Thursday, December 13, 2007

Darcy Burner's Toys

Darcy Burner, Democratic contender for our district's congressional seat, is running a brilliant campaign gimmick appearance this week.  Rather than give speeches or hold boring "meet the candidate" forums, she's holding free "toxic toy testings" at various public libraries throughout the area, including one on Mercer Island (Island Park Elementary School) on Saturday, December 15th from 6 - 8pm.

I love this idea, which is straight out of Black Swan theory: it exposes her to possibly extreme upsides with almost no downside risk.

  • First, although very few (if any) toys -- other than those already recalled-- will test positive for lead,  nobody will ever print a headline that reports a negative result.  The only guaranteed campaign message that will make the papers is the one that's already been printed.  There is no danger of a headline like "Darcy Burner Fails to Find any Unsafe Toys" -- even if ultimately that's what happens.
  • Second, there is a very small (but non-zero) chance that testing might reveal a new, hitherto undiscovered toy that should be recalled.  Toy companies are extremely vigilant -- far more than any politician can be -- at protecting their brands from any perception whatsoever that their products might be unsafe.  But the recent publicity over recalls, combined with parents' natural fear of any unknown risks regarding their children, makes us naturally feel better about actions like this.  And who knows, maybe Darcy will get lucky.
  • Finally, there are plenty of reasonable ways Darcy can manipulate the testing to her advantage.  Just about anything (including the safest toy) has some naturally occurring level of toxins in it.  Equipment with enough sensitivity will find those toxins, even though the levels are far, far below anything of risk to humans.  And if you object that she is testing at unrealistic levels, she can always insist that the current standards are too lax.  After all, do you really want to take a chance with your children?

Here's my prediction: I bet she doesn't find a single unsafe toy (other than those already recalled).    Of course, she'll find many objects with high amounts of lead -- especially among items that any informed adult will recognize as something you shouldn't eat, but nothing from name-brand toy makers.  The prankster in me wants to show up with one of her campaign buttons (cracked open a bit to expose the lead paint) and test that, but otherwise the only toxins that will be uncovered will be, well, anger that the world is an unsafe place.

Update: Sure enough, she found 47 items (or 10% of the items tested) with lead levels above 40ppm, considered to be excessive by the American Academy of Pediatrics.   Her press release doesn't say whether any of the items were toys from name-brand makers, or newly discovered items that haven't already been recalled.  Since such a finding would have been far more newsworthy, I suspect that means she failed to find anything that hasn't already been pulled from store shelves -- i.e., nothing that the Consumer Products Safety Commission hasn't already flagged.


Anonymous said...

Ye of little faith. Have you not been following the news stories? KOMO ran a news story indicating that 17% of the toys tested by national non-profits so far showed levels higher than the federal maximum legal level of 600 parts per million lead. Only a tiny fraction of that many toys have been recalled to date (although there have been 77 toy recalls so far this calendar year, with most covering multiple kinds of toys). So if more than 1 in 6 toys fails the test, what are the odds in 14 hours of testing that some fail? Pretty high, it would seem.

You're right that there's a possible Black Swan. You're just mistaken about what it is.

Richard Sprague said...

"Black Swan" means you can't prove toys are safe by systematically testing "enough" of them. Whether Darcy is in office or not, just one single unsafe toy proves we could have done more to protect our kids. That's why it's a clever campaign trick, because she has nothing to lose and everything to gain. It's very hard for her opponent (no matter how focused he is on this issue) to counter that he's doing "enough".

Anyway, I don't believe the KOMO numbers. But we'll see if I'm wrong. Hopefully Darcy will publish her results.

Anonymous said...

I think you're comments were pretty cursory and pessimistic.

I'm a strong Darcy Burner supporter and worked on her campaign so I suppose I am not objective at all, however, from what I've seen, Darcy has been incredibly honest in all her dealings with the public.

I think the lead testing is silly, but at least it brings attention to the issue so it is hopefully resolved. As for the political implications, I think strategically, it's impact is negligible. The two deciding factors in the 8th are going to be demographic change and national political climate. Darcy's name recognition is already high from 2006 and few people really change their minds about candidates anymore.

My brain is a bit fried right now so I apologize that this is not a very cogent response.