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Story highlights

Lincoln Chafee called for U.S. to switch to metric system

John B. Marciano: Spread of metric system is a triumph of international capitalism

Editor’s Note: John Bemelmans Marciano is the author of ’Whatever happened to the metric system?’. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN) —  

There is much to be admired about presidential candidate Lincoln Chafee’s willingness to take unconventional political stands. But as he announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination on Thursday there was one proposal I wish he hadn’t suggested: that America should switch to the metric system.

The idea that we should change our daily system of weights and measures is certainly bold. However, Chafee’s putting it forth as a kind of apology to the world for the last dozen years of U.S. international behavior – rather than on the basis of how much it would cost the American people and what benefits it would bring them – is staggeringly wrong-headed.

Don’t get me wrong – the metric system is one of the greatest tools ever invented. It is already the first language of measurement in science classes around the country. The first time I ever heard my kindergarten daughter use a measure, it was for something that she said stood “about four meters off the ground”. (She also likes soccer.)

The metric system is as preeminent in American industry as it is in schools. Manufacturers in this country made a massive push toward the metric system in the early 1970s, which became part of a drive to take the nation metric as a whole. Then-President Gerald Ford signed the Metric Conversion Act in 1975. The main resistance – aside from everyday citizens – came from the unions, who feared that a switch to an international system of measurement would make it easier for big corporations to ship jobs offshore. (They were right.)

The spread of the metric system is a triumph not of science but international capitalism. Nowhere was it adopted out of idealism and pure reason. If it had been, the 10-hour clock – another component of the original metric system – would’ve been adopted too.

With U.S. competitiveness not at stake, what reason is there for America to switch? In an age when we can say “three feet to meters” and our smartphone immediately tells us .9144m, it can’t be about making conversion easy.

Why America is so anti-metric

The only reason for us to switch is exactly the one Chafee brings up – that it would be “good for our international reputation.” Yet beyond this being of questionable logic – would it really net enough good PR to justify the billions in dollars it would cost us to convert? – there is the underlying notion that it is bad for us to be out step with the rest of the world.

Isn’t the world already becoming the same enough? The typical progressive response would be yes, it is, and we need to save and savor our differences. This makes the disregard that many otherwise progressive folks have toward our customary measures so puzzling. If one regrets languages and dialects dying out by the hundreds, why would that person then want to put to rest our own language of measurement? If he or she fears that a piece of world heritage might be destroyed at Palmyra by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, why would they be so quick to condemn to the dustbin a piece of world heritage safeguarded by our own culture? And world heritage it certainly is: our customary measures encompass ways of measurement that date to pre-history and were in continuous use in every culture, everywhere prior to the metric system’s global dominance.

A move to the meter is not a vote for open-mindedness. That has been clear to me every time I have been scolded by a European or South American on the stupidity of a system that divides by twelfths and sixteenths rather than tenths.

I readily admit that the decimal math of the metric system is easier, but not that it is in all ways better. The fact is that decimals are lousy at real-life division. Try cutting an orange or a pizza into five or ten slices. Two of the most basic fractions are the third and the quarter. A third and quarter of a foot are four and three inches; the same for a meter are 25cm and .33333-on-to-infinity cm.

In a time when our world is becoming ever-more abstract and artificial, it is ever-more important that we keep a grip on what is essential and real.

Think of trying to remember different units another way. Learning other languages isn’t only a benefit in the international workplace, it makes you realize that there is more than one way to approach everything in this world. The same goes for learning two systems of measurement. It allows us to recognize that distance, weight, and volume can be measured and conceived of in more than one way. Those who have grown up with only the metric system find this an alien and unpleasant concept. But don’t blame them – they’ve only ever had to learn one system. In the 21st century, Americans have to learn two. That’s an advantage that Lincoln Chafee should embrace.

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