Outlines of Pacific trade deal announced

On 12 November, Voice of America reported as follows:

“President Barack Obama has announced that the United States and eight other Pacific nations have reached the broad outlines of an agreement to create a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to liberalize trade.

Negotiations aimed at finalizing the new trade group, composed of nations already members of the larger 21 member Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) group, have been going on for months.

Though the fine details and difficulty of the talks prevented any final agreement being announced in Honolulu, the conclusion of a framework for TPP was expected.

Mr. Obama said the accord, with a group of nations already doing some $200 billion in trade with the United States each year, will have benefits for all concerned. “The TPP will boost our economies, lowering barriers to trade and investment, increasing exports and creating more jobs for our people, which is my number one priority,” he said.

Aside from the United States, other nations in TPP include Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Vietnam, Chile and Peru.  Japan was expected to announce it would join.

The president said TPP nations have directed teams to complete work on “plenty of details” remaining so the agreement can be finalized within the coming year, and he voiced optimism this can be achieved.

Mr. Obama noted that APEC itself had years ago established a goal of establishing a Pacific-wide free trade area.  TPP he said now has the potential to be a model, and addresses issues such as market regulation, workers rights, and the environment.”

A significant omission from this list is the issue of units of measurement. Perhaps this is surprising, since differing measures can be a significant barrier to trade and to the free movement of goods. But perhaps not, as eight of the nine TPP nations are metric, but the dominant member is not.

We in Britain were once believers in the importance of a single system of measures. The Barons were persuaded to include it in the list of demands placed before King John in 1215, and of course the Imperial system of measures, defined in 1824, was essential to the growth of trade within the British Empire during the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century.

It will be interesting to see how the TPP nations tackle this issue. Was this one of the ‘fine details’ that prevented agreement being announced at Honolulu? Will there be an informal ‘inner TPP’ comprising the metric eight? Will the US realise that changes are needed to measurement systems at home in order to achieve success abroad? In 1965, it was campaigning by the UK Federation of British Industries (now the CBI) that prompted the government to announce its support for the move to metric in manufacturing, and this then led to the UK metric changeover. Will this precedent be followed in the US?

And why are we discussing this on Metric Views? Partly because the slow pace of the metric changeover in the US has provided encouragement to those in Britain who would like to retain some imperial measures. Accordingly, we observe with keen interest any developments across the pond that may contribute, even in a small way, to the demise of US customary measures. Could this be one?

19 thoughts on “Outlines of Pacific trade deal announced”

  1. Could this be the one? Well, we can hope, but I don’t think so. These trade agreements focus on tariffs and other barriers. The US will undoubtedly take the position it is “metric enough” and those who wish to sell in the US seem willing to meet US labeling laws.

    The Metric Act of 1866 allows those who export (indeed, those with any reason to prefer metric) to be as metric as they wish. Industries that export are pretty metric. Even farmers and grain traders understand metric well enough to export and “industry associations” in this sector use metric when discussing exports or the total market, but bushels for internal market. Example: http://www.grains.org/corn
    At the same time, I am sure 50+% of Americans, if tested, would demonstrate abysmal ignorance of the metric system.

    The EU has backed off on metric-only. Japan has pressured us for years (but softly) to allow product only labeled in metric. Korea apparently requires metric only on imports but is happy to comply with FPLA on exports to the US. The “permissive metric only” amendment to FPLA has never even been taken to Congress due to FMI opposition. It has essentially been in stasis since 2002, when first discussed. NIST keeps hoping to find “magic words” to overcome FMI opposition, but the basics haven’t changed.

    Foreign pressure might nudge us to start the change, but pressure has existed for years and had no effect to date.

    These are some of the things that are major obstacles and need to change:

    1) In 1988, Congress said metric was preferred, but also said it must be voluntary. Our experience and the UK’s shows that if it is voluntary, it never happens. A time-bounded, well thought out plan is required.

    2) Inconsistency in law. Wine and spirits is sold in metric units, beer in Customary. Standard packages must be dual, but random weight pachages must be Customary. Any law requiring Customary and not allowing metric in place of Customary must be amended or overturned. The “non-preferred” system must NEVER be allowed precedence.

    3) Lack of enforcement of EO 12770 (requires Federal agencies to be metric to the extent practical). The “practical” is a giant loophole which many agencies (NASA is a prime example) use to avoid metric and Congress has reined in Federal agencies (FHWA) that actually attempt to follow EO 12770 (completely undermining Congress’s declaration that metric is preferred, and saying the real position is that industry opposition stops metric in its tracks).

    4) Poor teaching. Students are not really taught to use metric in school, they are taught to convert between metric and Customary and answer stupid questions like how many nanometers in a kilometer (10^12, but who in the real world ever encounters this). These certainly bias another generation of Americans against metric instead of showing the superiority of using metric on a daily basis.

    5) Media opposition. The AP Stylebook frowns on metric and generally encourages conversion to Customary, even when such conversion is “stupid.” If they do retain the metric, it is often misused (example: kph). AP needs to correct their errors and at least retain metric when it is the “original units” of the sources of their story.

    USMA spends a lot of time trying to “peck to death” the issues in #2-5, but it really has to begin with Congress, a plan, and a commitment, all of which are sorely lacking. Without the plan, it remains scattered pockets of voluntary conversion (and those volunteers are occasionally forced to use Customary, making a mockery of Congress’ “voluntary” declaration).


  2. Within the US, there is absolutely no interest in making the switch. I have just been invited to update some construction-based software I produced some years ago for a large US trade association in Chicago. As one of the updates, I suggested producing a metric version, which would have been easy for me to do, as I produced an equivalent UK metric edition at the same time as the original US version.

    I was politely informed that there is absolutely no demand at all now for metric measurements in the US – there perhaps was 10 or 15 years ago, when metric procurement seemed like it was going to take off. But today that, I am told, is all but dead, and the private sector (at least in the construction industry) has no interest whatsoever in converting to SI.

    The interesting thing is, is that after having not worked in imperial units for some years now, I am finding it takes about 50% longer (or more) to do the calculations in imperial units compared to working in metric units. And I was brought up on (and worked for many years in) these imperial units, so it’s not like I am working in something that I have no familiarity with.

    One thing that I did notice was that prices in the US for nearly all construction related activities have sky-rocketed over the last ten years, compared with UK (and even compared with Canadian) prices. I wonder how much of that is due to the lost time in working with such a cumbersome and illogical set of measurement units?

    If America wants to make this TPP work for them, they are going to have to get more competitive – and that means not wasting all that (hidden) time in working in obsolete measurement units. Else the agreement will not benefit the US at all.


  3. John Steele says: ‘Our experience and the UK’s shows that if it is voluntary, it never happens.’

    John, I don’t know whether you are implying that the UK and the US are at the same level of progress with their metrication. But it is simply not the case if you are!

    The UK educates in metric, its businesses are, by and large metric. Industry, armed forces, retail – all metric. Health Service, construction, and so on – metric. The majority of the population understands metric.

    Yes, we have a vocal minority that would rather we go back over. Yes, we have a media that is obsessed with associating metric with EU and/or the French – two connections guaranteed to get the backs of the British up! We also suffer from over exposure to the US – the ‘special relationship’ means that a lot of Brits are more likely to associate themselves with the US than Europe. We import a lot of TV and literature that we don’t have to dub/translate which refer to USC measures. This is a major issue, especially with CSI programmes referring to to these in a scientific environment. I wonder if Australia/Canada and New Zealand have similar problems?

    We had a thread on here a while back that referred to the ‘snowball on the hill’ analogy. We came to the conclusion that in the UK, the snowball had been rolled up the hill, and was rolling down the other side, but had got stuck about 85% of the way there. The US, I think is still on that steep slope up the hill!


  4. @michduncg

    I am not implying the US and UK are at equal levels of metrication. You are further along. I am implying a similar lack of will to finish the task. Canada also has a problem finishing the task; they see a lot of USC on packaged goods, but they also sell a lot of random weight meat and produce in pounds and inspectors do nothing.

    I have never travelled to Australia or New Zealand, but I think they are so metric that they ignore the USC in entertainment. Certainly their road signs and beer are metric. I am unaware of any resistance to metric there; I think the public has simply come to believe metric is better.

    As to lack of will, what else can you say about the UK. Imperial is mandated by law for certain things (most road signs, draft beer, and milk in returnable bottles) and the metric system is actually illegal marking for these purposes. That is a lack of will to metricate fully. We have a conceptually similar lack of commitment and are further behind; the exact details are different (draft beer could be metric but bottled beer mustn’t be, random weight packages must be sold in pounds, and the Feds want metric road signs but the States won’t agree, the reverse of the UK and local councils)

    I am sure we are a terrible influence on Canada given proximity. Given more successful metrication in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, I’m not sure we hold much of the blame for the UK’s problems in metrication. Some, I’m sure, but you have a lot of internal resistance and your government lacks will to finish the task. I think anti-EU feelings may be a bigger factor, and the UK public is quick to blame metrication on the EU instead of the entire rest of world


  5. Hi to all,
    In the U.S., as my spouse points out, we have a tension between state’s rights and the Federal government. We, unlike the UK, are a big country with 50 mini governments. They don’t agree with one another, let alone with the Federal government, very often. Only a ground swell of support for SI units could make metrication happen in the U.S.


  6. An interesting exchange above in the last two comments.

    I wish I could share in Michduncg’s optimism about how far the UK has come in metication but to me it seems we still have a mountain to climb at least in terms of public atttitude.

    The essential problem is quite simple really. People in the UK have become so used to mixed units of measurement they don’t see the absurdity of it all.

    Children are taught in school to regard the metric system as the primary one for academic purposes but are also taught conversions and led to believe, in effect, that imperial will not go away and must therefore accomodate it. No attempt is made to explain the advantages and encourage the use of metric generally. The result is that succeeding generations are not much better off than those schooled in imperial and are just as likely to perpetuate the measurement muddle.

    The present attitude of the decision makers, who almost universally regard the subject as politically uncomfortable, is such that Britain will never move forward without a consensus that imperial has to be deliberately phased out and won’t happen by itself.


  7. @philh

    Your last three paragraphs serve as an excellent summary of the US as well, just change UK to US and Imperial to Customary. For the public, your remark, “The essential problem is quite simple really. People in the UK have become so used to mixed units of measurement they don’t see the absurdity of it all” says it all.

    Here, even the Federal government specifies emissions in grams per mile and sees nothing odd in describing the Federal drive cycles for measuring emissions and fuel economy to metric auto manufacturers in US Customary. They won’t force anyone to use metric, but if you do use metric, they occasionally force you to use USC.

    Our status quos are different, but we are BOTH stuck at the status quo.


  8. @Ed The Yank,
    As another American, let me disagree. The Constitution gives to Congress the power to fix the system of weights and measures. If Congress “manned up” and used the power, the States would basically have to comply. Similarly, control on interstate commerce is at the Federal level.

    Unfortunately, Congress is the opposite of progress, and the likelihood of Congress “manning up” and doing this fits in the set {snowball, hell}. Congress has instead chosen to pass various laws saying metrication must be voluntary and explicitly undermining the authority of Federal agencies to insist on metric in Federal building and highway construction. You can debate the verb, but Congress has allowed/encouraged/caused the mess in the US (well, I meant on metric, but it applies to several other messes too, but that’s for a more political forum).


  9. Hi all,
    Thank you John for your reply. As i see some of the problem, voluntary is a big gap that some industry and trade associations encourage Congress to keep in place. This causes confusion on the consumer level that most people cannot see the benefits of SI in daily life and do not demand products sold in clear SI units.


  10. Many years ago, the US officially declared that the metric system is the preferred measurement system for US trade and commerce. If the US means it, the US would accept the metric system as the standard for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and agree that it should be the common measurement system for all TPP trade.

    The metric system is already the world standard for measurement and the only measurement system accept in all countries. The UK and US must accept that they must fall into line with the rest of the world and not the other way around. Trying to impose the use of US Customary Units on all TPP countries when the US is the only member that uses it, which is vastly inferior to metric, helps nobody. It just spreads the measurement muddle to other countries with all the problems of running a dual measurement system.


  11. As both a Canadian and a Brit (and have lived for roughly equal time in both countries) I can say that the US is a huge brake on Canada in completing metrication. My son works as a metric-educated professional engineer in the automotive industry (all metric), was educated only in the metric system at both school and university (in the late 1970s and into the 1980s when Canada was still gung ho in completing metric conversion) – yet as his work takes him to the US, he is forced to sometimes use USC for certain bits of his work, even working for companies like Toyota and Honda, let alone GM or Ford.

    The argument tends to run that for Canadians to be able to do business with the US (each is the other’s largest trading partner), Canada must have to be able to trade in USC (even though the FTA states metric as being preferred) – as my son says, Americans refuse to do business any other way. Add in the all-pervading influence of the US media (who got a ban on non-metric printed matter being sold in Canada overturned, rather than print Canadian editions of magazines, etc), and it’s no wonder Canadians find it hard to complete the conversion process. They simply don’t have the confidence in refuting the US influence.

    As regards the UK, I agree that the problem lies much more at the political level. I disagree with those who say the the general population is not metric-friendly – it is much more sympathetic to completing the conversion than our politicians realise. Just the other day, in completing this assignment I am doing for my client in Chicago, my programmer came across a formula in my Excel-based database that involved a division by 27. “Why 27?” he asked. “That’s a really odd number.” When I explained where it came from, he was actually annoyed at having to deal with imperial measurements.

    As regards Australia, it’s very metric. When I was last there a few years ago, I took a trip on a glass-bottomed boat at the Great Barrier Reef. One of the other passengers, with a North American accent, surmised to the guide that the water must be only about 2o feet deep. “Only do metres, mate,” was the dismissive reply. “It’s about 8 metres deep here. Does that answer your question?”

    If only Canada and the UK could get to that level of self-confidence in dismissing imperial/USC measurements…..


  12. I saw this article today:

    EU-US free trade talks might be a better way to encourage the US to more fully adopt SI. The EU has already urged the US to alter the FPLA to permissive-metric-only, allowing net contents to be labelled solely in SI units, rather than the current requirement of dual labelled. The EU needs to be more adamant that the present requirement is a non-tariff trade barrier, and that it is one of the elements that MUST be addressed in any talks of closer cooperation.


  13. A snippet from today’s news:

    “China overtakes US in global trade

    China has surpassed the US as the world’s biggest trading nation, Bloomberg reports, pulling together some intriguing trade stats from both countries.

    US imports and exports of goods last year totalled $3.82 trillion, the US commerce department said last week. While China’s customs administration reported last month that the country’s trade in goods in 2012 amounted to $3.87 trillion. Bloomberg reports.”


  14. I deal with the Bonaparte Metric system daily. It’s has proven dailly to be woefully inaccurate as opposed to the Imperial system. More people have been killed via miscalculations between the two systems than anyone will admit. Temperature being the worst offender.
    As an Engineer, I constantly catch mistakes in most forms of the Metric system. The Imperial system traces it’s roots to pre-biblical times and is still a far superior system for use in calculations and shipping of large objects. There is use for both systems is certain areas, but those are rather few.


  15. Converting between the two systems is only a problem if you use two systems. Countries which are genuinely metric have no problem with it at all.

    Also referring to it as Bonaparte Metric is a complete misnomer, as he banned the metric system and introduced measures usual (although they were declared fractions of metric amounts). In reality, the system has been International since 1875, administered by the BIPM, which is composed of signatories to the Treaty of the Meter, including the US and UK. I would also point out that it DEFINES the Imperial system and the US Customary system as we have both retired the primary standards of those systems and use declared fractions of metric standards. Since the meter defines the foot, the kilogram the pound, etc, it is nonsense to claim they are inaccurate. Idiots may make math mistakes, but the SI is the very definition of the Imperial system. You can only make a mistake by using a conversion other than the official one. Ask yourself, does that make the system wrong or the individual wrong?

    Please think about precision, and above all, please don’t consider YOUR foot as a primary physical standard for THE foot.


  16. Michael Tiedel says:2015-06-25 at 05:31
    “I deal with the Bonaparte Metric system daily. It’s has proven dailly to be woefully inaccurate as opposed to the Imperial system. More people have been killed via miscalculations between the two systems than anyone will admit. Temperature being the worst offender.”

    You make a very valid point, (almost) in “miscalculations between two systems”. Except it is not two systems is it?.
    There is metric, Imperial, USC and Troy (maybe more) in general use. USC used only in USA, Imperial used only in UK (sort of), Troy used to fleece those that do not know and metric used by the entire globe and all world trade.
    For temperature, degrees F used only in USA, it is as good as dead in UK now, degrees Celsius used by the rest of the world and Kelvin used by those of us that know. There is also the Rankine scale, maybe others.
    So, who do you expect to change to prevent conversions? If you are suggesting the USA should change to Imperial I think you may be on to a looser there. To suggest the entire globe and the international bodies regulating world trade change from metric to USC, or Imperial, not much chance of that either. Imperial and USC between them were used over much of the globe at one time, it fell into dis-use for a reason, mostly unfit for purpose.
    To say “Imperial system traces it’s roots to pre-biblical times and is still a far superior system for use in calculations and shipping of large objects”, is pure nonsense. True the standard container is still indicated in the left-overs of the Imperial system, but to suggest that the cubit is “superior” to the cubic metre is a bit far fetched.


  17. The first question to ask as from the comment the answer is not completely obvious, are the mistakes he is supposedly encountering based entirely on conversion errors? If so, they how can one blame one system over the other to be the fault, when eliminating one (imperial) would correct all of the errors.

    The so-called imperial system didn’t exist until 1824 and even its predecessors although in existence varied considerably from ancient times to hardly comprise an accurate system. Something an engineer should know.

    I for one would like to hear from people working in a totally immersed metric environment as to whether a plethora of mistakes exist or is it just in those countries or businesses that have allowed themselves to be stuck in a quagmire of confusion by using both?

    Another interesting side effect of using USC as the US is the only country that still does machining in inches is that using inches actually creates a huge number of mistakes. Most inch users are trained since childhood to work in fractional inches of which all common rulers and tapes exist only in fractions. No one outside a machine shop would encounter or know how to work in decimal inches.

    Machinists are almost immersed in decimal inches from the beginning but never really get an intuition of them because they are only immersed for a part of the day. The rest of their lives revert back to fractional inches. Inch using Engineers struggle with designs that try to stick to decimal equivalents of fractional inches and drawings will often show all of the digits or more than needed of the fraction divided out. Often a two or three digit representation produces errors when the rounding off can cause numbers in a string not to add up properly. For example, 1/16 inch is 0.062. Rounding to 0.06 on a drawing and having a string of points, say 20 can cause the points to be off from what is desired. 0.0625 x 20 = 1.25 and 0.06 x 20 = 1.20. Trying to make these little frustrating nuances work smoothly is time consuming and error prone. Not to mention that every machinist working in decimal inches feels naked without a decimal to fractional conversion chart nearby to be able to relate any decimal encountered into fractions.

    Working in millimetres is completely different. Both the home and work life is decimal. There is no disconnect, no problem with numbers adding up properly. The tapes and rulers used at home are also used int he shop. For finer precision the micrometer is used that shows finer divisions that a common ruler or tape but not something completely different that it causes confusion.

    Maybe the mistakes he is encountering is in trying to fit metric build machines into containers designed in feet. If that be the case with the majority of the world being metric, it might be time to create a metric based shipping system. Whatever it costs to changeover will be a lot less than what it costs to constantly fix errors.


  18. @Daniel:

    You make some very points regarding accuracy, especially regarding machining precision components. My son, an engineer in Canada, is manager of the machining section of a large company making components and even whole sub-assemblies for the automotive industry. As such all their machinery is metric-calibrated (most comes from Germany or Japan). His company became a tier 3 supplier on the Boeing 787, which, as everyone knows, was designed using antiquated measuring units (USC or Imperial).

    He had a very hard time in getting sufficient accuracy in machining such things as lines of rivet holes in a component that was to be attached to another component made by another company. One or two holes were fine – any inaccuracies were within tolerances. The problems arose when there were 20 or 30 holes, with the inaccuracies steadily accumulating, until the last hole in the line was quite visibly misaligned. He overcame this eventually by making every third or fourth hole the next size increment lower, thus compensating for the accumulating inaccuracy. But it cost him (and his company) a huge amount of time and wasted effort, and was little more than a stop-gap solution to a problem that, in today’s metric world, should not even exist.


  19. @John Frewen-Lord

    Speaking of Boeing, you may recall that when Boeing designed its “Dreamliner” some years ago it was fraught with problems. One thing they did that they had never done before was to outsource a lot of the work. Most going to metric countries. The result was huge costly delays and cost overruns. I’m sure the reason for this was the huge difficulty in making inch-based designs come out right.

    I suspect that Boeing itself has the same problem internally and thus their machining costs are much higher than they would normally be. They thought they could bring the costs down by going to other countries, but didn’t realise and most likely still don’t that using inches is the root of their problem. I have yet to hear these types of problems occurring with Airbus, Embraer, or the Canadian companies that make the regional jets.

    I would be curious to know if the Boeing job was done in inches or converted to metric in order to work on the German and Japanese machines. These machines are designed to be used in millimetres and even if they are capable of being switched for inch use, they internally switch inch values back to millimetres for processing. Sometimes it is the back-and-forth conversions that generate the round-off errors. It would be best to stick to metric mode and do the conversions manually outside the machine so there is greater user control. This maybe what your son did to make it work. The machine would never think to do what your son did.


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