Posts tagged ‘cpsia’

Government Oversight Worse Than Private Alternatives

Via Overlawyered:

As part of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (CPSIA), Congress mandated that the CPSC create a "publicly available consumer product safety information database" compiling consumer complaints about the safety of products. Last week, by a 3-2 majority, the commission voted to adopt regulations that have dismayed many in the business community by ensuring that the database will needlessly include a wide range of secondhand, false, unfounded or tactical reports. The Washington Times editorializes:

"¦[Under the regulations as adopted last week] anybody who wants to trash a product, for whatever reason, can do so. The commission can leave a complaint on the database indefinitely without investigating its merits "even if a manufacturer has already provided evidence the claim is inaccurate," as noted by Carter Wood of the National Association of Manufacturers' "Shopfloor" blog"¦.

Trial lawyers pushing class-action suits could gin up hundreds of anonymous complaints, then point the jurors to those complaints at the "official" CPSC website as [support for] their theories that a product in question caused vast harm. "The agency does not appear to be concerned about fairness and does not care that unfounded complaints could damage the reputation of a company," said [Commissioner Nancy] Nord.

Commissioners Nord and Anne Northup introduced an alternative proposal (PDF) aimed at making the contents of the database more reliable and accurate but were outvoted by the Democratic commission majority led by Chairman Inez Tenenbaum. Nord: "under the majority's approach, the database will not differentiate between complaints entered by lawyers, competitors, labor unions and advocacy groups who may have their own reasons to "˜salt' the database, from those of actual consumers with firsthand experience with a product."

Any number of private actors have already tackled this problem. Amazon.com has probably the most comprehensive set of product reviews, and has taken a number of steps (e.g. real name reviews) to increase trust in their system.  Reviewers who are shills (either for or against a product) are quickly outed by other reviewers.   Another site whose reviews I rely on a lot is TripAdvisor, which has hotel and other travel reviews.   TripAdvisor allows the reviewed hotels to respond to individual reviews in a way that the consumer can see to get both sides of the story.

Apparently, none of this back and forth will be allowed in the CPSC data base.  The Democrats who wrote the process only want bad stuff in the data base, so it will not allow manufacturer responses or even positive reviews to appear.  The only possible justification for the government to run this database would be for the government to take a role in investigating and confirming or overturning claims and complaints, but it is clear it won't be doing this either.   This will just be a location for disgruntled people to drop turds on various manufacturers, all with the imprimatur of the government.  I can't see consumers finding much value here compared to the alternatives, but I can see the value in a courtroom to be able to stuff a government site with unsubstantiated claims and then use that site to say that the "official" government site is full of criticisms of the product.

Regulating the Process, not Actual Safety

Kevin Drum says:

The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act makes it illegal to sell toys that haven't been tested for lead content.  In general, I think that's a perfectly fine idea.

He can't understand, though, why its effects seem so perverse and Draconian when its core is such a "perfectly fine idea."  It is amazing to me that the law of unintended consequences is so hard even for seasoned political observers to grasp.

A sensible restriction might be that a child cannot by any reasonable use of the product ingest more than X concentration of lead.  But of course that is not what the government does.  The government requires that every toy undergo expensive testing and batch tracking (almost like that of an aircraft part).  This is not by any means the same as simply requiring products to limit lead exposure.  It is a one-size-fits-all regulation of process, rather than true safety.  It imposes huge testing and tracking expenses on products that can't possibly have any lead in them.

And, like many laws of this kind, it imposes a huge penalty on small competitors and new entrants and rewards larger toy makers who both have the scale to pay for the testing and the political clout to shape the law in their favor.  In fact, the big winner from the legislation has actually been Matel, the company whose recalls actually led to the law in the first place.

The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) requires third-party testing of nearly every object intended for a child's use, and was passed in response to several toy recalls in 2007 for lead and other chemicals. Six of those recalls were on toys made by Mattel, or its subsidiary Fisher Price.

Small toymakers were blindsided by the expensive requirement, which made no exception for small domestic companies working with materials that posed no threat.

So while most small toymakers had no idea this law was coming down the pike until it was too late, Mattel spent $1 million lobbying for a little provision to be included in the CPSIA permitting companies to test their own toys in "firewalled" labs that have won Consumer Product Safety Commission approval.

The million bucks was well spent, as Mattel gained approval late last week to test its own toys in the sites listed above"”just as the window for delayed enforcement closed.

Instead of winding up hurting, Mattel now has a cost advantage on mandatory testing, and a handy new government-sponsored barrier to entry for its competitors.

Update: Brad Warbiany has similar thoughts.

Regulation Aids the Large & Established

I have written many times about how regulation tends to help the large and well established competitors against smaller companies and potential future market entrants.  Larger companies have the size to pay compliance costs and the political muscle to sway regulation in their direction and co-opt regulatory bodies.  The tobacco settlement, ostensibly aimed at "big tobacco" has done nothing but cement the market leadership of the top brands.  This is why you see some large companies jumping on board cap and trade or health care reform -- for example, Waxman-Markey contains rules that give a particular advantage to certain GE lighting technologies on which it holds patents.

The CPSIA is another such law, and Overlawyered has been all over the story.  Here is what a craft fabricator of handmade dolls (even say your grandma selling at a craft fair) will have to comply with:

"¦Each batch needs a unique identifying number.

However, if in the course of making the products, you have to break into a separate box of buttons that has a separate batch or lot number itself, even if the product is otherwise identical, this is a separate batch and you need a separate new label for it with its own batch number that you assign. "¦ It is conceivable [if you incorporate variations into the product] every item you produce is its own batch and each needs its own number and label. "¦

You will need to do "batch control". You need to create a separate BOM [Bill of Materials] for each batch. You can keep this electronically in a database or spreadsheet. It is my understanding you need to keep these records for three years.

Though it was originally Mattel's problem with lead from China in toys that caused the CPSIA to get passed (Congress always has to "do something" when a story makes the news) do you think it is Mattel or grandma who will be driven out of the business?  In the future, when leftish hippies wail that there are no small manufacturer crafts or locally grown food at their weekend fair, you will know why.

Much more coverage on CPSIA here.