Out With The Old…

Megan McArdle points to this excellent article by Walter Olson regarding the impact of Congress’ ill-conceived lead-testing requirement for children’s products.

The problem is the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (CPSIA), passed by Congress last summer after the panic over lead paint on toys from China. Among its other provisions, CPSIA imposed tough new limits on lead in any products intended for use by children aged 12 or under, and made those limits retroactive: that is, goods manufactured before the law passed cannot be sold on the used market (even in garage sales or on eBay) if they don’t conform. The law has hit thrift stores particularly hard, since many children’s products have long included lead-containing (if harmless) components: zippers, snaps, and clasps on garments and backpacks; skateboards, bicycles, and countless other products containing metal alloy; rhinestones and beads in decorations; and so forth. Combine this measure with a new ban (also retroactive) on playthings and child-care articles that contain plastic-softening chemicals known as phthalates, and suddenly tens of millions of commonly encountered children’s items have become unlawful to resell, presumably destined for landfills when their owners discard them. Penalties under the law are strict and can include $100,000 fines and prison time, regardless of whether any child is harmed.

Not until 1985 did it become unlawful to use lead pigments in the inks, dyes, and paints used in children’s books. Before then—and perhaps particularly in the great age of children’s-book illustration that lasted through the early twentieth century—the use of such pigments was not uncommon, and testing can still detect lead residues in books today. This doesn’t mean that the books pose any hazard to children. While lead poisoning from other sources, such as paint in old houses, remains a serious public health problem in some communities, no one seems to have been able to produce a single instance in which an American child has been made ill by the lead in old book illustrations—not surprisingly, since unlike poorly maintained wall paint, book pigments do not tend to flake off in large lead-laden chips for toddlers to put into their mouths.

Of course, the great irony of this is that the cause of this problem–multinational toy companies who outsourced the manufacturing of their products without proper supervision–will actually benefit from this law. Mattel and other big companies can, of course, afford the expensive testing mandated by the law. However, the small companies who never caused any problems to begin with, book resellers, small domestic toy manufacturers, etc., will likely be driven out of business. Which means, in essence, that thanks to Congress, the very people who endangered children’s lives will actually get richer as a result of their negligence.

There’s a reason why the CEOs of big companies don’t “go Galt” in order to demand a free market. They’d never survive in a free market, where the manufacturers of dangerous products would go bankrupt instead of having their rent seeking rewarded by “business-friendly legislation” and “tougher regulations.”

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, US Politics, , ,
Alex Knapp
About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp is Associate Editor at Forbes for science and games. He was a longtime blogger elsewhere before joining the OTB team in June 2005 and contributed some 700 posts through January 2013. Follow him on Twitter @TheAlexKnapp.

Comments

  1. Herb says:

    There’s a reason why the CEOs of big companies don’t “go Galt” in order to demand a free market.

    Huh…I always thought it was because “Going Galt” is sofa king we todd did …

  2. Franklin says:

    no one seems to have been able to produce a single instance in which an American child has been made ill by the lead in old book illustrations

    I generally agree that the law was overzealous and has some bad side effects, but the above statement is a bit naive.

    The concern is the total amount of exposure. Sure, one book probably won’t kill you even if you ate it. How about reading one old book a day, playing with a couple toys with lead, touching any wiring (which typically has lead), plus everything else including the lead that comes naturally in food? A baby who puts her hand in her mouth five times a minute in probably going to ingest more of it, and kids absorb quite a bit more lead than adults do. Lead affects developing brains, and we hardly need any more straight-ticket voters.

  3. odograph says:

    There’s a reason why the CEOs of big companies don’t “go Galt” in order to demand a free market. They’d never survive in a free market, where the manufacturers of dangerous products would go bankrupt instead of having their rent seeking rewarded by “business-friendly legislation” and “tougher regulations.”

    I agree with half, that big companies wouldn’t really like a free market, but I disagree that they’d have to worry much about non-obvious defects in their products. In a free market they’d just PR their way out of a bind.

    In a free market, we would not believe cigarettes cause cancer.

  4. Steve Plunk says:

    Odo, we called ’em coffin nails long before science confirmed a link to cancer.

    Alex, you have made an excellent case for less government. Unintended consequences of legislation becomes more wide spread when we have more… legislation. Congress and state legislatures are out of control when it comes to passing laws for whatever situation seems to need one.

    Like you said, the rent seeking big boys don’t care so it’s the small guys who pay the price. That’s why small businesses are more vocal in their distrust of government.

    These large companies are not going to “go Galt” because they are the James Taggarts and Associated Steels of the world today, dependent on the government in many ways. Large corporations are not Galt like but small businesses are.