Broken Windows and the Metric System

The US is the only major economy in the world that doesn’t use the metric system. Even the English are no longer using so-called English measurements.

In the metric system there is only one unit for each type of thing – weight, distance or volume. The modifiers for larger and smaller quantities are the familiar prefixes for powers of 10. Kilo means one thousand, milli means one thousandth, mega is millions and micro is one millionth.

The unit for distance is the meter. A centimeter is 1/100 meter and a millimeter 1/1,000 of a meter, while kilometers are 1,000 meters. The unit for weights is the gram. Larger weights are in kilograms 1,000 grams, and tiny things are measured in thousandths or even millionths of grams, milligrams and micrograms. The unit for volumes is the liter, and smaller volumes are measured in milliliters.

It doesn’t really matter how big grams or ounces, meters or yards, liters or cups are, as we all use gadgets to measure these things. Digital kitchen scales measure grams just as well as ounces. A bathroom scale can measure kilograms, and a measuring cup can be graduated in milliliters. Everyone else in the world uses meter tape measures.

So how much time are Americans wasting dealing with all the fractions? Suppose you want to cut a board in half and it measures 2 feet 5 7/32 in. You don’t eyeball that, you use a tape measure. Can you figure that out in your head? Or on a calculator changing back and forth between fractions and decimal? The metric tape measure says 74.2 cm. Half of that is 37.1 cm. Much quicker and simpler.

Or maybe you have a recipe with 1 3/4 cups of sugar and 2 1/3 cups of flour. Aside from the fact that volumes can have different weights depending on how tightly or loosely you pack things like flour or brown sugar, how can you simply divide such a recipe? Professional cooks already use weights instead of volumes for greater consistency. And recipes using metric numbers like 400 grams of flour, or 300 grams of sugar are trivial to double or divide.

We’re already in somewhat of a transition mode, and have been for decades. We just haven’t yet made the commitment to leave this inefficient past behind. Most food items are now marked with both units. Water and soft drinks have been primarily in half liter and 2 liter bottles for quite a while and alcohol has been sold by the 750 mL for even longer. Milk and orange juice are stubbornly holding on on to their quarts and gallons.

Could we create many new jobs and boost the economy if we just forced the conversion? Think of all the thousands of new road signs with speed limits marked in kilometers per hour instead of miles per hour that would need to be made and installed. Food labels would get redesigned to make the metric value more prominent and the old in parentheses, the opposite of what we do now.

Kids in school would learn the simple metric system and that we used to use another strange system with foolish rhymes “a pint is a pound the world around”, and a dozen special names for the 3 common quantities. Old systems of measurement that belong in the history books with cubits and furlongs.

Wait, slow down! Isn’t all that just a example of the Broken Window Fallacy? The idea in economics that breaking windows seems to create jobs, but really only moves wealth away from window owners to window fixers? Why should we burden ourselves with this huge cost? This really misses the biggest impact.

The STEM disciplines – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math are widely held to be the path to the future of better jobs and a more modern vibrant economy. Science, engineering and technology all use the metric system. Concepts in chemistry like Avogadro’s number and standard volumes of gases require grams and liters to understand. The SI unit system used in physics is all metric.

Why are America’s school children consistently doing poorer in these subjects than the rest of the world? Could it be that they first have to waste time learning an ancient system with a dozen special quantities? 12 inches to a foot, 3 feet to a yard, and 1760 yards or 5280 feet to a mile. This becomes their baseline, the system they go back to mentally.

Imagine the advantage of students in every other country, where metric is the first system they learn. They never have to waste class room time or mental energy memorizing that there are 16 ounces to a pound. Or that there is a completely different kind of ounce for volume, with 8 of those to a cup, and two cups to a pint, two pints to a quart, and 4 quarts to a gallon. All this makes about as much sense as shillings, tuppence and ha’pennies, or trying to balance your checkbook with Roman numerals.

We should make the commitment to join the modern world.

This entry was posted in tech and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.