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Convert, Then Compete

In all our talk about how America must compete globally in the 21st-century, we’ve forgotten something enormously important—so enormous an omission it’s like forgetting to put on clothes when heading off to work. I’m talking about the fact that the United States is the only industrialized country not to use the metric system as the dominant system of measurement. Not to worry. We’re not absolutely alone. In clinging to our English system of measurement, we have company—Liberia and Myanmar.

Why a painter like me should care about this is beyond the scope of this post. Let’s just say I have my reasons—among them, that my tubes of paint come measured in milliliters, and it helps to know what that means in figuring out what they cost (duh). More important, I’ve learned about the enormity of the problem, as it plays out in the real world, from my American friend Bill. Living in Europe for many years before moving to Moscow about 15 years ago, Bill has always brokered heavy earth-moving equipment, shifting it around and about the world. Recently, he shipped a 600-metric-ton crane from the boonies of China to Casablanca. He’s told me, in detail, about the frustration he faces in dealing with conversions of our English measurements to metrics and actual instances where American business loses out, on a global scale, because we aren’t competitive with countries that, sanely, rely fully on the metric system.

On the home front, our failure to embrace metrication adds an extra hurdle for American students learning math and science. Instead of metric measurements bouncing naturally around in their heads from preschool onward, they encounter them only in high school, when they have to hunker down to learn them—as if they are a foreign language—before they can do any real science.

True, we abide by the standards of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM). We have no choice. If we didn’t, any and all attempts at international commerce would grind to a screeching halt. Yet all this means is that we agree to standardized equivalences, in kilograms and meters and Celsius, for our beloved teaspoons, cups, gallons, pounds, yards, miles, and Fahrenheit degrees. Meanwhile, for most of the rest of the world, our English measurements amount to nothing more than antiquated gobbledygook.

For a mix of dumb reasons—nostalgia, pure stupidity, lack of national resolve, and pigheaded American exceptionalism—we’ve never mustered the will to convert, as a nation, to the metric system. Sorry, but conservatives who hate big government are living in a fantasy world if they think individual states or market forces will somehow magically yield metrication. Without a national directive, backed by federal muscle and money, all this talk about making America globally competitive is no more than puffery.

Not that we never tried to convert. Congress passed the Metric Conversion Act of 1975 “to coordinate and plan the increasing use of the metric system in the United States.” Yet America, land of the free and home of people who worship the phrase “our way of life,” has, ever since the days of Ronald Reagan, had to contend with a lot of citizens who consider the federal government a problem. With only “voluntary compliance” as the force for changing over to the metric system, the American response to the 1975 legislation “encouraging” metrication consisted of half-baked, scattershot attempts at conversion and a public simultaneously indifferent and resistant to it. I vividly remember my mother, a grammar school teacher, readying herself to teach the metric system to her third-graders; instead, in 1982, she got the directive to hold off. Apparently, it was turning out to be just plain too hard.

Not too hard for the Canadians, or the Irish, or the Australians, or even the English—all of them managing to convert to the metric system—a system that, when I come to think of it, is most likely doomed to never take root in America should Americans ever discover—horror of horrors—that it was invented by the French.

Yet Congress tried a second time, with the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act in 1988. We acknowledged the metric system to be the “preferred system of weights and measures for the United States and commerce.” Again, however, there was no federal muscle behind the act, either in money or mandate, and compliance was voluntary. What can I say? American exceptionalism prevailed.

Sure, Americans use conversion charts, and many American industries now produce machinery and other products manufactured to metric specifications. But this hardly counts as solving America’s problem in the global marketplace. As my friend Bill—who’s enormously frustrated in his business dealings by America’s failure to embrace metrication—explained to me, say you design a bearing in a critical part of a piece of machinery to have a diameter of 2.000 inches plus or minus 2/1000th of an inch. What is the allowed tolerance in terms of millimeters? To express it precisely would require changing the tolerance in the bearings themselves. The result is that when you buy tools for installation or removal of these American-made bearings anywhere outside the United States (other than in Liberia or Myanmar), you need to buy American tools as well. How’s that for American exceptionalism?

Get real, everyone. We need to convert before we can compete.

(For further reading on the subject, click here and here.)

(photo by Flickr user Mykl Roventine)

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