Sunday, February 8, 2009

"I'll bet Peggy Gave Her These." *

Matthew Blake at Washington Monthly has a remarkable article on the renaissance of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, or CPSC.

Originating in the Johnson administration, and the brainchild of Ralph Nader, the CPSC is one of the reasons household products from toys to tableware have been (somewhat) safer to use for the last forty years. When manned and funded effectively it has saved countless lives, prevented countless more needless injuries and generally improved the quality of life in the US over that time. Its history is also instructive on the effectiveness of public oversight, and what can happen when that oversight is neglected.

In recent history, the prior [mal]administration did its best to stunt the agency and limit its effectiveness, from slashing its already meagre budget to (predictably) appointing industry insiders to its leadership, as Blake describes:

[GWB-appointed CPSC Chairman Harold] Stratton, a former New Mexico attorney general, was so rarely around CPSC headquarters that some employees swear they wouldn’t have recognized him if he had been sitting in the cubicle next to theirs... Stratton instead spent his time traveling, making fifty international trips—mostly at the expense of industry lobbying groups—before leaving office in the summer of 2006. Lawmakers and journalists began to explore his dubious tenure after... a series of very public toy recalls. Congressional hearings followed, prompted by the tainted toys and Bush’s failure to nominate a viable replacement for Stratton (in 2007 Bush had proposed Michael Baroody, until recently a lobbyist for the National Association of Manufacturers, an industry group that had persuaded Stratton to give companies more leeway in reporting product defects). In the hearings, acting CPSC Chairwoman Nancy Nord quickly established herself as a political appointee akin to former Federal Emergency Management Agency head Michael Brown. Brushing aside the agency’s inability to prevent dangerous toys from hitting the shelves, Nord—who shared Stratton’s enthusiasm for industry junkets, according to the Washington Post—argued that manufacturers, not the CPSC, should be entrusted with ensuring toy safety. The agency’s top position was never permanently filled.

Anyone who has purchased a toy, appliance, article of clothing or anything remotely similar in the US does so on the assumption that it is safe to use. Recent scandals such as the tainted toys and other similar instances clearly indicate that is frequently not the case, and that, until the legislation Blake describes was passed, the regulators citizens depend on for that assurance have engaged in some of the most callous indifference to their responsibilities imaginable while claiming to protect that trust.

Part of the current problem, Blake notes, is the sourcing of household products in the modern marketplace:

The agency hasn’t adapted to the challenges of a global marketplace, challenges far different from those it faced in Ralph Nader’s heyday. The CPSC was founded a year before the United States posted its last trade surplus. Now there’s a trade deficit of about $731 billion, including $256 billion from China alone. From microwave ovens to toy soldiers, a large and growing proportion of the goods we consume are made in hard-to-monitor workshops and factories far from our shores. Policymakers are not always aware of the implications of this fact. Capitalizing on the toy recall scandal in a campaign stump speech, Barack Obama vowed to eliminate all toys imported from China—only to later acknowledge that would mean banning 80 percent of all toys on the market.

...The CPSC has similarly failed to make much use of the Internet to encourage consumer safety and education, offering instead a basically random assortment of reports with large gaps. If you’re looking for, say, data on trampoline-related injuries from 1990 to 1999, you’re in luck. If you want more current numbers, you’d better get started on a Freedom of Information Act request. A report concerning nail gun injuries up to 2001 is on the site, but when the Sacramento Bee filed a FOIA request last year to get more recent statistics, the agency refused, relenting only after the Bee threatened legal action. The CPSC, it turned out, was obscuring the kind of trend it should have been warning people about: while 12,000 people went to the hospital emergency room with nail gun injuries in 1995, 42,000 emergency-room visits were reported in 2005.

So, at the same time more and more of what the US consumes is produced beyond the reach of its own regulators and immune to domestic safety standards, the agencies responsible for maintaining safety at home are hamstrung in their ability to monitor the retail marketplace and reluctant (at least) to release what findings they do produce, and elected officials are increasingly unaware of the problem. Even President Obama was not sufficiently informed on this item as we can see: if someone as apparently concerned for the welfare of the ordinary citizen as he can be this out of touch, it is comprehensible (if not forgivable) for his pro-industry Conservative fellows to be complacent on this matter.

I suppose there are those out there that think it is the buyer's obligation to ensure that the right products are entering his/her home for use by his/her family. In a world, however, that celebrates the multi-income family, that rewards overwork, and that increasingly devalues domestic skills, and that repeatedly trumpets the merits of global sourcing, it is hardly surprising that the average family would not be able to make educated purchases every time. Further, with as Burke has stated, increasing imports from nations who do not apply the same oversight and who produce such flawed products for US consumption often leaves the US consumer with little to choose from but a brand name; with even well-recognized labels like Maytag, Sunbeam, Black & Decker, Mattel, Calphalon and others relying ever more on foreign plants for their production even choosing between brand names only means changing the label stamped on the commodity. In addition, resources for independent research are limited: Consumer Reports, for example, is like many other such resources subscription-only for anything but the most basic information, and discussion forums are a poor choice for determining safety and reliability. Reliance on fee-for-service resources for one's research results in a two-tier consumer community: those that can afford to learn about what they buy and those who cannot - and are placed at risk by their ignorance.

"Made in U.S.A" has long been associated with quality and safety as well as national pride. Sam Walton made much of the label when he launched his now-infamous retail chain. But that label is now scarcely to be seen on retail shelves, and the oversight and pride that made that tag so respectable have all but vanished, largely due to globalisation and the "pro-business" neoConservative policies of recent years. Agencies like the CPSC could have helped forestall the problems we have seen of late had they been responsibly run and properly funded. It is a national shame that we allowed ideology to override hard-earned common sense, and it is a relief to see that common sense reasserted - even if it is done at the high price in our children's safety that we incurred over the last several years.

* the title comes from 1939's The Women:
Edith Potter: [Wiping her hands on towel] Oh, cheap Chinese embroidery, you know I'll bet Peggy gave her these...

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