Accidents happen. It's an old saying.
Once upon a time acts of fate were no one’s fault and we each bore the risk individually. Today, things seem different – when bad things happen, the search begins for someone to blame. The media and politicians feed this trend in hysterical tones (they profit by doing so). Individual responsibility is passé. In the case of children’s products today, blame is often laid at the feet of the product or its manufacturer by the CPSC. In some cases, the fault is clear (the hazard is “substantial”); in other cases, it’s not nearly as clear. In this article, I am only interested in those more ambiguous cases where there is an element of fate or other factors outside the control of the manufacturer. Should we be satisfied with how the CPSC draws the line?
CPSC as Allocator
The CPSC’s assignment of responsibility for injuries (in the form of recalls) is an inherently “legal” process. Our laws allocate risk and responsibility in society in the form of rights. About 75 years ago, legal theorists developed a field of inquiry known as “law and economics” which held that legal systems incorporate economic principles which ensure efficient allocation of resources and promote economic activity. “Rights” are essentially factors of production in economic terms. Ronald Coase of the University of Chicago Law School won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1991 for his seminal work on law and economics over the preceding 50+ years. Notably, Obama regulations “czar” Cass Sunstein is an ex-University of Chicago Law School law professor, as is President Obama himself. Sunstein is closely associated with the study of law and economics.
The issues confronting the CPSC over injuries to children are not emotional in nature at all. They are actually purely economic issues because the CPSC is a market regulator. It is an objective fact that injuries to children or other consumers are a cost we bear in exchange for the benefits of economic activity (availability of innovative manufactured products, the provision of jobs, etc.). Naturally, as a community we want to bear as few such costs as is efficient, again to promote growth, hence a societal interest in reducing injuries. The interest in reducing injuries is economic, however; we are not indifferent to cost and judge them in light of corresponding benefits. For instance, this explains why you do not wear a crash helmet on the way to work despite your awareness that fatal auto accidents happen every day. The costs outweigh the benefits.
As a regulator, the agency brokers costs among a large group of parties. Consumer costs related to injury (including emotional loss and lost income, among other things) are weighed against manufacturer and market costs (recall costs, damage to brands, decreased growth, lost jobs, etc.). Whether the CPSC does the math properly or not, their decisions allocate resources by directing that one party incur costs to protect other parties from incurring costs. These decisions are purely economic even if stated in emotional terms. It is therefore clear that CPSC regulators have the capacity to promote economic growth or stifle it.
Is the Goal “No Injuries” Ever?
The CPSC has a legal responsibility to differentiate between a product hazard that causes accidents and accidents caused by the hand of fate. Congress limited the authority of the agency to regulate only those product hazards deemed “substantial” (a term of art under the CPSA and FHSA). As stated here many times previously, I believe the CPSC under current leadership regularly exceeds its legislative authority in this regard. The CPSC acts as though its role is to move society toward a Utopian ideal in which children are never injured or die prematurely. While I certainly don’t endorse injuries to children, the Utopian ideal of injury-free childhoods is illusory. In fact, an injury-free childhood could only be achieved at a very high cost. If the CPSC attaches an almost infinite value to preventing injuries, their allocation decisions will always constitute a transfer (a tax) and cause economic inefficiency (depress economic activity).
This over-appraisal of the cost and consequence of childhood injury is illustrated by recent remarks of Chairman Inez Tenenbaum about a recall of one million pool drain covers. Ms. Tenenbaum appears to justify the recall on the possibility of injury despite media reports confirming that no deaths had occurred since 2009:
"I want to make it clear that this recall announcement does not mean that one million drain covers will need to be replaced or repaired. The recalled covers were marked with the wrong flow rating . . . . Now for those public pools and spas that need their covers replaced or fixed, I have an obligation to advise that those facilities be closed at this time. They should reopen as soon as the work is completed that addresses the recall and brings the facility into compliance with the law. I know this is a very difficult message for many communities to hear so close to Memorial Day weekend, but we cannot risk a child becoming entrapped in a recalled drain cover." [Emphasis added]
This unstated policy attaching infinite value to childhood injury is much more than a strict liability standard because the CPSC only acts after an assessment of fault (rather than simply assigning responsibility). Isn’t the agency saying that the actions or inactions of manufacturers cause accidents?
Recent Recalls Allocate Uncontrollable Costs to Manufacturers
Consider some recent recalls for perspective:
a. Big Lots recalls bunk beds recalled after a three-year-old child died when caught under a futon.
b. Maclaren recalls one million strollers sold over 11 years because of more than a dozen fingertip amputations caused by a hinge.
c. Mattel recalls more than 7,000,000 children’s trikes sold over 14 years because of genital injuries to ten young girls jumping on the trike.
While it may be hard to look past these sometimes grisly childhood injuries, each of these cases calls into question whether the injuries were really the fault of the manufacturer. It’s not worth defending the product designs – let’s concede that in retrospect the products could have been better designed. Parental supervision appears to be an issue in each case. Manufacturers are typically unwilling to resist CPSC recalls by blaming consumers for injuries incurred using its products. That route is very risky and may in fact be more costly than going along with the CPSC’s dictates. As a result, the record in these cases is usually very one-sided – the CPSC has the first and last word on the subject, often on TV. Why would anyone stand up for these companies in public? There’s no incentive to do so; after all, the costs are paid by only one party, and that party isn’t talking.
There is a fundamental error in routinely blaming manufacturers for accidents or fate. It is widely accepted that laws operate efficiently when they allocate responsibility for risk to the party in the best position to address the risk. Manufacturers can efficiently bear many such costs – but not all. For instance, product safety is best assigned to manufacturers rather than consumers. This is fairly obvious – manufacturers know their own products better than consumers do and are best able to take steps to keep products safe at the lowest possible cost (most efficient). This is the reason why the common law tort system assigns product liability costs to manufacturers.
So who is in the best position to control costs associated with accidents or fate? Risks associated with acts of fate are difficult to control. In fact, many foreseeable risks leading to childhood injuries are completely outside the control of manufacturers:
2. Failures of adult supervision
3. Product abuse or misuse
4. Mental deficiencies or mental illness (e.g., pica)
5. Risks well-known to the user (e.g., knives are sharp).
I would advance that good adult supervision is the lowest cost way to prevent accidents with children’s products. There are significant limitations to what a manufacturer can achieve on behalf of consumers who don’t adequately supervise their children. Of course, drawing the line is a big issue here. But can’t an argument be made that adult supervision of the toddlers using the Mattel trike could have prevented foreseeable injuries from jumping on the trike? That a parent must carefully supervise the location of a child’s hands before closing a stroller? This is a simple point – manufacturers cannot control these factors from their offices or warehouses. The cost for a manufacturer to do so would be excessive.
Some people might argue that assigning blame for matters of fate to manufacturers of consumer products is a neat way to efficiently spread cost among the community. Why not make the manufacturer pay the uncontrollable cost of fate relating to their products, and let them pass the costs along to consumers in the form of higher prices? Manufacturers can be converted into involuntary insurers by public policy, risk intermediaries for events of misfortune. The appeal is irresistible; after all, it doesn’t cost tax dollars to pay for these losses if we force responsibility on manufacturers. Of course, if you are a careful consumer, you might resent paying more to subsidize free-riding consumers who don't take appropriate precautions. But money aside, doesn’t it reflect a hardening of our society if if we ignore heart tugs when kids are injured? Is this heartless . . . or sensible? Is the CPSC doing the American public a favor by increasingly pushing responsibility for uncontrollable risks to manufacturers?
The Important Role of Economic Efficiency in Laws Governing Children’s Products
I believe bad things do sometimes happen to good people. What is the economic effect of assigning these costs to manufacturers by default? Unfortunately, this invariable result is not economically efficient and will have the effect of a tax on the children’s market. In other words, the economic incentive to participate in markets will shrivel as manufacturer returns on investment decline because of legal risks (costs) they cannot control. This is basic stuff, folks – the reduced economic incentive causes market participants to withdraw, just as high taxes cause people to stop taking risks (trading).
Ronald Coase addressed this subject in two articles that led to his Nobel Prize. In a 1937 paper on the nature of the firm, Coase articulated what became known as the Coase Theorem which holds that if trade in an externality is possible (in this case, childhood injuries) and there are no transaction costs, bargaining will lead to an efficient outcome regardless of the initial allocation of property rights. Translated into English and applied to the facts here, Coase theorized that it would not matter which party was responsible to pay the costs of an injury (victim or tortfeasor) if there was no cost to bargaining between the parties. This of course is not the case in the real world. Coase returned to the subject in a 1960 article entitled “The Problem of Social Cost” and explored the role of regulations in achieving economic efficiency when economic activity creates social costs. This eminently readable article is a foundation stone of modern legal theory.
Considering the social costs of human activity (such as pollution or injuries from the use of children’s products), Coase concluded that efficient allocation of resources would be achieved regardless of allocation of rights relating to social costs (responsibility to pay those costs) provided that trading can be conducted without transaction costs. In other words, in an efficient market, economic factors (resources) will always be put to their highest and best use through allocation of resources and bargaining. Through bargaining in an efficient market, the party with the most productive use of economic factors will ultimately possess the resources, thus ensuring compensation for social costs regardless of who has been assigned legal rights.
Coase cites numerous examples (including torts) in making this point. Coase notes the symmetry of these disputes in his analysis. When cattle overrun crops causing economic losses, there would be no damage without the cattle, and likewise no damage without the crops! Causation is not black-and-white to an economist interested in efficient outcomes. As he notes, a smoothly operating pricing system ensures that “the fall in the value of production due to the harmful effects would be a cost for both parties.”
Nevertheless, Coase recognized that there ARE transaction costs in the real world (e.g., legal expenses, bargaining holdouts, etc.). These costs of altering and recombining rights allocated by the legal system can interfere with the ability to bargain and thus prevent the efficient allocation of resources in the market. He argued therefore that regulations are justified to the extent they allocate rights to the most efficient risk-bearer. Regulations can supersede market transactions by imposing the most efficient outcome. This is presumably the underpinning of President Obama’s call for more federal regulation. According to him, this will be good for us. Coase might demur, noting that it all depends on the facts as we shall see below.
Coase was realistic in his assessment of the inherent dangers of regulation: “But the governmental machine is not itself costless. It can, in fact, on occasion be extremely costly. Furthermore, there is no reason to suppose that the restrictive and zoning regulations, made by a fallible administration subject to political pressures and operating without any competitive check, will necessarily always be those which increase the efficiency with which the economic system operates. Furthermore, such general regulations which must apply to a wide variety of cases will be enforced in some cases in which they are clearly inappropriate. . . . It is my belief that economists, and policy-makers generally, have tended to over-estimate the advantages that come from government regulation.” Coase’s solution: perform a cost-benefit analysis to make sure that regulations increase economic output (the all-in costs must be less than the all-in benefits when reduced to dollars).
We encounter situations regularly in which the party causing a legal nuisance does not bear the consequential costs. For instance, a home remodeler does not have to pay compensation to neighbors for noise and debris that may adversely affect them. He may feel a social obligation to give them freshly-baked cookies but is under no legal obligation to do so. This is one of many legalized nuisances. Why is this the legal rule? The allocation of rights takes into account that as a society, we want to encourage investment and capital improvements. The small cost of dealing with these inconveniences is considered a cost we all should bear in exchange for the benefits received from the economic activity. This rule does not apply to exceptional cases of nuisance where the costs outweigh the benefits. Not every instance of damage is remediable under our legal system for good reason.
Coase cites a fascinating real world example of this rule carried to a surprising extreme: under traditional English law, railroads are protected from liability for fires caused by sparks from their engines. Coase devotes considerable ink to prove that this legal rule creates an efficient allocation of resources (a positive effect for society) notwithstanding that there are “winners” and “losers”. This result would be very difficult to achieve through bargaining. Clearly a railroad would have a very difficult time working out a deal with every landowner along its lines as a precondition to laying down track.
Importantly, Coase points out that the opposite rule (where the railroad must pay for the fires its engines cause) does much more than just transfer liability. It also shifts incentives to everyone’s detriment. A farmer along the track now can gamble with the railroad’s money – he can get a market price from market buyers if he can harvest his crops or from the railroad if there is a fire. The farmer’s return is thus guaranteed, the incentive to take care is removed, and he will be rewarded for planting crops likely to be burned. This alternative rule’s transfer of costs to the railroad will simultaneously reduce the potential reward for constructing tracks and likely result in fewer train lines, reducing the broadly-distributed economic benefits that come with the expansion of the rail system. In other words, shifting liability in this case makes everyone along the train line poorer.
Coase notes that “nuisances” are not always against our interest: “[Pigou] is wrong when he describes these actions as ‘anti-social’. They may or may not be. It is necessary to weigh the harm against the good that will result. NOTHING COULD BE MORE ‘ANTI-SOCIAL’ THAN TO OPPOSE ANY ACTION WHICH CAUSES ANY HARM TO ANYONE.” [Emphasis added] CPSC, are you listening?
Placing the cost for nuisances on the producers’ shoulders may be well-intentioned but it is not necessarily the right result because it does not provide any incentive to consumers to take steps to prevent injury. “A tax system which was confined to a tax on the producer for damage caused would tend to lead to unduly high costs being incurred for the prevention of damage.” The CPSC’s tendency to blame products via recalls and bans is the equivalent of a tax in this case. The “unduly high costs” leads to a reduction or suspension of economic activity. We can observe this in the children’s market over the past three years – the agency and Congress have both received considerable testimony on this topic (and seemingly ignored it). Coase won the Nobel Prize for pointing out that regulators often neglect to look at the full economic picture and thus fail to achieve optimal social results.
It goes without saying that the regulators may nevertheless achieve optimal newspaper headlines.
Why is it inefficient to invariably push costs to manufacturers for injuries associated with children’s products? As Prof. Coase notes, in a raucous marketplace, transaction costs can distort the allocation of resources. In this case, the prospect of liability and uncontrollable losses are a high transaction cost that affects the efficient allocation of resources by trade. Coase posits that a cost-benefit analysis must be performed to make sure that efficiency is achieved. The rule for such analyses is quite clear – the all-in cost of the regulation must be less than the all-in economic benefits achieved.
The best way to understand the formula in this case is to look at all marginal children’s recalls as a class. Let’s agree that there actually are some “substantial” product hazards out there and exclude them from our analysis. [Manufacturers are in the best position to evaluate and prevent "substantial" hazards on behalf of consumers.] We must also assess all the money spent as a result of CPSC action as a group. It does not matter who spends the money – we want to tote up all the costs and lay them off against all the benefits. The benefits are easy to calculate – there is an economic value to a life and also to injuries. This type of analysis is not only common, it is a requirement of federal law (as a result of Coase’s work outlined above). The government has tables of these values. Likewise, the costs are pretty easy to tote up: out of pocket costs for the recall, replacement of inventory, damage to reputation and brand, legal and regulatory costs, lost jobs, reduced investment, etc.
In the case of accidents or other uncontrollable factors leading to injury, the CPSC’s calculus is defective. It is quite telling that the regulators are not interested in my point that no victims have been identified. Lead-in-substrate victims – NONE. Phthalates victims – NONE. The ledger on the benefits side is undocumented, vague and untested, but the regulators' indifference suggests that they place an almost infinite value on injury or even the possibility of injury. On the cost side, the regulator also seems to largely ignore the impact on markets. As noted by Coase, the regulators are not subject to competitive pressures so they can easily overlook these costs. The math does not add up, and as a result, their decisions inevitably will choke the market. The CPSC acts as though not subject to the laws of economics.
The legislative fix for this misguided regulatory effort is clear – mandate economic analyses as a justification for any CPSC regulation. It is also necessary to restore (actually, to mandate the use of) risk assessment by the CPSC. Risk is all about cost allocation and cost management. By removing the ability to assess risk, Congress essentially removed the wiring necessary for the CPSC to make an intelligent assessment of the economics of their decisions. While the CPSIA was clearly written and passed into law in anger, enough time has passed to expect cooler heads to prevail. Congress, it’s time to act!