All Commentary
Sunday, July 1, 2001

Drastic Measures: The Metric Assault on American Standards

So long as Americans defend their freedom, the measurement issue will never be decided in a government office.

Peter Seymour is a journalist, screenwriter, and actor who lives in Hoboken, New Jersey.

Nothing is more contrary to the organization of the mind, of the memory, and of the imagination . . . . The new system of weights and measures will be a stumbling block for several generations . . . . It’s just tormenting the people with trivia.”

Such was the opinion of Napoleon about a novelty concocted by the Paris Academy of Sciences in the midst of revolutionary fervor: the metric system of measurement.

But that tormenting system, which France’s emperor refused to inflict, has been forced on British citizens by their own legislators, yielding yet again to pressure from European Union bureaucrats. With the British bulldog rolling over to this cultural intrusion, one wonders if the United States will go the extra mile to defend the yardstick.

Since America’s infancy, metric missionaries have been frustrated by our steadfast resistance to being converted. They’ve blamed public ignorance, apathy and stubbornness, unenlightened industry, meager government funding, and more. But beneath the surface, our enduring allegiance to the U.S. Customary System of Weights and Measures is rooted in a commonsense, even if largely intuitive, preference for this finely honed system of inches, pounds, quarts, and degrees Fahrenheit.

Most Americans can remember, from the late 1970s, when U.S. metrication (metric conversion) was proceeding like a five-year plan commanded by the Kremlin. Wall charts and study guides in grade schools indoctrinated students like me about the “superior” and “more scientific” SI (Le Système International d’Unités: the new and improved version of metric). Although belittled as a hodgepodge of historical oddities, our customary measurement system withstood insults and assaults from the “inevitably global standard,” the most visible vestiges of which are the “kph” markings on speedometers, the FDA-required nutrition labeling on packaged goods, and the liter-based soft drink bottles.

While compliant Canadians dove head first into metrication, we recalcitrant Americans ignored and laughed at it until it slinked away. Perhaps you saw the “Saturday Night Live” skit that lampooned the marvels of the metric alphabet, comprised of only ten letters! J, K, L, and M were combined into a single character.

A quarter-century later, the metric crusade looks as quaint as the “Duck and Cover” campaign of the 1950s. But while the communists’ dream of world domination has faded away, the metric zealots persist in threatening our economic and personal freedom.

In their decades-long “re-education” to metric, defenders of British weights and measures—and of British sovereignty—recently suffered a drastic setback. Beginning in January 2000, merchants throughout the United Kingdom were ordered to give priority to the gram, liter, and meter in their measuring, labeling, and oral communication, subordinating their traditional ounce, pint, and foot to a supplementary status.

According to the London-based Sun newspaper, whose “Save Our Scales” campaign regularly features small shopkeepers who run afoul of the metrication program and incur fines and confiscation of their imperial scales, Sunderland police and “trading standards officers” on February 16, 2000, made an undercover purchase of a pound of bananas for 34 pence, from Steven Thoburn, a local greengrocer. He was thereupon arrested for weighing the loose produce in pounds instead of grams. A British court convicted Thoburn last April. Fines and further court costs of at least $150,000 are anticipated. But the case will be appealed.

“I’ll serve my customers the way they want,” insisted Thoburn, who, having been dubbed the “Metric Martyr,” raised over $40,000 for his defense in this test case, the first trial of its type. “But I’ve yet to find anybody who’s asked for anything in a metric way.”

Despite renewed sales pitches, regaling the glories of base-ten measurement and the progressiveness of global conformity, Americans aren’t buying metric. We remain committed to the familiarity, versatility, and greater accuracy of measurement practices that date back to the pyramids of Egypt—built with the same inch as found on a schoolboy’s ruler.

Metric in America

Starting back in 1790 Thomas Jefferson, then secretary of state, recommended that Congress introduce a decimal-based measurement system. While not proposing a specific scheme (the metric system was formalized nine years later), Jefferson did advise that any new base units should resemble those already in common use wherever possible. Congress put the issue on the back burner, thus beginning a policy of benign neglect that continues to the present. In the first U.S. metric study in 1821, John Quincy Adams, also as secretary of state, reported to Congress: “Weights and measures may be ranked among the necessaries of life to every individual of human society. They enter into the economical arrangements and daily concerns of every family. They are necessary to every occupation of human industry; to the distribution and security of every species of property; . . . The knowledge of them . . . is among the first elements of education, and is often learned by those who learn nothing else, not even to read and write.”

Adams went on to advocate the metric system as a national standard, but Congress again left well enough alone. Forty-five years elapsed before Congress supplied each state with a set of metric weights and measures as it authorized nationwide use of the new system on a voluntary basis, thus expanding our choice of measurement methods. In 1875 the United States became one of 17 nations to found the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, based on metric. In 1893 the U.S. Bureau of Standards adopted metric as its “fundamental system of standards,” which legally defined customary units in terms of metric equivalents. And that’s pretty much where things sat for the next 75 years.

Today, the use and importance of standardized measurement is vastly greater than at the dawn of the industrial age. Geodetic, topographic, climatologic, political, and road maps of the entire earth have been meticulously calculated with customary coordinates and charted in customary units. Surveys are the conceptual infrastructure for the layout of streets, highways, railroads, and parks; for the engineering of bridges, tunnels, canals, and dams; for the installation of pipelines, water mains, power grids, and cable networks; and for the positions of navigational beacons and the orbits of satellites.

Customary units, in blueprints and hardware, are built into our homes, ships, skyscrapers, churches, monuments, and historical landmarks. The construction and operation of nuclear power plants, airports and aircraft, military equipment, and the International Space Station, to name a few, are predominantly based on customary specifications. Our system is communicated through countless labels, cookbooks, manuals, textbooks, schematics, menus, and traffic signs. Preserved in our literature, songs, and movies, thriving in the daily conversations and habits of a quarter-billion U.S. professionals, consumers, and students, customary measure serves the diverse needs of everyone from carpenters to chefs, children to rocket scientists.

With such an enormous investment in physical and human capital, there ought to be a convincing reason to justify our suffering the stupendous costs, confusions, and hazards of drastically altering our measurement system.

One Size Fits All

The primary contention of metric advocates is that adopting a globally uniform system of measurement would greatly benefit the U.S. economy. Fluency in metric, the Esperanto of measurement, would facilitate industry and trade by increasing our nation’s exports, competitiveness, productivity, and employment. This one-size-fits-all thinking, typical of metric missionaries, is plausible, but such assertions are thoroughly refuted by experience and reason.

The U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) is a respected government watchdog. Its Metric Report of 1990 summarized the major economic burdens of a forced U.S. metrication, and devastated pro-metric arguments with careful analysis:

Imports of metric products would increase because metric products required for U.S. conversion would have to be obtained from other countries. Furthermore, due to the additional costs of conversion, U.S. products would be more expensive than imported products that are already metric. Foreign countries would benefit from broadened markets and new economies of scale due to increased production and lower operating costs. The United States would also be flooded with customary products produced by other countries to meet the continuing demand by the public for goods during the conversion period.

A pamphlet from Americans for Customary Weight and Measure (ACWM), a grassroots organization,* passes along the warning: “Thousands of workers would lose their jobs and older workers would be displaced. Metric conversion would require massive retraining and would deprive the country of workers with valuable experience and the intuitive feel for measurement upon which craftsmen, mechanics, engineers and many other workers depend” (“Realities of Metrication” by Thomas A. Hannigan, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, 1977).

The preamble of the U.S. Metric Conversion Act of 1975 enumerated the costs of clinging to our provincial ways, including: “3. World trade is increasingly geared to the metric system of measurement. 4. Industry in the United States is often at a competitive disadvantage when dealing in international markets because of its non-standard measurement system.”

But, reassuring the unconverted, the GAO noted, “Worldwide usage of U.S. customary standards is still much greater than that of metric standards.” Although U.S. usage accounts for much of this, customary standards persist internationally in numerous forms, ranging from any use of latitude and longitude, to industry-specific units such as troy ounces and carats, to any production whose actual dimensions are tooled on customary units.

To clarify the last, the most successful photographic film format continues to be manufactured to its original specification of exactly 1-3/8 inches in width. The customary standard of this American invention has been eclipsed by its subsequent relabeling as “35mm,” an approximate metric equivalent. This kind of soft conversion succeeds in giving the appearance of metric prominence, of greater precision, and of foreign industrial clout, but it doesn’t alter the hard reality that about two-thirds of global industrial output remains based on customary specifications.

In a shocking retort to those who scoff that America stands alone among industrial nations in rejecting metric, the GAO concluded, “The United States should not risk its industrial success, obtained under the customary system, by changing to a new system.”

In spite of this unqualified verdict and the unswerving popularity of customary measure among U.S. businesses and consumers alike, the metric system is the “preferred system of weights and measures for United States trade and commerce,” or so it was ordained by Congress in Public Law 100-418. In fairness, because this provision was furtively buried in the two-inch-thick Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988, it is doubtful that any congressman knew he was voting for it. Less excusably, by signing Executive Order 12770 in 1991, President George H. W. Bush directed federal agencies to proceed on their meddlesome path of advancing “the national goal of establishing the metric system as the preferred system for the U.S. government.”

If It’s Better, the Free Market Will Buy It

In 1993 former Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island wrote a letter to President Clinton in which he pushed for further metrication by stating, “I am sure that you will agree that in order for this nation’s businesses to be truly competitive with the rest of the world, we must play by the same rules.” That comment is relevant to Olympic competition, but in the economic sphere it gives the three false impressions that measurement is a rule that requires conformity, that such conformity has advantages regardless of which rules are selected, and that the advantages of such conformity must be facilitated, if not mandated, by government because they will inadequately be sought out by market participants.

The rules that optimize trade and competitiveness are those that validate property rights and private contracts, while deterring infringements and fraud. Pell’s deception was in representing a measurement system as a principle of free markets, rather than as it truly is: a tool and means of communication. As such, options are desirable because measurement functions best when properly suited to its task.

If markets were like sports, with businesses as teams, competitiveness among nations, as among separate leagues, would require uniformity of rules, which might include measurement standards. Although sports and commerce have some similarities (for example, competition among and cooperation within teams/firms, and success rewarded with points/profits), markets do not specify procedures, limits, and goals. The free market is an open-ended discovery process wherein the freedom, of all consumers and producers, to choose a measurement tool, among many other options, is a vital means of seeking out efficiency, convenience, pleasure, and safety.

Any American business interest could and would label, package, and produce in metric voluntarily and on its own if doing so were profitable as measured by the customary units of dollars. “The competitiveness question is a non-issue. U.S. manufacturers, large and small, make their products in whatever units are required—as did Japanese makers in the fifties (and still),” says Patrick P. McCurdy, a consultant for the American Chemical Society and editor of several trade journals. (See his “I’m Just Mild About Metric,” Today’s Chemist at Work, June 1994.)

Naturally, compliance with industrial standards is often essential for a company’s survival. Rival firms have even freely created format and operating standards when they find it mutually advantageous to do so. With no government prodding, Apple and IBM agreed to collaborate for just this reason in the mid-1990s, but the practice has a long history.

In the mid-nineteenth century, railroads sprang up to serve regional freight and passenger needs. Because these ventures were mechanically as well as commercially autonomous, the gauge (width between rails) had not been standardized. A problem arose when enterprises prepared to cooperate, but their tracks didn’t match up. Due to the increasing pressures of the free market, these separate lines simply adjusted their gauges—sometimes in one weekend—to the prevailing customary standard of 4 feet 8.5 inches.

American railroads even converged in creating a measurement system to synchronize schedules. Before the nation was connected by instantaneous communication and one-week coast-to-coast rail travel, “local time” meant that each town set its clocks to high noon. This made the charting of timetables a daunting task. So in 1878 railroad executives simplified roughly 100 different time zones into today’s Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific times.

Don’t Give An Inch!

Harassed by means dismayingly reminiscent of those presently persecuting Mr. Thoburn, the post-revolutionary French citizen yielded to the meter, gram, liter, and centigrade thermometer, but the complete metric utopia, originally envisioned with a ten-hour clock, ten-day week, and 400-degree circle, was never consummated. Thanks to informed opposition and our healthy, intuitive resistance, Americans have never given an inch . . . thus far. But at the Metric Program Office (annual budget, $500,000 to $600,000 per year), our tax dollars continue to employ professional meddlers who view our freedom as a nuisance and take advantage of our trusting assumption that if something ain’t broke, nobody’s trying to fix it.

Fortunately, there are many easy ways for anybody to stand up for the foot. The vast majority of weighing and measuring is an integral part of our daily routines, our language, and our culture. Substantial power is in our hands. Personally, I use customary measure wherever optional and tell others about the precision, practicality, and poetry of our traditional measurement system. In a letter to the New York Times, I thanked an author for writing “one-fifth of an inch” when other reports on the same surgical procedure wrote “five millimeters.” Any American publisher or broadcaster can independently favor customary measure as an editorial policy and convert metric into our language if necessary.

Like other conflicts of common sense versus simplistic dogma, the metric problem was contrived by government. But unlike a typical program, compulsory metrication doesn’t derive strong support from a particular region, industry, race, age, income group, and so on. Just the opposite: The fact that so many people have so much to lose from disruptions to their customary system of measure presents a rare and tremendous opportunity for everybody.

Republican legislators can reassert their conservative and patriotic values, while Democrats will win appreciation from their trade-union base. Applause would even come from libertarians, because they trust the individual, and Greens, because they mistrust international corporations. With overwhelming support, the 107th Congress and President George W. Bush can readily free us all from the metric menace by rescinding his father’s Executive Order 12770, by repealing Public Law 100-418, and by canceling the Metric Program Office (of the National Institute of Standards and Technology).

Today’s metric proponents aren’t mounting a frontal assault like the one in the late 1970s, much less confiscating the scales of your neighborhood grocer. Having learned from past failures, they’ve implemented a stealthy strategy of pushing through small changes to nudge out nonmetric options. The New York State Highway Department, encouraged by federal initiatives, switched to metric in the 1990s with hopes of being a leader in a national trend. U.S. metrication is one of those issues that can slide from seeming too trivial to bother with today into being too large to reverse tomorrow. So remember, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Even as our federal government exhorts, “The uncertainty is not whether to move to the metric system, it is how and when to make the move” (U.S. Metric Programs Board Pamphlet), we can take heart in the words of ACWM metrologist Bob Falk: “Our system of measurement is not a haphazard collection of archaic units or the product of committees of sheltered academics with no practical experience in the real world. It’s the result of more than seven thousand years of research and development by billions of people whose lives and livelihoods depended on useful, reliable measurement.”

And that is why, so long as Americans defend their freedom, the measurement issue will never be decided in a government office. It will be settled at the Home Depot checkout counter, in grocery stores and kitchens, on the desks of editors and draftsmen, on shop floors, highways, and the moon, where thanks to missions achieved entirely with our out-dated pounds, gallons, and miles, America once again stood alone.

* Americans for Customary Weight and Measure, P.O. Box 5280, Wiscasset, Maine 04578.