My Letter to the CPSC

A brief but important edit (Oct 31, 2012 ~11PM MDT) to any visitors that may have taken notice of my rather brash letter to the CPSC: I should correct that near as I can tell Buckyballs is not shuttering their doors. I screwed up in my fit of inappropriate (but correctly directed) rage. It was a knee-jerk reaction on my part and–as best as I can tell without hearing directly from Buckyballs–completely false. I was told that they were and read the front page post in that context, angry enough that I wasn’t thinking clearly. For that, I publicly apologize to everyone. I’m sorry about my shoot-first, ask-later behavior. However, I’m still not sorry about the premise of my letter. How I feel about the CPSC hasn’t changed since I first heard about the “voluntary” stay of sales several months ago. I think the agency’s behavior is a terrible misappropriation of taxpayer money, and I think they should themselves be placed under some form of oversight to which they are ultimately held responsible and must answer directly to the public.

However, there is still some truth to my anger. Upon re-reading the statement on, I can only surmise that our favorite types of magnets may be removed in their entirety. What they’ll be replaced with is anyone’s guess, but I imagine that it’ll be something lower powered and “less dangerous” (for some value of perceived danger)–and also less fun. While it doesn’t equate to shuttering the company’s doors, and moving into another product line is certainly a wise idea financially, it does mean that the Buckyballs we used to know and love are likely dead. Gone. Forever.

Regardless, I have retained my letter as I originally wrote it. This means that there’s a large degree of embellishment on my part, but I was upset when I wrote it and under the (mistaken) impression that Buckyballs were no more. Although, I guess that last part is still true to a lesser degree.

Hey, if the CPSC can embellish the facts (okay, okay, completely lie) about the degree of harm brought to the offspring of inept parents who thought it would be funny if their children devoured magnets like Halloween chocolates by conflating the number of injuries, I can embellish what I like, too. My mistakes aside (and I’m expecting to be corrected on this matter by the Buckystaff when they receive the copy I sent them–undoubtedly upset with my factual errors ☺), I still stand by the basic premise: The CPSC is out of control and needs to be reigned in as an organization. Rather than ignoring real, material threats to children’s lives, they’re targeting successful, popular industries. Buckyballs may not yet be gone, but there are a few smaller vendors that did close up shop earlier this year. The narrative is therefore at least partially correct in spirit even if my statements don’t match the immediate facts.

I won’t hazard a guess why the CPSC wants to shut down magnetic toy companies so badly, but I certainly feel–as a geek–that my consumption habits are being unfairly targeted because the CPSC doesn’t want me to have fun. If they really did care about children, they’d spend more time educating parents and less time banning products that have even a slight potential of misuse. To the CPSC: There is a stark difference between products that present a material and immediate hazard to consumers and ones that are only dangerous if they are misused. A gas grill that causes its propane tank to explode when lit is a material, immediate hazard, and represents a fundamental design flaw. Magnets (or guns, or knives, or doors, or hazardous chemicals) that cause harm when misused do not represent a design flaw; they represent instead the ineptitude of the people who have purchased them.

This letter should be considered to be in the public domain. You may use this letter in part or in whole if you desire to write your own response to the CPSC.

Dear CPSC,

I want to thank you in your efforts against Buckyballs and other high-powered magnet distributors. According to the announcement on it would finally appear that they’re closing their doors, ridding the free world of dangerous items that should be kept out of the hands of children whose parents’ vocabulary lacks the word “responsibility,” and most importantly out of the hands of responsible adults who understand the term but may or may not have children of their own.

It’s excellent news that we have a government agency working hard during these economically difficult times spending a great deal of effort forcing businesses out of business due to spurious charges and sending some 2,000+ people straight to the unemployment offices. After all, what difference is a couple thousand more people on unemployment going to make on the national debt? Not much, of course, so it likely doesn’t matter. Certainly not to an agency that doesn’t have to make payroll–and doesn’t especially care if it shuts down businesses that do.

What does matter is the absolutely absurd campaign the CPSC has been running against companies selling high powered magnets. Yes, it’s a tragedy whenever children die or must undergo a painful operation because they foolishly swallowed something that should have been kept out of their mouths in the first place. But it’s more disconcerting when a single, un-elected board can decide what businesses are effectively allowed to continue operating and which ones cannot. Worse, when a business can be shut down simply because a relatively small handful of people have levied complaints against them with the support of a couple of fanatical physicians, we are poised to lose many more of our already dwindling freedoms. Yet, there is an almost pathological imbalance between the actual danger presented by magnets and the response of the CPSC contrasted with other products. The CPSC isn’t working to ban buckets, skateboards, bicycles, swimming pools, or motor vehicles, each of which kills far more children per year than rare-earth magnets have in their some 3 or so years of market exposure.

As a consumer who considers himself reasonably informed and educated, these actions puzzle me and strongly hint at a less than impartial response on the CPSC’s behalf. Is this the result of a political motive against what was once a $20 million a year industry? Does the CPSC treat, unequally, the packaging industry responsible for creating buckets simply because they have stronger lobbyists or donate to the right campaigns? Or is the CPSC staffed by individuals who have no background in any of the natural sciences and therefore see magnets as a type of “black magic” that need to be banned simply because they have no idea how they work?

The CPSC represents the interests of consumers, but I can’t help myself from feeling that my voice–and the voice of many other happy consumers of various magnetic toys over the years–has been squelched because of an exceptionally noisy minority. This is the danger when an appointed–not elected–board holds a disproportionate amount of power over the marketplace. The majority has its rights stripped completely because of the ineptitude of the few.

I don’t have children. I’m not planning on having children. I have on my desk as I write this letter a box of Buckyballs and there are no less than three warnings visible: Two on the product box and one on the plastic sleeve in which it was originally shipped. Further, there are at least two additional warnings, one on the orange plastic container holding the magnets and one inside the instructions and product literature. Yet under my bathroom sink, I have harsh cleaners that are undoubtedly highly toxic if ingested and none of them have more than one warning label per bottle. The primary difference? The household cleaners have child-proof caps on them. Why couldn’t the CPSC have negotiated with the magnetic toy industry to ship their goods in child-proof containers as a reasonable compromise?

I can’t answer this question without unnecessary speculation, and I suspect it’s a mix of egotism, a knee-jerk reaction to a largely imagined threat, and political favoritism toward industries that can afford political asylum better known in our great country as “lobbyists.”

Given this, it seems to me that the warnings on these magnets and your response to the danger presented by them are both highly disproportionate to the actual harm they’ve created versus the actual dangers of other products. This product was not marketed to children in any capacity; my first set was purchased via ThinkGeek as a toy for adults (14+), and I’m well aware of the hazards of magnets (though I admit I’m more worried about potential data loss on magnetic disk drives than any material hazard presented to myself by these magnets). It’s a crying shame that a single four letter agency operating under the guise of consumer safety can wield more power and strip consumers of more freedom than certain three letter agencies whose business often necessitates the use of such power (CIA, FBI, even the IRS).

Of course, the Constitution doesn’t protect magnets, so I cannot claim that it’s an inalienable human right to own magnets. What a shame! Had the CPSC been created around the time of the Wright brothers, I suspect human flight would still remain a thing of fairy tales–to say nothing of the automobile, bicycle, horse riding, sports… I could go on.

I’m angry, frustrated, and gravely disappointed at the coddled society we’ve become thanks in no small part to the increased momentum we have spiraling toward an out of control nanny state sponsored by government agencies like the CPSC. While children remain relatively unprotected by very real threats to their safety like those presented by other products, we’re at least kept safe from those that present the least hazard. A reasonable society would have resorted to consumer education and awareness. Yet we are not a reasonable society any longer; we ban first, then tie up affected parties for months (or years) in expensive legislation, often (ab)using the turtle’s pace of the Department of Justice as a means of wearing the defendant’s finances thin. I thank my lucky stars I’m not in an industry that produces material goods that could be subject to such scrutiny.

I look forward to the day the CPSC bans toys containing dihydrogen monoxide. It’s a truly horrid substance responsible for dozens of drowning deaths each year and can harbor dangerous diseases if left to stagnate. I wonder then what the rationale behind such a move might be? If we don’t change course and reign in an out of control agency, then I suspect we may very well find out in 10-20 years.

If this were a perfect world, I’d be overjoyed instead to see the CPSC’s staff standing in the unemployment line rather than the employees of an American business driven OUT of business by the strong arm of the nanny state.

Best Regards,


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