Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Who Is to Blame for Lead Paint in Toys? Bush and You

[NOTE: I also posted this article on If you like it, please go to it here and recommend it, comment on it, etc. Thanks.]

It has been a bad year for Chinese imports. Not for the Chinese, mind you. Through August, China enjoyed a nearly $164 billion trade surplus with the U.S. in 2007, well ahead of last year's figures at that time. No, it was a bad year for Americans with Chinese imports. Highlights included the recall of 1.5 million Chinese-manufactured toys (for starters) when it was discovered they contained dangerous lead paint, and the earlier pet deaths linked to tainted dog food made in China. These incidents shined a light on what the U.S. Food and Drug Administration called "manufacturing control issues" in China.

Beyond the Chinese themselves, over whom we have little control, who is responsible for these blunders? To me, there are two clear culprits: the Bush Administration and You. Yes, You. I'll explain later.

As for the Bush administration, the news of the last few days has focused on efforts by the Democrats in Congress to beef up funding for the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to help address issues related to consumer safety. President Bush, of course, is opposing the measure. He says the Democrats are politicizing the issue. How? By trying to help make the problem better? That's more than Bush is doing, especially since his lack of oversight is partially to blame for this mess in the first place. "The Democrats are playing politics" has become Bush's go-to defense line with any domestic problem, just as "the Democrats are hurting the troops" is his default attack on criticisms of his disastrous Iraq policy. It's so transparent, it's amazing it still works.

It's not the Democrats who are politicizing this issue. Rather, Bush is inserting his businesses-should-be-unregulated-and-allowed-to-run-amok views into the matter, allowing his right-wing ideology (which is not adhered to by the majority of Americans, I'm sure) to interfere with efforts to protect American consumers.

You see, this legislation is just another example of the failure of Bush's policy on government oversight of businesses, which is essentially to appoint a member of an industry, who wants to help the industry make more money and has no interest in protecting Americans, to oversee the regulation of that industry. It is the proverbial coyote guarding the hen house. Bush has done it with energy, pollution and mining, just to name a handful of examples, and it extends to the CPSC.

That's right, the Democrats in Congress are trying to give more money and power to the CPSC to help prevent problems like lead paint ending up in children's toys, and who is opposing it? Believe it or not, the acting chairwoman of the CPSC, Nancy Nord. Yes, Nord is trying to kill the legislation to better fund her own agency. Makes no sense, right? Ah, but it does. It's right in line with the Bush administration's core belief that any government regulation is bad government regulation. Nord's position before coming to the CPSC was as the Director of Federal Affairs for Kodak. The guy Nord replaced at the CPSC, Hal Stratton, before coming to the commission started the Rio Grande Foundation, whose mission statement says it believes in "the importance of individual freedom, limited government, and economic opportunity." It's like asking a master bank robber to write the federal laws on armed robbery. How do you think he would come down on tax breaks to banks for hiring armed guards? Profits trump safety every time for this administration.

Obviously, legislative battles and policy wranglings aren't as sexy as fires in California and South Carolina, so you have to believe too many people will listen to the president's protestations that the Democrats are playing politics and take him at his word. But, that leads us to the second party responsible for the China-imports mess: You.

As you may recall, last year, Time named You as its Person of the Year. Sure, Time meant the selection to reflect the proliferation of the reliance on user-generated online communities like YouTube and MySpace to solve problems, but the empowerment issue is the same. It's up to You to decide what is important to You. In the context of the battle over the new legislation, it's up to You to get the real story, to investigate how the Bush administration has acted to virtually eliminate government oversight of industries by appointing industry-puppets to regulatory posts. And it's up to You to figure out that while Your kids are playing with toys slathered in lead paint, Your executive branch is acting to prevent additional oversight of the parties that put the lead paint into Your children's hands.

But the issue is so much bigger than one policy battle. Why do we have toys and dog food and so many other products coming to us from China in the first place? Because You have decided in the last ten years or so that You want to pay as little as possible for as much as possible, damn the consequences. You want your $49 DVD players and $12 shirts and, yes, $10 toys, but You don't want to think about the consequences for those cheap prices. You have decided that the cheap consumer goods are more important than our economy (all the American manufacturing jobs lost overseas), our security (our consumer needs, including oil, drive our relations with countries who provide us with what we need), and our character (the Wal-Martization of America's small towns and suburbs, and the death of mom-and-pop stores, comes directly from the drive for the cheapest goods possible). You have made a choice. You have decided to prioritize Your values in this way. So, You are living with the results. If You think that the toys and the dog food are the end of this story rather than the beginning, You are wrong.

Sure, Bush's policy on government regulation of industries hurts average Americans. It happens in multiple sectors, and it happens again and again. But, ultimately, he is allowed to do it, because the American people let him get away with it, either through choice or sloth (and neither is any better than the other). It is also the consumer culture the American people have chosen to follow that opens the door for all kinds of problems, the lead paint in toys being the least of it.

If Americans could kick our crack-like addition to oil, the effect on our foreign policy would be momentous. But let's be serious here. Americans have shown that we have no interest in sacrificing for the sake of our country's future. Not by paying more taxes, and not by changing how we live our day-to-day lives, including what we're willing to put up with to keep our access to cheap consumer goods.

As they expression goes, you reap what you sow, and right now, Americans are reaping a lot of garbage, from lead paint in toys, to the Global Warming crisis, to a war in Iraq and its devastating effects, both at home and abroad. The current American crop is as toxic as the toys imported into the country from China. And You are to blame. So, don't You think it's time that You do something about it?