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The War on the Informal Sector (cont’d)

Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 15 years ago, in 2009, on the World Wide Web.

WASHINGTON — If you’re planning a garage sale or organizing a church bazaar, you’d best beware: You could be breaking a new federal law. As part of a campaign called Resale Roundup, the federal government is cracking down on the secondhand sales of dangerous and defective products.

The initiative, which targets toys and other products for children, enforces a new provision that makes it a crime to resell anything that’s been recalled by its manufacturer.

Those who resell recalled children’s products are not only breaking the law, they are putting children’s lives at risk, said Inez Tenenbaum, the recently confirmed chairwoman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

The crackdown affects sellers ranging from major thrift-store operators such as Goodwill and the Salvation Army to everyday Americans cleaning out their attics for yard sales, church bazaars or — increasingly — digital hawking on eBay, Craigslist and other Web sites.

Secondhand sellers now must keep abreast of recalls for thousands of products, some of them stretching back more than a decade, to stay within the bounds of the law.

. . . Scott Wolfson, a spokesman for the agency, said it wouldn’t be dispatching bureaucratic storm troopers into private homes to see whether people were selling recalled products from their garages, yards or churches.

We’re not looking to come across as being heavy-handed, he said. We want to make sure that everybody knows what the rules of engagement are to help spur greater compliance, so that enforcement becomes less of an issue. But we’re still going to enforce.

— James Rosen, McClatchy (2009-08-20): Seller, beware: Feds cracking down on garage sales

Like most invasive government regulations, the rules of engagement for this particular war hurts all of its targets — that is, they ratchet up fixed costs for all resellers, hurting them directly and also hurting their ability to provide a cheaper alternative to their main competitors (in this case, mainly big discount retailers like Wal-Mart). But within the resale market, it hurts some players more than others:

Staffers for the federal agency are fanning out across the country to conduct training seminars on the regulations at dozens of thrift shops.

Even before this law, we had good mechanisms in place for pulling recalled products, said Jim Gibbons, the chief executive of Goodwill. The law just kicks it up a notch, so Goodwills around the country will continue to improve our process.

Goodwill uses $2 billion in annual sales at its 2,300 thrift shops nationwide to pay for its job-training and employment placement programs.

— James Rosen, McClatchy (2009-08-20): Seller, beware: Feds cracking down on garage sales

Those of us who want to resell old toys but don’t have $2,000,000,000 in annual sales to dip into for regulatory compliance and who don’t get training seminars from the United States federal government may have a harder time kicking it up a notch. As usual, regulation props up big established incumbents and hurts grassroots, ad hoc, or just plain small-time players; state corporatism artificially enforces consumerism by burning out reuse markets, and props up the strip mall by burning out the bazaar.

See also:

6 replies to The War on the Informal Sector (cont’d) Use a feed to Follow replies to this article · TrackBack URI

  1. jrlcat

    Hi Charles, what do you mean by “consumerism” in that last sentence?

  2. Rad Geek


    Nothing fancy. (Not surprisingly, since, once things get theoretically fancy, I reject most of the existing pseudoleftist theory and practice around the analysis and critique of consumerism.)

    All I mean by consumerism in this context is, roughly, the size, scope, and predominance of the consumer-facing retail economy. That is, the extent to which people get the things they need in their everyday lives by means of purchasing a completed product (for purposes of more or less immediate consumption, not as a capital good to produce the the things needed) from a professional retailer, rather than getting it through alternative means — building or making it yourself, getting old things fixed or mended rather than replacing them, reusing or repurposing existing things, getting things from secondhand stores or from more informal-sector reuse markets (flea markets, yard sales, family or community gift networks, etc.), or serving needs through other kinds of formalized or ad hoc social relationships other than retalier-consumer relationships (e.g. there are lots of ways to be entertained for the night; buying a ticket to a venue for music or movies or whatever is one; friendly or family networks, formalized groups like lodges or unions, party circuits, etc. can provide substitute goods).

    Now, the choice to buy a new item from a retail outfit rather than getting it in some other way is not, in my view, a problem in and of itself. That’s an economic decision and often it’s the best one under the circumstances for working people with a lot of other things to worry about. But of course, how much working people have to worry about in their daily lives isn’t exactly innocent of state influence. And, on the other end of things, I do think that the predominance of the consumer retail economy and the kind of disposable lifestyle that critics of consumerism have discussed, is something that’s being artificially juiced by state subsidies to the formal sector, systemic assaults by government against the informal sector, and also, while we’re at it, state distortions of credit markets and incentives for real savings. Which are typically carried on quite explicitly on the notion that one of the chief tasks of government economic planning should be to take steps to maximize the amount of consumption and the amount of money being churned through activity in the formal retail economy.

  3. jrlcat

    Thanks for the clarification. I was a little surprised to see you use the term, both because of the vague way it is often used, and because I’ve seen you repudiate certain criticisms of consumerism in the past.

  4. John Markley

    Rad Geek,

    Excellent point on consumerism and wastefulness. It’s astonishing how many people simultaneously say that 1. America’s problems are caused by wasteful consumption, overspending, short-sighted behavior, and debt accumulated by people’s insistence on getting things immediately instead of saving for it, and 2. we need to fix the economy by getting people to start buying as much stuff as possible, as quickly as possible.

— 2013 —

  1. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People's Daily 2013-04-26 – War on the Informal Sector (Cont’d):

    […] Charles Johnson, Rad Geek People’s Daily 2009-02-28: War on the Informal Sector (Cont’d) — Resale Roundup and local government vs. unfettered flea markets […]

  2. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People's Daily 2013-08-17 – Pigs as a Paradigm:

    […] no borders. See, for example, Scratching By, Enclosure Comes to Los Angeles, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, etc. etc. […]

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