Why The US Should Not Switch to the Metric System

As an operations management guy, I’m almost always in favor of standardization.

A common case study to consider the costs and benefits of standardization is electrical outlets around the world. Today there are about 20 different outlet formats around the world. This means that when an electrical device manufacturer creates a product, they actually need to create 20 different versions to sell that product around the world. Needing to create so many versions costs manufacturers more than if they were able to create one version. In one way or another these additional costs are passed through to the consumer.

So the question becomes: would the world’s consumers be better off if every electrical outlet around the world were standardized? And it’s very easy to model that in the long run consumers (indeed society as a whole) would very easily recoup and see financial benefits if the world standardized.

But the electrical outlet case study begs the question for standardizing other things, like the use of a common measurement system. In the US we use the Imperial measurement system (feet, acres, ounces) while most of the rest of the world uses the Metric system (meters, square meters, grams). Because we know we’re different, every fourth grader learns both systems in math class. That means that ~6million students per year in the US spend significant class time learning two different systems which both do the same thing.

So if the US were to standardize by switching to the metric system, we would incur switching costs such as changing every speed limit and distance sign on every road. But we would reap benefits in the future as we could teach students more valuable lessons than redundant measurement systems and would be able to communicate more easily with the rest of the world. Like the electrical outlets, over the long term, the benefits massively outweigh the near term switching costs.

So why wouldn’t we make the switch!?

Just as the electrical outlet standardization case study begs the question for measurement system standardization, the measurement system standardization case study should beg the question for additional even larger standardizations.

Should we standardize the language that people speak around the world? Think of how much easier it would be to communicate and collaborate with the rest of the world!

While we’re at it, let’s standardize our beliefs and agree on a meaning of life!

Utopia is within reach, only a few standardizations away…

For Argument’s Sake

Maybe the rest of the world should switch to the Imperial system. Yes, the metric system is easy to learn mathematically, but the units are arbitrary! At least imperial units are based on tangible objects – even The Oatmeal agrees!

To be clear I am actually in favor of making the switch from imperial units to metric units in the US. Here is another good post about imperial vs metric system in the US.

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