Conversion to the Metric System: What Would It Cost?
A conversion to the Metric system in the United States has been debated for as long as our nation has existed. In 1790, Thomas Jefferson put forth a proposal for a decimal-based national measurement system that would bring uniformity in all currency, weights, and measures across the country. The proposal failed to gain traction in the eyes of the American people and the British Imperial system. In 1968, a study was approved by Congress which recommended a national conversion to metric units. Again the movement was stymied by lack of popular support. A Gallup poll in that year showed that 45 percent of Americans were opposed to the switch (Engber, 2016). The world’s countries all operate under the Metric system save for three: Burma, Liberia, and the United States. What accounts for this dramatic distinction where the United States refuses to let go of the Imperial system? A sprinkle of tradition, perhaps? Maybe Americans feel some national pride at having held on for so long to their system? It could be a remnant of the United States’ long-forgotten isolationist legacy. More likely it is all these and more that contribute to the survival of the Imperial system in the United States in the form of the United States Customary System. The economic cost of a full conversion to metric units is one factor that is particularly important in explaining the obstinacy of Americans in their measurements.
Before jumping to the costs of converting, let’s first consider the costs of not fully converting. One cost of continuing to use non-metric units is the loss in competitive edge in science and technology. The education system is perhaps the hardest hit in this regard. Both US Customary and Metric are taught, but students required to learn two measurement systems will more likely be confused and the additional time spent teaching both systems has its own implied cost of loss in productive power as students stay in school longer. They are disadvantaged against those students in other countries who only need to know one system. Phelps (1996) posits in his report on the benefits of metrication in the education system that a conversion to a single measurement system would save roughly 71 days in the classroom. Taking into account factors of training teachers, extra classroom time, and quality and efficiency advantage of either system (metric calculations can generally be completed 45% faster!), he estimates that a full conversion to either metric or customary would save $17,653 million and $986 million, respectively.
In his 1915 article, Dr. J. Collins writes on the cost of non-metrication on education and that “Germany and France are each two full years ahead of us in educational achievement… , Surely one of these years is fully accounted for by the inferiority of our American arithmetic and spelling.” American students are burdened by cumbersome Imperial units and thus left disadvantaged in the face of the simplified metric system. He asserts that, in education alone, a total annual loss of $315,000,000 existed. This sum was compiled from various factors, some being the cost of school taxes, loss in earning power of students driven out of school by the difficulty of Imperial units in mathematics, the extra time used by tradesmen using Imperial units in their calculations, and the loss in foreign trade as a result of goods not being in metric. These are only the largest components which contribute to the loss. Adjusting for inflation between that year of 1915 and now, the 2018 figures comes out to be approximately $7,832,000,000. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (2018), total 2014-15 public school expenditures totaled to $668 billion. Adjusted back to 1915 dollars, that is around a 270 percent increase to $29,000,000,000.
Outside of education, a prime example of the costliness of not fully converting lay in the failure of NASA’s $328 million Mars Climate Orbiter project when the probe came in too low upon re-entry and burned up in Earth’s atmosphere. Upon investigation, it was found that “the root cause for the loss of the MCO spacecraft was the failure to use metric units in the coding of a ground software file, ‘Small Forces,’ used in trajectory models” (NASA, 1999). Over the course of the probe’s nine-month journey, the failure to use metric units in its software led it to be around 170 kilometers lower than planned. That one mishap cost NASA $125 million (Guzman, 2015). The costs associated with a full conversion of NASA’s measurement systems alone would be $370 million. That number includes all measurement software and tools that would have to modified in the transition.
Don Hillger, president of the U.S. Metric Association, remarked that “there is a cost with going metric, like changing street signs, but those costs are in short term, the benefits last far longer." Many businesses have realized this. DuPont began using metric units for both domestic and export Neoprene synthetic rubber packages in 1968. Among other advantages, this conversion eliminated the cost of repacking from domestic to export and vice versa and is estimated to have saved the company around $20,000 annually (Torpey). Rutherford (1996) explained that gains from metric conversion are derived from two prime sources: increases in productivity and quality brought about by the use of a decimal-based measurement system and increased ability to compete in global markets. In measurement-based industries such as construction, it is estimated that the effect of metric conversion can amount to 1 percent of production costs. The combined total construction spending for all state highway departments is about $20 billion annually. The previously mentioned annual savings of 1 percent derived from productivity and quality increases would be $200 million. At this rate, the metric conversion costs (estimated to lay around $50 to $100 million for all state departments) could easily be paid back within three to six months with money that had just been saved. Not only does the metric conversion literally pay for itself in this case but it frees up a substantial amount of money that had previously been tied up in highway construction.
To aid businesses in global markets, Congress passed the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988 which, among other thing, designated the Metric System as the preferred system of weights and measures for United States trade and commerce. The legislation also stipulates that the federal government must assist any business voluntarily converting to metric units. Per the National Institute of Standards and Technology (1997), “The current effort toward national metrication is based on the conclusion that industrial and commercial productivity, mathematics and science education, and the competitiveness of American products and services in world markets, will be enhanced by completing the change to the metric system of units. Failure to complete the change will increasingly handicap the Nation’s industry and economy.” Britain, the very country from where our modern US Customary system owes its inspiration, decided to go metric for economic reasons in 1975. Not only did the change simplify matters in industry and international trade, but British industry reported improved export sales as a result of the increased competitiveness in world markets. An implicit benefit of metrication in British businesses is the opportunity to enact organizational overhauls that stimulated increased standardization and operational efficiency.
Collins, J. V., Dr. (1915, December). A Metrical Tragedy. Retrieved from https://nonpartisaneducation.org/Review/Resources/aMetricalTragedy.htm
Engber, D. (2016, June 14). Why hasn't the U.S. adopted the metric system? Retrieved from https://www.popsci.com/why-hasnt-us-adopted-metric-system
Guzman, Z. (2015, June 04). Why the US isn't on the metric system (yet). Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/2015/06/04/why-the-us-hasnt-fully-adopted-the-metric-system.html
NASA (1999, November 10). Mars Climate Orbiter Mishap Investigation Board Phase I Report [PDF file]. Retrieved from: https://llis.nasa.gov/llis_lib/pdf/1009464main1_0641-mr.pdf
NIST. (October 1997). The United States and the Metric System [PDF file]. Retrieved from: https://www.nist.gov/sites/default/files/documents/pml/wmd/metric/1136a.pdf
Phelps, R. P. (1996). Education System Benefits of U.S. Metric Conversion. Evaluation Review, 20(1), 84–118. https://doi.org/10.1177/0193841X9602000105
Rutherford, T. R. (1996). The Metric Payoff. Metric in Construction. Retrieved from http://www.us-metric.org/going-metric-pays-off/#rutherford
Torpey, E. P. (n.d.). Metrication of the Neoprene Package. Retrieved from http://www.us-metric.org/going-metric-pays-off/#chemicals
U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2018, April). Public School Expenditures. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cmb.asp