U.S. Sets a Bad International Example—Metrically Speaking

I’ve already mentioned in this blog that I believe that the United States is not only holding itself back with regard to its lack of metric adoption but we serve as a bad example for our sister countries such as the United Kingdom and Canada. While both of the aforementioned countries use the metric system much more in daily life than we do here, the changeover has been less than complete in both. When I asked a metric authority in the U.K. why the conversion was less than 100 percent in his country, the basic answer was “Because you don’t use it.” As I heard the words escape his mouth, I not only knew he was right but I was embarrassed as an American that our country could have had such a backward influence.

Well, we’re apparently striking again.

Newspaper reports started coming out earlier this month saying that there is a move afoot to put a stronger emphasis on imperial units in the U.K. primary school system. [see notes below]

One article included the subhead: “Education minister Elizabeth Truss has announced that the new primary curriculum will put more focus on imperial measurements.”  [note A]

When I contacted the head of the U.K. Metric Association, he indicated that “The current position is that metric is the primary system in schools but a few imperial equivalents are taught to help children with shopping etc. The Department of Education has said there would be no significant change.”

Thank goodness.

But still, any shift toward imperial from metric units represents a backslide as far as I’m concerned. This wouldn’t even likely be under discussion if we, as a nation, had moved to a metric system 200 years ago when Thomas Jefferson wanted us to!

While internationally people’s gaze have started to shift from the United States to China as the world’s economic superpower (Yep, you read that right. [note B]) it is quite clear that the U.K. relies on us for revenue from exports as in “The USA has the largest and most technologically powerful economy in the world and is Britain’s largest single export market.” [note C]

As long as the U.K. depends on us for revenue and we continue to ignorantly stumble forward with an antiquated measurement system more backsliding is possible elsewhere in the world. This is, at least until we’re no longer a global economic superpower.

Would converting to the metric system help us economically in the world marketplace? I’m not qualified to answer that question but it seems likely to me that a complete changeover to the metric system might help us better compete.

Do we really want to find out too late that it was something we should have done? Why would we even want to take that chance?

Linda

Notes:

A: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2013/jan/14/imperial-measurements-maths-lessons

B: http://www.pewglobal.org/2011/07/13/china-seen-overtaking-us-as-global-superpower/

C: http://www.ukti.gov.uk/export/countries/americas/northamerica/unitedstates.html

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2259314/Imperial-weights-measures-classroom-radical-shake-maths-lessons.html

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationopinion/9790670/Modern-schools-must-teach-imperial-measurements.html

8 thoughts on “U.S. Sets a Bad International Example—Metrically Speaking

  1. It comes down to this:
    “The USA has the largest and most technologically powerful economy in the world”
    Not by very much. But still.
    But more important than this, everyone in the world wants to BE American. Still.

    Despite what you were told in grade school; life IS a popularity contest. So long as being American is cooler than being German, beer will be sold in 12 ounce containers.

  2. “Would converting to the metric system help us economically in the world marketplace? I’m not qualified to answer that question but it seems likely to me that a complete changeover to the metric system might help us better compete.”

    There are two sides to such a coin. Economic theory tells us that everybody’s better off if international competition is unleashed and countries specialize in what they have the most comparative advantages, but that’s a very abstract conclusion — economies don’t just adjust overnight, the allocation of natural resources matter and, more importantly, groups who stand to lose with trade openness spend considerable effort in lobbying and regulatory capture.

    I’ve been working with manufacturing sector industries lobbying for protection from international competition in an unspecified latin american country for years now, and one kind of policy proposal that crops up now and again is what we call “technical barriers”. At some point, for example, the standards of steel bars for reinforced concretes were changed in an ad hoc manner so to divert the steel demand from a construction boom to the withering national industry.

    So suppose there’s a “rational sizing” (to borrow from your other post) directive on imperial units, so everything has to be in eights. The hassle required for a fully metric country to produce, say, cars with an odometer in miles per hour instead of km/h, is enough of a cost item that it generates an advantage for american car makers, all things remaining equal. Not to mention having to pass miles-per-gallon and emissions-per-gallon standards, all in crazy units.

    Economic theory — and enlightened common sense, really — will tell you this is thoroughly idiotic, and I agree. But it’s idiotic for reasons that are too diluted for the great mass of stakeholders to even notice — all while those who profit from this are few and organized. The concrete monetary value of imperial isolationism is most likely a key driver for the continuing failure of the metrication process in the USA. You can’t afford to be naïve on this, wherever you’re going with this metrication passion.

  3. You will have a fight on your hands with the press, the Associated Press (as.org), has it in their guidelines to refuse to use Metric in any form, yes forcing their reporters to use antiquated units, even if the original article was all Metric. Every unit will be ‘converted’.

    • Mr. Arkwright:

      I beg to differ with your assertion that AP would be a barrier. AP doesn’t set policy, it merely offers guidelines on communicating with consistent, appropriate style. Its 2011 Stylebook devotes significant space to the metric system, including a comprehensive chart on how to convert into and out of metric (see pp. 174-175). Since there isn’t wholesale use of the metric system in the United States, AP states: “For U.S. members, use metric terms only in situations where they are universally accepted forms of measurement (16 mm film) or where the metric distance is an important number in itself: “He vowed to walk 100 kilometers (62 miles) in a week.”

      Clearly, if the United States were to adopt the metric system, the Associated Press would amend its stylebook to reflect the new reality.

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