Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Procrustean Bed of Child Safety

There's a real danger to creating a general law to address a specific problem. You usually end up with a Procrustean Bed. And that's where a significant number of small businesses will be forced to lie on February 10 (aptly called the "Day of Bankruptcy") unless some chowderheaded legislation is changed PDQ.

The initial problem: High amounts of lead were found in some toys imported from China.

The initial solution: Pass new laws to make manufacturers and retailers have laboratory-certified test results that products sold to children were within safe lead levels (there were already regs on the books covering this issue, but never mind that). And then, because Children Were In Danger, make it retroactive so that after February 10 no uncertified children's product could be sold. That would show them!

And it has. CPSIA was aimed at a specific problem from a few specific sources. But the results of the hastily written law are far-reaching indeed.

If you're not familiar with the story of the Procrustean Bed of Greek myth, Procrustes claimed to have a magical bed that perfectly fit every traveler. And it did. If his guest was too long for the bed, Procrustes chopped off his feet. If the guest was too short, he was stretched on the rack until he fit. Everyone fit the bed, but at what cost to the health of the guest?

These new regulations, we are now discovering, will be applied to everything. According the Christian Science Monitor,

This law defies common sense. The CPSIA does not focus on products and materials that have a history of actually presenting a danger. Nor does it present a reasonable method of testing. For instance, it does not exempt already certified materials, or allow inputs, such as the paint, to be tested prior to production.

Rather, the CPSIA would require a wooden animal manufacturer with, say, 400 different animals, to apply paint to them all and then test the same paint 400 times, for a cost exceeding $100,000. As most small companies produce low volumes of many styles, this law could mean the end of diversity in the children's product market.

Many small toy manufacturers and craftsmen will have to cease production -- the tests (in many cases irrelevant) are simply too expensive. Off go the feet.

Retailers will not be able to sell non-certified goods after February 10. For many specialty stores, that means destroying inventory they can't return -- and their operating capital with it. Stretch those limbs till they pop out of their joints.

Yes, child safety is important, but these rules go far beyond that. By making everyone lay down in the Procrustean Bed of CPSIA, estimates that come February 10, these rules will result in over $46 million in lost wages, $41 million in lost sales for the year, and approximately 61% of the affected businesses forced to shutter their doors.

The previous laws already addressed the safety issues -- adequate enforcement was the real problem. So if child safety isn't really at stake here, does the mandated destruction of $72 million dollars worth of goods make any sense whatsoever?

To Procrustes, certainly. But that's the problem. Just like Procrustes, the ones who made the bed aren't the ones who have to lay in it.

Time to start writing the congresscritters again.

- Ralph

Day 203 of the WJMA Web Watch. (Now here's an organization that needs to get the lead out. When's that website coming back, anyway?)

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