Metrics: Mismeasuring Consumer Demand

By Chapman, Michael | Consumers' Research Magazine, February 1994 | Go to article overview

Metrics: Mismeasuring Consumer Demand


Chapman, Michael, Consumers' Research Magazine


Is the Department of Justice,. the top governmental agency responsible for law enforcement. violating the law? Apparently, yes. The law in question concerns the use of the metric system of weight and measure as enacted by the Metric Conversion Act of'1975 and amended in the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988. This amendment on metric usage (Public Law 100-418, Section 5164) "declares that the policy of the nation is to designate the metric system as the preferred system of measurement for trade and commerce, and requires each federal agency to use metric units in all or as many of its procurements, grants, and other business-related transactions as is economically feasible by the end of fiscal year 1992." According to a report by the Congressional Research Service at the end of fiscal year 1992, the Justice Department "does not appear to be complying with the [metric usage] law."

The Justice Department is not alone.

The latest information available indicates that, no less than 22 of 37 federal agencies have either completely or partially failed to comply with the metric conversion law. These "outlaw" agencies include: Department of Education, Department of Transportation, Federal Trade Commission, U.S. Postal Service, General Services Administration, and the Government Printing Office. Despite these apparent violators of federal law, don't expect the U.S. government to indict itself. Attempts at metric conversion in the private sector never really got off the ground. It is still uncertain whether this attempt at conversion in the public sector will survive, let alone succeed.

Metric History Lesson

The attempt to replace the English (or customary) system of weight and measure, which is based on inch/pound/quart measurements, with the metric system, which is decimal-based and uses meters, grams, and liters for measurement, has a long history.

The metric system was horn during the French Revolution. In the United States, both Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams advocated, unsuccessfully, metric conversion. By an Act of Congress in 1866, metric usage was legalized in the United States on a voluntary basis. In 1875, along with 17 other nations, the United States signed the Treaty of the Meter. This agreement established the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in Sevres, France, to provide metric standards of measurement for worldwide use. These standards for length and mass were adopted in the United States in 1893. In 1960 the metric standards were revised. This modernized version of the metric system is known as Le Systeme International d'Unites (International System of Units) or SI. Metrics have been legal on a voluntary basis for more than 100 years; but except in those fields that are metric-dependent--science and trade--widespread metric conversion in the United States has not occurred.

To promote metric conversion in the United States, Congress passed the Metric Conversion Act of 1975. This Act called for a voluntary conversion by individual groups and industries. However, this attempt failed. Americans, by and large, rejected the system). "The switch to metric was perceived as hostile to consumers," said Government Executive in 1990. "The public objected loudly to road signs showing distances in kilometers, to temperatures in Celsius, and to gasoline sold in liters."

In assessing this unsuccessful attempt at metric conversion, G.T. Underwood, former director of the Office of Metric Programs at the Department of Commerce, says: "Arguments about lost export markets got mixed up with the need for metric road signs. The general public resented what seemed an unnecessary social nuisance. Most U.S. firms, seeking not to aggravate U.S. customers, didn't change their products, the ostriches prevailed, and the movement essentially stalled." On a related note, a General Accounting Office (GAO) report in 1978 found: the total cost of metric conversion was indeterminable but substantial, somewhere in the billions-of-dollars range; conversion would result in higher consumer prices and reduced U. …

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