Where Ignorance Is Bliss…for the Non-Ignorant

Oct. 23, 2018

Most Americans aren’t used to the metric system. And many American companies like it that way.

Written by Pan Demetrakakes

Maintaining measurements in inches instead of centimeters, ounces instead of grams, is what most manufacturers of consumer goods, durable goods, machinery—of anything, really—do to cater to American tastes. Except that in some cases, it’s not just catering to taste; it’s shaping the market.

Consider electric motors. Most of those made in Europe, or made elsewhere for the European market, conform to metric standards. These vary from American standards in some fundamental technical ways that need not concern us, but that are partly based on differences in the motor’s dimensions. Those dimensional differences, in turn, stem from differences between metric and English measurements. For instance, a shaft might be 7 inches above the footing in an American motor, but 18 centimeters—which comes out to 7.09 inches—in a European one.

If you stock replacement motors for your equipment, this is a matter of some concern, depending on where the equipment was made. It’s an even greater concern now that Trump’s trade wars threaten to make American-standard motors more expensive, in large part by wiping out the price advantage of making them in Asia. If you happen to be an American-based motor manufacturer, this makes you happy; if you’re one of their customers who need replacement motors for your American-made equipment, not so much.

On the other hand, some American manufacturers are happy to deal with the metric system when it suits their needs, despite American consumers’ ignorance of it—or because of it.

Case in point: sugar. When you look at a Nutrition Facts panel, sugar is always listed in grams, despite the fact that almost all American consumers think of it in teaspoons. How many shoppers would be put off if they found out that the yogurt or whatever they were thinking of buying had three and a half teaspoons of sugar per serving, instead of 15 grams?

A spoonful of sugar may make the medicine go down, but a handful of grams helps the sugar go down.

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