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Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Offered Without Comment

posted by on November 7 at 20:01 PM

Really, what is there left to say?

Millions of Chinese-made toys have been pulled from shelves in North America and Australia after scientists found they contain a chemical that converts into a powerful “date rape” drug when ingested. Two children in the U.S. and three in Australia were hospitalized after swallowing the beads.

Well there’s this, I guess: Republicans are always dreaming about a marketplace free of regulation. The genius of the market, self-regulating industries, buyer beware, etc. And this is what you get. Date rape toys.

RSS icon Comments


Puts a new spin on "play date."

Posted by dad | November 7, 2007 8:21 PM

Uh, no, Dan, this is what our current government-run product saftey system got us.

What a free-market system, in which people don't expect to be able to rely on the government to keep their purchases safe, remains to be seen, and is still very much open to debate.

Posted by David Wright | November 7, 2007 8:39 PM

Remember, Republicans are only for small government until they need a bailout.

Posted by Gitai | November 7, 2007 8:39 PM

The only people stupider than "free-market" Republicans are libertarians who can't tell the difference between good government and no government.

Posted by The Gay Recluse | November 7, 2007 9:01 PM

This was not, in fact, offered without comment.

Posted by Chris in Tampa | November 7, 2007 9:07 PM

NAMBLA should corner the market, i guess then it would have to change to the EAMBLA East Asian Man Boy Love Association

Posted by vooodooo84 | November 7, 2007 9:13 PM

stop it david wright. just stop. stop rationalizing and kidding yourself.

it stands to reason that in a market place devoid of safety regulation and objective testing there would be more of these sorts of incidents, and these incidents would go unreported or uncorrelated most of the time. we would never hear of the connection between child illness and chinese date rape drugs, whatever that's all about.

Posted by douglas | November 7, 2007 9:54 PM

BO-ring!! All I want to hear about is the 4 year old boy that raped his two year old sister after he slipped her one.

Posted by Mary Poppins | November 7, 2007 10:06 PM

Sorry douglas, but if there were no shoddy, government run service, a real, objective player would enter the arena, a private entity, that would genuinely perform tests on the toys. You would then subscribe (like any responsible parent), as would your library (if you were too poor to subscribe yourself) and read the results before buying the toy.

The toy producers would trip all over themselves to get independently certified by the "Good Houskeeping"-style seal of approval, especially when their competitors are doing so and seeing soccer moms preferring products with that seal. Then, you can sue the "Safe Toys" certifiers if they lie/sell the seal under breach of warranty, etc., along with the toy manufacturer. You can't sue the government for fucking up a certification, currently. At least in the private system there'd be some accountability.

Posted by Nick | November 7, 2007 10:37 PM

Douglas: You seem a considerate fellow who is genuinely incredulous at my comment, so I'd like to explain. To be clear: I don't claim that a world without government safety regulations would certainly be safter, but I do claim that it's not obvious that it wouldn't be. There are a couple of rathr important effects that your analysis leaves out: the possibility of private safety testing, and the possibility of compensating changes in behavior. I offer a bit of emperical evidence for the existense of each effect.

Evidence A: In the 19th century, long before the German government did any safety testing, a private firm called TUV arose that, for a fee, would test industrial products and certify various aspects of their safety. They developed a reputation for thoroughness and integrity, which they were naturally careful to maintain. That firm still exists today, and still has that excellent reputation that. In many cases, the German government has never bothered to implement its own safety testing, but has simply required that a product be certified by TUV. (There are a few competing testing firms, which of course help to keep these firms on their toes.)

Evidence B: There is some rather convincing statistical evidence that the myriad automobile safety regulations that we have introduced since Ralph Nader launched his career by campagning that seat belts be required have had approximately zero effect on car accident fatality rates. This counter-intuitive situation is called the Peltzman effect, after the economist who first documented it, and it basically arises because, given a machine that allows us to go faster with the same level of risk, humans will choose to maintain that level of risk and go faster. Perhaps Peltzman's most striking statistic is that the number of highway fatalities per mile driven fell at the same rate (~3%/year IIRC) in the 25 years before Ralph Nader (when there were basically no automobile safety regulations) as in the 25 years after (during where we have had a continuing flood of automobile safety regulations).

As I said before, I don't expect this to convince you that we would certainly be as good or better off without government safety testing, but I do expect it to make clear that the answer is not obvious.

Posted by David Wright | November 7, 2007 10:47 PM


That certainly sounds reasonable.

But I wonder, if there is no government regulation or interference in the marketplace, what's to prevent unscrupulous companies from just slapping that endorcement sticker on their products whether they were tested or not?

After all, even if a business got a bad reputation from doing that, it could easily just change it's name in a deregulated environment.

Just a question, nothin more.

Posted by Packratt | November 7, 2007 10:49 PM

A private company is "a real, objective player"? And legal action is the most efficient way of keeping them in line?

Yep, that's open to debate all right.

Posted by Irena | November 7, 2007 10:58 PM

Irena: What's the mechanism to keep a government regulatory agency in line? The tireless, competent, public-spirited burocrats, of course. But imagine, just hypothetically, that the agency were staffed with regular people who would rather take home a steady paycheck with a minimum of work and not rock the boat. What then? The ellection, every few years, of politicians who are supposed to appoint people to oversee them and 1000 other agencies? That sounds like an even more blunt instrument than lawsuits!

Anyway, lawsuits are hardly the most important factors incentivizing a private testing firm to do its job well. Demanding customers, agile competitors, and fear of loosing their reputation are much more important.

(You probably know of a cafe in Seattle that makes damn good coffee for a price your happy to pay. If you think about what's making them work so hard to do that, I suspect "fear of being sued for making bad coffee" isn't at the top o the list.)

Posted by David Wright | November 7, 2007 11:17 PM

What exactly is keeping a non-governmental regulatory body from working right now? Is the ADA seal of acceptance on my toothpaste but a mirage? Doesn't Greenpeace occasionally declare the relative chemical contents of different laptops?

People are too lazy to look up safety data on beads. The trust-no-one approach to consumer safety is fine and dandy if you're okay with a sort of chancy Darwinism of results for adults (and I'm not; I'm far too lazy), but kids don't get to be informed consumers. Call me an idealist, but I think children should all get a certain minimal shot at life without regard to their parents' shopping sophistication.

There I go, depriving society of natural selection.

Posted by Olive | November 8, 2007 12:14 AM

Olive: I suspect you can give rather good answers to your own questions, but since I'm up late, I'll do it for you.

Imagine a world of private, competing saftey certification firms. Now imagine that one of those firms (call it the public firm) raises an army, and uses that army to force everyone to pay tribute to it, whether or not they use its services. Imagine further that they decree that only products with their certification can be sold. Even if they allow their former competitors to continue to operate, the former competitors are at a rather severe disadvantage. The public firm has a rather lower cost of capital, and since they are already having to pay it, most customers will use its services unless they are really egregiously bad or non-existant. The former competitors will either disappear or retreat into niche markets that the firm with the army doesn't bother with (e.g. organic food certification). And if firm with the army later decides to enter those niche markets, it will easily drive out private firms, even if it does a poorer job (e.g. organic food certification). Notice that nothing in this story proves that the original competitive marketplace didn't work; the problem only arose when one player found a way to dominate the others that didn't involve offerering a better product at a better price.

Next consider your "but think of the children" argument. For nearly all of the really likely dangers that children face, we rely almost entirely on parents to shield their children. If you let your kids play on high ladders or don't take them to the doctor when they get seriously ill, the government won't do much to stop you until its too late. (They will ultimately prosecute you for being a really bad parent, but that's a different point entirely; there is no reason they couldn't do that if our product safety system were private.) So it seems rather odd that, if we want to protect the children of uncaring parents, we would choose to tackle the relatively obscure and unlikely risk of an unsafe toy before tackling these much more common ones. So odd, in fact, that a more cynical interlocutor than myself might accuse you of not really being so interested in saving children as in finding an emotionally resonant justification for a program that you like for reasons that are more ideological than practical.

Posted by David Wright | November 8, 2007 1:30 AM

@15- This whole laissez-faire argument against government safety standards is removed from historical evidence and the economic realities of most of the populace for your own ideological reasons. Product safety results in real improvements for the populace: automotive safety, food safety, safe work environments, etc. A private enterprise safety firm is going to always be concerned with making money first and long term safety interests second. if competition always improves products why have deregulated airlines become so crappy?

On a different note (setting aside the risk to children which is not funny), its very funny that the relatively recently banned "date rape" drug GHB is showing up in small consumable toys that clubgoers and ravers can now calibrate for dosage and bring undetected into dance venues.

Posted by MSW | November 8, 2007 6:14 AM

If anyone doesn't happen to feel for signing up to get the news link you posted, here are two more, which taken together give a comprehensive report:,2933,309318,00.html

Posted by Brooklyn Reader | November 8, 2007 6:19 AM

@16 - The problem with Chinese quality control is you can't calibrate much of anything they do. This is a chemical that ended up in what was supposed to be nontoxic water soluble glue. It would be a stretch to assume that it's in all batches, or in all batches equally.

On the other hand, it's odd to find out that there's a precursor to GHB that only needs swallowing to convert. Did anyone know about this before, and is the substance illegal?

Posted by Brooklyn Reader | November 8, 2007 6:28 AM

China is trying to kill us!

Posted by monkey | November 8, 2007 7:04 AM

these toys came about 10 years too late.... china would be making a killing (literally) in the rave scene...

Posted by rhjones | November 8, 2007 7:51 AM

@18 good point. If indeed it is a water soluble non toxic glue one could theoretically soak the toys in water and then calibrate from a sample of the water, starting very small and working up... this would approximate the practice of testing most street drugs of unknown purity. there were many precursers to ghb that were used for a variety of industrial purposes (gbl for instance). they became harder to obtain, were watched or were made illegal with the rest. funny how after it became illegal due to high profile date rape and dance scene stories, the drug companies were able to keep selling it as Xyrem, no doubt at a much greater price.

Posted by MSW | November 8, 2007 8:16 AM

Consumers may not be able to sue government agencies, but they can sue the companies that sell dangerous products. And yet, those companies aren't bothering to test their own products. So much for the threat of legal action ensuring product safety.

Anyway, are we ever going to reach a point where the cost of all these recalls outweighs the cost savings of manufacturing shit in China?

Posted by keshmeshi | November 8, 2007 9:27 AM

What the free-market evangelists don't get is that these toys are manufactured in CHINA where there is no government oversight or product safety standard. It's What we have here in the USA are toy manufacturers that are held accountable and are regulated. China is a free-market, non-regulated nightmare.

Posted by Dan | November 8, 2007 9:43 AM

These toys are made in China but packaged and sold by US companies, Dan. The US companies know there is a high chance of dangerous defects, but the race to the bottom on price makes it impossible for companies to be both ethical and successful.

Posted by Fnarf | November 8, 2007 10:05 AM

What is keeping a private company from sprouting up to provide safety tests for toys? Is there a law requiring the state to have a monopoly on this?

Posted by BobHall | November 8, 2007 11:00 AM

David Wright, have you ever traveled in countries that have little or no governmental oversight? I can assure you they do not have independent consumer agencies people can subscribe to. Go almost anywhere in S. America, Asia, the ex-Soviet Republics and witness free markets regulating themselves. The rich buy goods imported from supposedly safe countries in Europe and N. America and the poor, who vastly out-number them, take what they can get.

This IS a political issue. I saw Nancy Nord, who heads the Consumer Product Safety Commission on TV the other day ( I think, Charlie Rose) and she said her dept's funding has been cut in every federal budget for the past several years. Who has been controlling the budget for the past several years? Republicans, the same folks who gutted the FDA and the EPA. The deregulation and budget cutting began under Reagan and under-funding is a great way to ham-string any agency you want. The Dems didn't get back into power until last year. The party in power controls the budget and the budget controls who gets to do what.

Posted by inkweary | November 8, 2007 12:57 PM

I think what happened was that a copy of the game "The Big Idea" got sent to China in packaging mislabeled as, "How to Succeed in the US Toy Market." So then manufacturers started to think that "flammable pants," "death chocolate," and "X-treme non-stick books" were the kinds of products America is clamoring for.

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