Various toy recalls, particularly those affecting Thomas the Tank Engine, have the parental blogging community alarmed, with the expected calls for more regulation, more testing, more more more. But I wonder if several key factors in product safety having to do with the operation of markets might have been forgotten. And I won’t even mention product liability (except just there).
My son and I make weekly visits to the home of a Chinese grad student and his family for Chinese lessons. The Grub frolics about with their little one while I answer many, many questions about Life in America. I have noticed that their parenting style is very different from that of native North American parents. For example, they have no concern about choking hazards and cheerfully disregard warning labels regarding age-inappropriate small parts (as do some U.S. parents, I’ve noted), but supervise their son much more closely than I do. Yet they are living in the same regulatory regime that I am; but being new arrivals their cultural background is Chinese and most of the news they read is Chinese.
My untestable hypothesis is that factors missing from the Chinese modern culture and present in mine have had a big impact on our mutual parenting styles. One is a free press. A second is a hyperactive commercial subculture that has grown up around the free press and that provides a good bit of additional information through advertising and marketing–the child safety industry. These factors mean that I have been constantly bombarded from the start of my pregnancy with safety messages that have nothing to do with the U.S. regulatory regime.
A third factor is the importance of reputation and trust in commercial relationships, familiar and taken for granted by U.S. firms but perhaps new to some recent Chinese ventures. The Chinese toy maker whose misconduct figured in the Mattel recalls was a long-time supplier of theirs… it seems astonishing from a business standpoint that they were familiar with U.S. safety standards and yet let their own slide, a sort of commercial suicide (mirrored by the actual suicide of the firm’s head). Yet they did. One can only hope that their actions and the consequences were widely reported in China–the spread of the news will do far more to improve attention to product safety than any regulatory regime here or there. Ultimately, there must be trust. One cannot test every can of paint in China–random testing is perhaps the next best substitute, and Thomas the Tank Engine’s maker was doing that already (which is how the problem was uncovered).
So I do hope that U.S. policymakers give more thought to this problem than some parents have–those who in one paragraph express sympathy for the workers toiling in Chinese factories, and in the next call for a boycott on Chinese toys. For what will the workers do then, pray tell? And at home, I more-or-less patiently await the arrival of the replacement Thomas trains, though why I do not know, for the Grub has so many things and so much to do he has barely noticed that they are gone.