinic scholar or some kind of savant, it is not possible to master 3,000 pages of dense and inconsistent rules. The CPSC has done little to make sense of these rules.

Consider the paradox of musical instruments - full-sized musical instruments are not considered "Children's Products" even if marketed EXCLUSIVELY to children. Does that make ANY sense to you? Remember, these are SAFETY rules so if musical instruments are unsafe for some reason, wouldn't logic suggest that we should not let children interact with them? And if they're safe, then they shouldn't be regulated at all. Right? Interestingly, the CPSC says that if you shrink the same instruments down for children, they WOULD BE considered "Children's Products" and subject to the CPSIA, even if marketed side-by-side with slightly larger, full-sized instruments which are not regulated. This makes absolutely no sense, is completely indefensible as public policy and creates a terrible quandary for any business attempting to interpret and apply these rules.

The complexity and opacity of the rules outstrips EVERYBODY'S abilities. We are completely stymied - and it's your fault. You and your team refused our advice on how to resolve these issues.

Risk: The CPSIA is a tort lawyers' dream. With the coming public database, our industry will be a feeding trough for these vipers. To say the least, you have permitted the government to set up a system DESIGNED to be gamed by lawyers and litigants.

How do you think business people will react to this massive expansion of the tort system? Please note that NO ONE contends that there are more injuries to address - it is absolutely clear that the effect of the CPSIA is to create many more claims of action. More cost, more risk - and as a result, there WILL be less economic activity.

Good job, guys!

Add to this misery the current practice of this CPSC to press for recalls that do not meet the CPSA's legal standards for recalls (substantial risk of injury or death) and to impose huge vindictive penalties. The agency is on the war path, trying with all its might to scare us to death. This is an especially powerful economic depressant for small businesses which typically lack the resources to resist these pressures. Small businesses are more conservative and tolerate risk less comfortably as they manage their own money and see themselves as having more to lose than mass market companies or public companies.

The aggression of the new CPSC is out of control. The current Chairman likes to BRAG about her big penalties. Trust has been utterly destroyed in the manufacturing community. In two short years, the CPSC squandered its reputation as a partner in safety, someone to be trusted. Who in their right mind would trust this CPSC? If you doubt me, ask McDonald's how they feel about being pressured to recall 12 million acknowledged safe Shrek glasses (and the ensuing media frenzy over cadmium - all without ANY documented injuries from cadmium in children's products EVER). Or ask Schylling Associates or Daiso how they feel about penalties imposed on them for rule violations without any injuries. By all appearances, those penalties reflected regulatory anger, not endangered public safety.

[While you're at it, ask the CSPC why they never completed their FOIA disclosure to me on the Schylling penalty.]

Seemingly, almost any violation of these rules can be twisted into a felony charge now. We joke in our office about visiting each other in jail - but it's not really funny at all. I simply cannot fathom conducting my affairs in a way that risks being charged with a felony. As a lawyer, the criminal risk imposed by the CPSIA is completely unacceptable to me and highly offensive. I often say that felonies cannot be committed accidentally - except in the Children's Product industry. The unavoidable accumulation of trivial infractions with heavy penalty risk gives the CPSC winning leverage in any negotiation. The game is FIXED. Everyone knows it, too.

This is no stimulus plan, by the way.

Intrusion: It's this simple - we have a new partner who showed up two years ago - the U.S. government. They don't know anything about our business and have never run any operation similar to ours but they now reserve the right to check all our work and to second-guess us. Mother May I? That's the new game in our business.

Could we live without ANY of this? Yes, most definitely. While the zealots behind this self-destructive law like to emphasize the POSSIBILITY of injury from lead and love to repeat the simple-minded chestnut that there is "no safe level of lead", they FAIL utterly to tie these claims of POSSIBLE injury to data of ACTUAL injury. There is no "nexus". Lead may be "bad" but it has no history of causing injury in children's products. Leaded gasoline, house paint and industrial pollution are the culprits that caused blood lead levels to rise materially - that's undeniably true. Congress missed the boat entirely with the CPSIA - it's all cost, no benefit.

Lead injuries from children's products are virtually unknown. My study of CPSC recalls in 1999-2010 totals one death (from a piece of jewelry) and three unverified injuries from lead in 11 years. Given the truly massive size of our industry and the children's marketplace, and the literally trillions of interactions with our industry's products each year, this injury total is statistically equivalent to ZERO. Instead of punishing our industry, you should give us a good citizenship award. We have earned the trust of U.S. consumers.

The path forward is clear but frankly, I Still don't think you get it. Trust has been broken. Until you and your administration DEMONSTRATE that you are taking a DIFFERENT path, we will continue to conduct a war against the CPSC and Congress. This defective law deserves a FULL repeal. It is misconceived and has cost countless jobs. I hope you and your associates will not continue to deny the obvious, to fly in the face of data and reason. The voters are on to this scam. They voted many Democrats out of work in midterm elections. If you and your team don't wise up quickly, in the over-regulation of our industry and other industries, they'll vote the rest of you out in two years.

The problem was never the law. Before Congress "improved" it, the CPSA was a powerful law that enabled the CPSC to closely supervise children's markets. Let's not forget that the recalls in 2007/8 were conducted under PRIOR law - the unamended CPSA had plenty of teeth. The recalls in 2007/8 were clearly a COMPLIANCE problem, not a problem with the rules themselves. For various reasons, some people weren't following the law closely enough. As objectionable as that may be, it is also important to remember that the 2007/8 recalls were associated with virtually NO injuries. So what should we have done, in lieu of all the tough new standards and venal penalty provisions in the CPSIA?

The agency should have been reorganized to work on compliance more effectively. The agency needed to invest in education, outreach to industry and more effective partnership with industry. This idea that we in the business community can't be trusted is revolting and completely untrue - it is a populist idea you and your allies flogged to get elected. If you want to keep your jobs for much longer, you need to drop this caustic idea. We are not bad people or incompetent people - we can be trusted and can be good partners (as our record proves). No, not everyone will be good or conscientious. Bad people and incompetent organizations cannot be legislated away (at a reasonable cost). Still, the data indicates that a lower cost approach of partnership and education will produce very good results.

Fixing this law will be a stimulus plan that creates JOBS. Please give us back control of our financial statements and we will find a good way to spend our own money to grow our businesses. We don't need your help - we need you to GET OUT OF THE WAY.

Yours sincerely,

Richard Woldenberg
Learning Resources, Inc.
Vernon Hills, Illinois


jennifer said...

Very nice! Maybe we should start a so we can explain what the real problem is and perhaps his advisors might read them.

They keep throwing money (or printing money) on problems when what they really need to do is listen to people who are running businesses (and that doesn't count the one person at a town hall meeting who is so overly excited to meet the president that they don't say what they really feel). If a business doesn't feel favorable about their future because of looming threat of law suits and fines and an out of control government no amount of money will fix that. It just isn't that difficult to understand, IF THEY LISTEN.

Anonymous said...

Well said Rick; I've been following your blogg for a long time and really appreciate all your hard work and information!

Happymom4 aka Hope Anne said...

Rick, I hope you send this letter along with a package of your products right to the White House. if you only send the letter, it will likely get lost in the shuffle. A package will garner hopefully enough attention that it will get clear to the top where Mr. Obama who "feels bad" after this last election can read it.

halojones-fan said...

Given Obama's comments regarding "shovel-ready", I think it's clear that he--like most of the people currently running the show--has no idea what it's like to work with the government rather than for it.

Debbie Bernstein said...

Hi! Your letter is incredibly well said, as usual, and so eloquently explains the inequities in CPSIA, the risks, and expense that small business is being forced to assume.

I thought about sending a similar type of letter to John Boehner explaining the urgent need for a solution, (since the testing stay is going to be lifted in a little more than 90 days). But, your letter is so well written, I’d like to ask you to send it to him. Will you do that pls? We might be able to get HIS attention!

Rick, thanks for your tireless work on our behalf & your devotion to getting some relief for small business. It is truly appreciated!

Please let me know if you or Steve have any ideas for further pooling our resources so we are heard!

Thanks again,

Debbie Bernstein,
Social & Vendor Compliance, CPSIA, CSR
7860 Nelson Road
Van Nuys, CA 91402
Tel: (818) 909-6200 x507
Fax: (818) 909-0234