Sunday, March 8, 2009

CPSIA - Stupider and Stupider

Check out the TV coverage we saw while in Dallas this week: The CBS affiliate in Dallas-Fort Worth rightly points out that the CPSIA could require libraries to test every book printed before 1985. In our office, the joke making the rounds is that this is a tacit ban of George Orwell's "1984", a rich irony don't you think? Mr. Orwell would LOVE it. More profoundly, it also tacitly bans old copies of Goodnight Moon and Cat In the Hat. I rather doubt Dr. Seuss would like this one bit.

Let's stop and think for a moment (this is what distinguishes us from Congress). Consumer products intended children under 12 years old - that includes books, right? Lending and selling are the same thing under the law, for good reason. Ergo, libraries are in. Hence, libraries have the same problems under the CPSIA as ATV dealers, thrift stores, toy companies, clothing manufacturers, and so on. My question is - why should the law apply to libraries at all? Is it sensible for our country to pass a law, chock-a-block with criminal penalties, state enforcement, whistleblowers, even asset forfeiture (you know, like you are a drug dealer, yes that makes a lot of sense), that even for one short second gives any credibility to the notion that books are or even might be poisonous?

Where did this clunker idea come from? It came from the basic notion in the CPSIA that the right way to organize our society is to take NO CHANCES. NONE - the law weights all risk equally. Think of balancing the risk that you will spill your coffee in your car on the way to work with the risk that that you will be struck by a meteor during the same trip - that's equal weighting of unlike risks. If you buy this, it makes "sense" to deem everything dangerous, and let the manufacturers fight to get the right to sell their products. And, yeah, to make things even more secure, make the manufacturers prove and re-prove this safety and document their every manufacturing and distribution step, as though they are handling nuclear waste. . . . Under this world view, it is far too costly to take a chance with any of this.

Thus, the entire law is wrong-headed as it starts with the premise that everything is dangerous unless proven otherwise. This notion does not come from the real world. Is this really your everyday experience? I know my wife feels that milk past its sell date is some kind of public health hazard (we disagree on this point) but is danger really lurking everywhere, in every crevice and behind every corner?

Let's not let opinion or taste dictate the course of this debate. I say we should let the data decide this matter. So where's the record of harm that we are trying to avoid? I know that there were many lead-in-paint recalls from 1/07-1/09 (125 to be precise) but only one documented claim of injury (not a death). Yes, there was also one death from a child in Minnesota swallowing a lead bangle from a bracelet. Does this mean that books, clothing snaps and zippers, ATVs and dirt bikes, pens, and so on are all bad unless proven otherwise? Is there ANY reason to suspect that there is ANY nexus between the use of or exposure to these items and injury? The answer is a resounding NO. Even the consumer groups are quite unable to make this connection, relying on the pablum that lead is bad for you (well-accepted and well-known), and then pointing out that there is trace amounts of lead in consumer products. They have no way to demonstrate that leapin' lead is responsible for any harm.

Even the lead-in-paint cases are questionable in their own way. Remember the Mattel recall of Sarge, the character from Pixar's Toys movie? See In this case, Mattel recalled 436,000 units of this product (253,000 in the U.S.). I know it's impolitic to talk about this . . . but it is my understanding that the offending paint was a highlight on the wheel hubcaps, and came from TWO CANS OF BAD PAINT. Yes, Mattel burned through heaven knows how much money recalling this item because of TWO CANS OF PAINT slipped through its safety systems, and were spread ratably over 436,000 units. Hmmm - how dangerous do you think one Sarge car would be with 1/218,000th of a can of paint on it? This event was one of the sparks that triggered the mania leading to the CPSIA - the same mania that now sweeps up libraries.

This is something more than just transformation of our society into a bubblewrap culture. It is the overlawyering of all that we do (a tip of the hat to Walter Olson), with new liability popping up everywhere. Look at the media coverage of this issue - you see again and again merchants stating that the prospect of liability is driving them out of the market or away from the children's market. Is this a good trade-off for our society? No, of course not. It might be GREAT for the trial bar, insurance companies, testing and equipment companies and other organizations primed to bottom feed on the paranoia and liabilities of this law, but for the rest of us, it's death. No one can deal with the new risks and inflexibility of the law. I also happen to think that a Mother-May-I form of law will never work, can never work. It is inconsistent with commerce in low-priced products like most children's products. If we want that for our society, kiss specialty markets like education goodbye.

Please take a moment and write Mr. Dingell this week. It's very important.



Katie Hines said...

this is a very thought-provoking post. I really appreciate your talking about the latest CPSIA news. And, I especially liked your pointing out the comparison between two unlike objects. I'm certainly going to add my email to the ones going to Mr. Dingall.

Technosopher said...

Great post! Last night on a new Simpsons episode Bart was writing "I WILL NOT ENJOY EDUCATIONAL GAMES" on the chalkboard in the opening vignette. Looks like Bart and his real kid counterparts won't be enjoying much of anything if this law proceeds without substantial overhaul. I say concerned citizens and businesses form a CSLSC - Consumer Stupid Law Safety Commission. Such a group could ensure proper oversight of silly laws...and could levy huge fines to put those who propose such laws and sign them into law out of business.

Anonymous said...


Great post. Love the image of our handling "nuclear waste" - will think of that as I'm making DOG BOWS. Hilarious.

I sent out a bunch of links on Twitter last week re: real sources of lead poisoning. As you know, anyone can google lead poisoning prevention and come up with dozens of articles that demonstrate lawmakers in America had NO BUSINESS sticking their noses in our businesses...there are plenty of other, much more qualified rocks to overturn!

I also posted *another* CPSIA feature on my blog last week - this one with links to two Obama documents - pretty clear where the passion to get the lead out of EVERYTHING, on behalf of OUR children has some powerful support... Look, I say, while passion is a great thing, in general, and children are a great cause, let's not forget that the truth, common sense and the authority of our government residing in the hands of WE the PEOPLE are all far more SUPERIOR in their importance, than passion.

Personally, I would love to see our President exercise the great new transparency being advertised by demonstrating the self-evdent THRUTHS you outline here, the practice of his own COMMON SENSE in looking at CPSIA and then his endorsement of our rightful authority over our public servants, by sending his OWN LETTER to Dingell's office stating he, too, wants the actual will of WE the People and PARENTS to be served on this one...

As I've told those I keep informed re: CPSIA concerns, I don't care about donkeys or elephants - I'm an independent - all I care about is having public servants (from the mayor to the president) that understand their job is to hear OUR will and to make laws by the same.

Small business creates more than 90% of new jobs in America - CPSIA cuts us off at the knees (and there is NOTHING in the Stimulus headed to small business, either - a whole new issue, oye!). All I know is, something's gotta give or it won't be pretty ahead...

Great Post.

Anonymous said...

Great post. Right after I read this, I heard President Obama speaking on the radio. I was really struck by his statement :

"Promoting science isn't just about providing resources, it is also about protecting free and open inquiry. It is about letting scientists like those here today do their jobs, free from manipulation or coercion, and listening to what they tell us, even when it's inconvenient - especially when it's inconvenient.

It is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology."

Nom de Blog said...

It's more than just that, Rick-- it's a lack of logic and a lack of understanding what science can and can't prove. I'm approaching this from the mathematics education perspective because that's where my training and experience is. Some people just do not understand that repeatedly stating that something is "for the children" or spouting off a large-looking number does not constitute a valid argument. They can't construct decent enough arguments to have a debate. And because they lack logical thinking, all they have is magical thinking.

This is due at least in part to failings in mathematics education that I've been pointing out for years, even before I began my teaching career. Better than anyone I realize that not everyone can be brought to grasp logical, sequential thinking-- but better than anyone I understand that with proper education, a lot more of them could have been. It really pisses me off. I've been "throwing starfish back into the sea" for years and I really hate being reminded that the entire goddamn beach is covered waist deep in starfish. It's times like that when I wonder why I bothered spending all that money to go back to school and get my Master's.

On the bright side, it is possible to construct a game-theoretical argument to prove to your wife that it is safe to drink milk after the sell-by date. I don't know if it'll hold much water with her though. Wives tend to be irrational like that (I am one, I should know!) :)

Marie said...

I've been wondering where the reach of CPSIA will end.

Joe Pereira wrote an article on CPSIA's impact on ATV's in the Wall Street Journal on 3/5. Here is part of the letter I sent him.
I saw your article on the impact CPSIA is having on retailers and manufacturers. In particular, this caught my eye:

"The vehicles have small amounts of lead in their handlebars and frames to prevent corrosion, says Paul Vitrano, general counsel to the trade group."

Hmmm. Chrome plated handlebars with a bit of lead to prevent corrosion? You know what else might have a bit of lead to prevent corrosion? Shopping carts. They sit outside in the rain and sun and get banged around as much as ATV's. And they are specifically designed to be used by children -- just look at those kiddie seats on them! Think of all the times you have seen a baby or toddler sitting in the seat of a cart, sometimes even gnawing on the handle if they are teething. Meanwhile, Sissy is asleep in the basket and Big Brother is horsing around on the rack under the cart.

If you figure mom is making 3 grocery trips a week, plus trips to buy clothing, etc, kids are spending a lot more time in shopping carts, from infancy until they get too big to push around, than the time any of them would spend on an ATV. Furthermore, the mouthy, gnawy years are spent in the carts, not the ATV. Yet I have seen nothing in CPSIA discussions about this.

I did a quick and very rough calculation today. (Store numbers from Wikipedia)

Company # stores
Lowes 1616
Home Depot 2913
Walmart 3800
Target 1500
Kroger 2477
Supervalue 2505
total stores 14811

carts 7,405,500 @ 500 per store (guestimate)

cost $1,221,907,500 @ $165 per cart

Of course there are far, far more shopping carts in this country than my rough calculation. Perhaps you can look into this a little further. You could even check out who the companies are who make shopping carts. see middle of page
It might make for an 'interesting' followup article.

I have nothing against shopping carts or shopping cart manufacturers or companies that supply shopping carts for their customers' convenience. It's just that CPSIA makes absolutely no sense. It is going to eat the country alive, and must be repealed.

Thanks for your article.



Anonymous said...

What's REALLY stupid is that my congressman passed this bill that forces testing on things that MAY contain pthalates, even if we know they don't. In the mean time, here in my beautiful state of Hawaii, when they burn the cane fields for harvest, they purposely burn the polyethylene drip line and PVC pipes because they are too lazy to take it up. This drip line that has KNOWN phthalates and the PVC pipes release dioxins that cause cancer when burned. All this is legal. I can teach my daughter not to eat her footed jammies, but I can't teach her not to breathe.

Amy said...

Great post! I completely agree with all that you said except: drinking milk after the sell by date!

elysabeth said...

I found this to be a very interesting fight against CPSIA. Unfortunately, our lawmakers aren't using their brains; their only concern is filling their pockets with greenbacks; they wouldn't know what protect the children in the name of safety meant if it were a copperhead snake and jumped up and bit them on the ass. They are totally stupid and to think we put them in the offices. I wish more people would listen to Senator DeMint (SC) about things like CPSIA and the stimulus bill. If they were listening to reason and logic and all, our economy wouldn't be drowning and we would eventually see an upturn in the economy. Now, I will continue posting and fighting the best I can. E :)


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