Money in Meters

September 01, 1991

The world market is growing at a much faster rate than the American domestic market, but the United States continues to handicap itself by measuring the world in yards rather than meters. Unless American businesses produce more exports using the accepted international metric standard, the U.S. could dull its competitive edge.

The U.S. stands as one of only three countries (Myanmar and Liberia are the others) resisting the switch. Had American businesses adhered closely to international trade standards, they could have increased export revenue last year by $40 billion. Next year the heat is really on the U.S. to conform: a staunchly metric European Community could make American non-metric exports less acceptable in European markets.

Out of necessity, many American multinational corporations manufacture a good portion of their products using metric measurement. Domestic industries, such as the food and paper industries, have focused on fending off foreign competition and the recession and have failed to realize that deeper U.S. penetration of overseas markets through use of the metric system could pump new profits into their bottom line.

In July, President Bush issued an executive order buttressing the 1988 Omnibus Trade Act, which requires federal agencies to use the metric system in their procurements by the end of 1992. But crafty bureaucrats have delayed the conversion since 1988, making it unlikely that many agencies will be able to switch to metric measurement by the deadline. Still, the trade act's strategy is a good one. Converting the federal government's huge procurement system to metric measures could force domestic industries to make the switch.

The chief barrier to U.S. metrification is American stubbornness. The cost of conversion would be more than offset through increased exports. As long as we resist the change-over, America's trade imbalance will be affected. Americans have to start realizing that their domestic economy is part of a larger world market, a market that thinks exclusively in meters, never in inches or yards.

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