Lawmaking in Haste

…and repenting at leisure, or so it would appear with a new consumer product safety law, which will go into effect in about twenty days. Yes, indeedy, Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008, or HR 4040 which is supposed to take effect February 10th, was supposed to strike a mighty blow against the forces of evilness and icky lead contamination in children’s toys, but instead looks fair to bankrupting all sorts of micro-and home businesses in the US, instead – and to plunge a dagger into the hearts of all kinds of well-meaning handicrafters, thrift-stores and various enterprising individuals scrounging a living by selling stuff on e-Bay. Not to mention any parent on a budget, hoping to save some of their diminishing funds by purchasing second-hand clothing, books, toys and accessories for their children.

And I am not about to be frivolous about the problem of lead contaminates in children’s toys, although the temptation is there.

(Hey, did you hear the one about the shipment of lead from China that was turned back at the port of entry because it was contaminated with children’s toys?)

Yes, lead is not healthy for children or other growing things, and frankly, those manufacturers knowingly or unknowingly contaminating their export crap with lead, arsenic or any other dangerous substance ought to be taken out and have their pee-pees whacked with iron bars. Repeatedly – so yes, there ought to be a law. But oh, what a lesson in unintended consequences there is in the hurried and apparently careless formulation of this one! No lobbyists around who speak for the thrift shop industry, I guess, or the little workshops making this or that specialized product, or all the little church ladies across the US, piecing quilts or knitting baby-clothes. The law as written flatly mandates a level and degree of safety-testing which – it may might be argued and probably already has – is appropriate to a large manufacturing industry. Say, something that churns out product by the box-car load daily, weekly, or even hourly.

What got overlooked until the last few months, what with all the good intentions about ‘protecting the cheeeeldren’ was that all those mandated testing of all the elements of every product meant for the use of those under the age of 12 also applied to just about every body who makes stuff for kids, either for sale or charity. Everyone from the guy with a small woodshop making high-end traditional wooden toys, to the lady with the small business making ornamented hair scrunchies, those little businesses making doll-clothes or children’s clothes will fall under this law. Even the POD publisher who designed and printed my own books – they do children’s books; Or they will, up until February 10th. Heck – this law might even apply to me; I made clothes for my daughter, and now for my niece. Once upon a time, I also made bespoke doll-clothes and stuffed toys for sale at church bazaars and craft shows; I still have several boxes of finished outfits in the den closet, which is where they will remain, now. I’m not out all that much, for this was a hobby for me a good few years ago, but serious crafters who depend on small retail sales of their output are stuck with an inventory that they can’t sell legally, or even give away, after having invested in their raw materials and done the work. According to the scattering of news stories (linked here, here and here) second-hand and consignment stores are already feeling a pinch; how can they possibly test every garment or toy, according to the letter of the law? They are either refusing donations or consignments of those items, and very likely making plans to dump those stocks already on hand into landfills or into the market in the next couple of weeks. The fines are insupportable for an individual or a small business; practically no one wants to risk being charged with a violation of the act. Assurances that ‘oh, no – boutique handicrafters and second-hand stores will not be prosecuted under this act, everyone knows it’s really meant for the big mass-producers’ are falling flat among those most concerned. And rightfully so – for what is a law that is on the books, but enforced by bureaucratic or prosecutorial whim? It is a suspended weapon, to be used selectively against people who have drawn the unfavorable attention of the state upon themselves.

And it is purely ironic, that just as the economy is in dire straits, with businesses large and small going through tough times, and individual entrepreneurs doing their best to stay above water, and people who are desperately trying to economize – a consumer safety law is about to wallop those very same small businesses and entrepreneurs whose hold on economic security is least secure. It’s almost as if the captain of the Titanic called for another iceberg to crash into the other side of the ship – just to make sure the whole thing sinks on the level.

One thought on “Lawmaking in Haste

  1. I’m fairly certain that those responsible for the Chinese lead contamination have already been dealt with. And by “dealt with” I mean “shot”, not “fired”. It’s the way things work in China. Many people do questionable things like bribing officials or bulking up their formula with toxic additives. Every few years the party cracks down on this – with executions.

    Cut some corners, make some money. Cut the wrong corners, get caught, embarrass China, buy a bullet.

    Another rule is “you can complain, but you can’t insist”. Insisting that the party do something is a good way to find out where the re-education camps are. Just ask the folks who want to sue over the baby formula issue.

    It’s really a fascinating place to live… if you’re there by choice.

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