POST-GAZETTE - Res Publica

Here Let Us Stop

by David Trumbull

February 22, 2008

“The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop.”
—George Washington’s Farewell Address, 1796

Poor George, both revered and kicked around by us. He was born February 11th but when he was 20 Britain and her colonies finally caught up with Catholic Europe by switching to the Gregorian Calendar, moving his birthday to the 22nd of the month. Then, starting in 1971, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968 moved the official celebration of his birth to the third Monday in February. In popular parlance we slight our first President by neglecting the legal name of the holiday, WASHINGTON’S BIRTHDAY and refer to it as a generic “Presidents’ Day”.

We likewise neglect Washington’s sage warning against entangling foreign alliances. Even in our commercial relations our leaders, not content merely to trade with the rest of the world, have entered into binding agreements restricting our ability to control our own commerce, to encourage domestic manufacturing, or even to protect our citizens from unsafe products. Our legal obligations to the World Trade Organization and our bilateral and multilateral trade agreements entangle us in a network of supra-national laws that can, effectively, overturn the actions of our elected Congress and President.

Imports of unsafe toys were, briefly leading up to Christmas 2007, a big news story. After years of shopping only for price, Americas woke up to find that an estimated 75 percent of all toys on the market were the products of one nation—China—which had been exposed as tolerating a manufacturing industry criminally unconcerned with the safety of her consumers half-way ‘round the globe. Worse, Americans found they had few options. Decades of failed public policy had driven much light manufacturing from our States where we could have monitored working conditions and inputs. Binding WTO obligations prohibited the U.S. taking any effective prompt and broad action to restrict imports from a known offender.

That leaves The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, a relatively small federal bureaucracy, in charge of protecting the public from unreasonable risks of serious injury or death from more than 15,000 types of consumer products under the agency's jurisdiction. Daily the CPSC issues new notice of recall of some product or other than is a risk for explosion, fire, strangulation, lead poisoning or other threat to human health, safety or even life.

In my industry, textiles, CPSC has already in 2008 issued three notices of recall of dangerous—, potentially fatally so—consumer products. It will be no surprise to anyone who has followed the news that all three involved imported—Chinese and Korean—products. On our industry association blog, I have started posting, as a public service, links to CPSC recalled of textile and apparel products. The safe consumer is the informed consumer—Caveat emptor.