Clarifying the Goal: Submitting Rasch-based White Papers to NIST

NIST does not currently have any metrological standards (metrics to which all instruments measuring a particular construct are traceable) for anything measured with tests, surveys, rating scale assessments, or rankings–i.e., for anything of core interest in education, psychology, sociology, health status assessment, etc.

The ostensible reason for the lack of these standards is that no one has stepped up to demand them, to demonstrate their feasibility, or argue on behalf of their value. So anything of general interest as something for which we would want univerally uniform and available metrics could be proposed. As can be seen in the NIST call, you have to be able to argue for the viability of a fundamentally new innovation that would produce high returns on the investment in a system of networked, equated, or item banked instruments all measuring in a common metric.

Jack Stenner expressed the opinion some years ago that constructs already measured on mass scales using many different instruments that could conceivably be equated present the most persuasive cases for which strong metrological arguments could be made. I have wondered if that is necessarily true.

The idea is to establish a new division in NIST, managed jointly with the National Institutes of Health and of Education, that focuses on creating a new kind of metric system for informing human, social, and natural capital management, quality improvement, and research.

Because NIST has historically focused on metrological systems in the physical sciences, the immediate goal is only one of informing researchers at NIST as to the viability and potential value to be realized in analogous systems for the psychosocial sciences. No one understands the human, social, and economic value of measurement standards like NIST does.

Work that results in fundamental measures of psychosocial constructs should be proposed as areas deserving of NIST’s support. White Papers describing the “high risk-high reward” potential of Rasch applications might get them to start to consider the possibility of a whole new domain of metrics.

For more info, see http://www.nist.gov/tip/call_for_white_papers_sept09.pdf, and feel free to reference the arguments I made in the White Paper I submitted (www.livingcapitalmetrics.com/images/FisherNISTWhitePaper2.pdf), or in my recent paper in Measurement: Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2009, November). Invariance and traceability for measures of human, social, and natural capital: Theory and application. Measurement (Elsevier), 42(9), 1278-1287.

Creative Commons License
LivingCapitalMetrics Blog by William P. Fisher, Jr., Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at livingcapitalmetrics.wordpress.com.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://www.livingcapitalmetrics.com.

Advertisements

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

8 Responses to “Clarifying the Goal: Submitting Rasch-based White Papers to NIST”

  1. Matt Barney Says:

    I’m really skeptical about the government being the right venue for standards, and have a hard time imagining myself proposing anything, let alone a high-quality Rasch study or paper to anyone in Washington DC.

    I’d love to be wrong about that, though !

    • livingcapitalmetrics Says:

      Then you ought to be pretty happy with this reply, Matt!

      The costs of creating and maintaining measurement standards, scientific constants, and common product definitions are so high that no one individual, firm, or industry can afford to fund them alone. Society as a whole has to bear the burden of infrastructure costs that benefit everyone equally, or they are too expensive to develop (see references).

      The problem is that hardly anyone outside of metrological circles is even aware of how much we put into standards (8-20% of GNP, by different estimates, according to Latour, 1987, pp. 251-2 and people I spoke with at the IMEKO meeting in France last year), and are even less aware of how much we get out of them (ROIs of 40% to over 400%; see NIST 2003).

      The alternative to having society as a whole support metric standards is to let each firm or industry develop their own, as in fact has often happened, historically. It used to be, after all, that you had to buy an engine manufacturer’s tool set to repair their engines; so mechanics were stuck working on one brand of engines or would have to have different tool sets. Alder (2002) recounts other aspects of the story as it unfolded in the development of the metric system. Cochrane (1966) recounts how the hoses on fire trucks responding to a Baltimore fire in 1904 from neighboring cities wouldn’t fit the hydrants, turning a minor disaster into a catastrophe.

      If you really are skeptical about government as the right venue for standards, what exactly is your criticism of the performance of NIST, and the National Bureau of Standards before it, and what alternative do you have in mind that would better serve our needs? I see all of this in the context of what’s been called the “unending externalities debate” and as supporting my proposal that we deliberately use measuring instruments and standard metrics for human, social, and natural capital to link science and the economy, and so, to make markets, in the manner described by Miller and O’Leary (2007).

      This would effectively shift the role of government into the provision of public information infrastructure essential to market functioning, and out of the business of taxing and spending to provide socialized services. It seems to me that this might turn out to be a pretty popular idea. What do you think?

      Alder, K. (2002). The measure of all things: The seven-year odyssey and hidden error that transformed the world. New York: The Free Press.

      Ashworth, W. J. (2004, 19 November). Metrology and the state: Science, revenue, and commerce. Science, 306(5700), 1314-7.

      Barber, J. M. (1987). Economic rationale for government funding of work on measurement standards. In R. Dobbie, J. Darrell, K. Poulter & R. Hobbs (Eds.), Review of DTI work on measurement standards (p. Annex 5). London: Department of Trade and Industry.

      Barzel, Y. (1982). Measurement costs and the organization of markets. Journal of Law and Economics, 25, 27-48.

      Baumol, W. (1972). On taxation and the control of externalities. American Economic Review, 62, 307.

      Benham, A., & Benham, L. (2000). Measuring the costs of exchange. In C. Ménard (Ed.), Institutions, contracts and organizations: Perspectives from new institutional economics (pp. 367-375). Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.

      Cochrane, R. E. (1966). Measures for progress: A history of the National Bureau of Standards. Washington, DC: U.S. Dept. of Commerce.

      Cooter, R. D. (2000). Law from order: Economic development and the jurisprudence of social norms. In M. Olson & S. Kahkonen (Eds.), A not-so-dismal science: A broader view of economies and societies (pp. 228-244). New York: Oxford University Press.

      Fama, E., & Laffer, A. (1971, July). Information and capital markets. The Journal of Business, 44, 289-298.

      Gallaher, M. P., Rowe, B. R., Rogozhin, A. V., Houghton, S. A., Davis, J. L., Lamvik, M. K., et al. (2007). Economic impact of measurement in the semiconductor industry (Tech. Rep. No. 07-2). Gaithersburg, MD: National Institute for Standards and Technology.

      Hakansson, N. H., Kunkel, J. G., & Ohlson, J. A. (1982, December). Sufficient and necessary conditions for information to have social value in pure exchange. The Journal of Finance, XXXVII(5), 1169-1181.

      Maertens, M., & Swinnen, J. F. M. (2009). Trade, standards, and poverty: Evidence from Senegal. World Development, 37(1), 161-178.

      Marshall, J. M. (1974, June). Private incentives and public information. The American Economic Review, 64(3), 373-390.

      McChesney, F. S. (2006, Winter). Coase, Demsetz, and the unending externality debate. Cato Journal, 26(1), 179-200.

      Miller, P., & O’Leary, T. (2007, October/November). Mediating instruments and making markets: Capital budgeting, science and the economy. Accounting, Organizations, and Society, 32(7-8), 701-34.

      NIST. (2000). Environment and taxpayers are big winners in economic impact of NIST sulfur standards [Electronic version].

      NIST. (2003, 15 January). Outputs and outcomes of NIST laboratory research. Retrieved 12 July 2009, from http://www.nist.gov/director/planning/studies.htm#measures.

      NIST. (2009, 21 April). NIST metrology day celebrates measurements in the market. Retrieved 25 April 2009, from NIST: http://news.thomasnet.com/companystory/559377.

      Swann, G. M. P. (2005, 2 December). John Barber’s pioneering work on the economics of measurement standards [Electronic version]. Retrieved http://www.cric.ac.uk/cric/events/jbarber/swann.pdf from Notes for Workshop in Honor of John Barber held at University of Manchester.

  2. Matt Barney Says:

    William,

    Thanks for the thoughtful, and well-documented reply. I’m eager to read the GDP and ROI references that are new and exciting to me.

    Let me propose an alternative to the government model, and clarify why I fear corruption, graft, and politics at NIST the same way I fear it at the CIA, DOD, FMEA, or any other DC institution. My big fear with the big government approach is relatively new. I used to be one with a reasonably good faith in governments greasing economic wheels with things like standards. But I’m increasingly disillusioned as time goes on. The Government ignores its’ own standards for it’s own conduct and behavior constantly (e.g. Constitution, Bill of Rights). In my own field, Industrial-Organizational Psychology I have seen massive distortion of research solving the wrong problem to the third decimal point because it was government funded. In an applied science like mine, it’s atrocious that the field has come to a point where it’s actually frowned upon to get business funding for research as a form of “dirty money”. But a military-funded selection study that accounts for another half-percent of variance in job performance gets multi-millions of dollars from the Army. What do we do if Rasch-rulers, especially applied to the powerful, become politically incorrect (and then $ is removed from their support)?

    I do have an alternative that I think can work better. Private charities and foundations like the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation are much more sustainable and harder to corrupt. If the impact on GDP is as big as your sources, then the business case for living metrics is very strong as a way to pull people out of poverty – one of their core missions. It is more work to submit proposals to the various foundations, and not-for-profits, but I think it’s more sustainable and a more trustworthy source.

    Thanks again for the thought-provoking reply

    Matt

    • livingcapitalmetrics Says:

      It is so interesting that you would focus on the nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) this way, Matt!

      In my opinion, there are no systems better designed with respect to providing for their own need for re-invention than democracy and capitalism. I think you will agree that your perspective seems quite in tune with two comments made by George Washington in his Third State of the Union address:

      “Uniformity in the weights and measures of the country is among the important objects submitted to you by the Constitution, and if it can be derived from a standard at once invariable and universal, must be no less honorable to the public councils than conducive to the public convenience.”

      “A system corresponding with the mild principles of religion and philanthropy toward an unenlightened race of men, whose happiness materially depends on the conduct of the United States, would be as honorable to the national character as conformable to the dictates of sound policy.”

      I have lately been reading extensively in the area of philanthropy (especially Bishop & Green, 2008, and Goldberg, 2009), for the very reasons you give. I agree entirely that philanthropy may be a crucial lever in the process of reinventing capitalism. It can provide vital leadership, but won’t ever be able to provide more than vision and some initial demonstrations and proofs of concepts, though. As Bishop and Green put it (p. 274), “For all their billions, [philanthropists’] fortunes are dwarfed by those of their potential partners in government, business, and even sometimes large NGOs.” They get right to our point concerning universally uniform and available metrological standards, saying “Infrastructure is hugely expensive to build and costs a lot to maintain, as the English philanthropists in the Renaissance found out. All the philanthropic capital in the world could not build enough roads to make a real difference in Africa–and within five years they would be falling apart with no one to maintain them. Public and for-profit capital should build roads.” They conclude that “To achieve leverage, philanthropists should not be competing with or substituting for government money; they should be trying to improve the way it is spent.”

      Bishop and Green are also well aware of the need for accountability, saying on p. 277 that “Much will depend on whether the new philanthropic intermediaries, from New Philanthropy Capital to Bridgespan, succeed in making the world of giving more transparent and serious about measuring and debating impact. That in turn will depend on whether philanthropists are willing to volunteer accurate information about their performance, and especially their failures, when it is easier simply to talk about how much they have given and accept the plaudits.”

      And getting right to my point, Bishop and Green (p. 273) observe that “If philanthrocapitalism is to succeed, it will be because these philanthropists take impact seriously and apply their business talents just as rigorously as they did when they made their money. That is easier said than done, not least because philanthropy lacks many of the market forces that keep businesspeople disciplined, focused on success, and willing to make the tough decisions necessary to survive and prosper.”

      Despite these strong statements, the Bishop and Green book lacks a chapter on accountability metrics. Further, the words measure, metric, market, impact, and outcome do not appear in the index. But Goldberg takes up the issue of philanthropy market forces directly, saying on p. 192 that “The social sector should work the same way [as regular financial markets]. … But philanthropic capital doesn’t flow toward effective nonprofits and away from ineffective nonprofits for a simple reason: contributors can’t tell the difference between the two. That is, philanthropists just don’t [p. 193] know what various nonprofits actually accomplish. Instead, they only know what nonprofits are trying to accomplish, and they only know that based on what the nonprofits themselves tell them.”

      Goldberg (p. 193) concludes that “The signs that the lack of social progress is linked to capital market dysfunctions are unmistakable….”

      And so I persist in holding that the metrological infrastructure for human, social, and natural capital will have to be funded and maintained by government. For its part, philanthropy could make itself far more effective by making its living capital outputs accountable in the form of metrics that provide the infrastructure model for government and business to adopt.

      To demonstrate what can be done, I’ve been analyzing data over the last couple of years from Goldman Sachs, the UN Millennium Development Goals, the Ibrahim Fund, Charity Navigator, and others. Stay tuned for forthcoming reports.

      Bishop, M., & Green, M. (2008). Philanthrocapitalism: How the rich can save the world. New York: Bloomsbury Press.

      Goldberg, S. H. (2009). Billions of drops in millions of buckets: Why philanthropy doesn’t advance social progress. New York: Wiley.

  3. Matt Barney Says:

    William,

    Again thanks for the detailed and cogent reply. Washington’s vision is something you and I can both agree upon. Unfortunately, it’s the very corruption of DC that violates everything he was saying that causes me to be a skeptic.

    Consider that the constitution requires a critically important monetary standard – the dollar – to be backed by gold. They did this because in the revolutionary war, the continental dollar was inflated (e.g. printed in a printing press) that caused runaway inflation. This sort of inflation we’ve seen more recently with other governments violating their own standards such as Germany’s Weimar Republic, Argentina in the 1980’s, and Zimbabwe today. The Cato Institute notes that Zimbabwe’s inflation was increasing at 50% per month, in violation of its’ own standards. http://www.cato.org/zimbabwe. The vision of the original founders is corrupted beyond recognition.

    We’re both in strong agreement that a standard unit of value is important. Today, it appears that most governments pursue fiat currency that, in effect, steals money from people because their money buys less than it would have before. Governments have been entrusted with fiscal and monetary standards since the invention of government. Now that I live in India, I hypothesize that the reason the Indian culture is so pro-gold (the biggest gold market in the world) was as a hedge against foreign government dominators, or domestic fiat currency frauds. Gold has maintained a similar value since Roman times – before and after many government-sanctioned standards. You’ll recall that the US Constitution mandates a “gold or silver” backed currency; but FDR fiddled with this in WWII, and Nixon nixed it altogether in the 1970’s. Who’s holding the standard-bearer accountable for following-through on their own standards?

    Let me take another government standard example in the physical sciences. It’s embarassing that even the british have thrown off their outdated royal measurement system in favor of metrics. But we Americans are still stuck with miles, inches, and pounds. Is that a good standard, backed by the full force of the US government, that has any political chance of getting changed anytime soon? Is there any question that the metric system would, in the long run, improve economic transactions between the US and our trading partners?

    Or let me take one more – closer to my prior role. Earlier, before I met your friend Mark as part of Virtual MindWorks, I was the Chief Learning Officer at Sutter Health in Northern California. I learned, painfully, just how poor and corrupt the measurement system is for the government’s CMS measures that are used to “pay for performance” in Medicaid and Medical. These “standards” lack any semblence of objective measurement. For example, the measure for smoking cessasion of cardiac patients is simply a dichotomous variable of handing them a brochure encouraging them to stop smoking. There are no behavioral or physiological measures required by the government standard. There will also be a huge political uproar if something else were proposed, and even if changed to something better would take years to adjust through the political compromise promise. I wouldn’t be surprised if Classical Test Theory and IRT types would out vote any of us Rasch proponents.

    In the end, I tend to side with Hayek, and his famous book “The Fatal Conceit”. I don’t think a handful of beaurocrats can outsmart hundreds of millions of scientists and entrepreneurs. I think a more sustainable model for living capital Rasch measurement is going to be found with very persuasive and excellent teachers like you – educating the rest of us about the folly of outdated, non-linear, non-concatenatable, lumpy, multidimensional raw or transformed data. We simply need to give a bigger platform, with influence science like that of Robert Cialdini to make your gold nuggets of wisdom seen for what they are.

    Thanks again for the thought-provoking dialog

    Matt

    Cialdini, R. B. (2001). The science of persuasion. Scientific American, 284, 76-81.
    Cialdini, R. B. (2001). Influence: Science and practice (4th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
    Hayek, F.A. (1944/1994). The Road to Serfdom. Fiftieth anniversary edition, new introduction by Milton Friedman. University of Chicago Press.
    Hayek, F.A. (1988). The Fatal Conceit: the errors of socialism. University of Chicago Press.

    • livingcapitalmetrics Says:

      So wonderful, again, Matt, that you would now bring up Hayek! His elaboration of the errors of socialism is one of the root sources for the distinction between dead and living capital made by De Soto (2000; see Fisher, 2002 for a connection with human, social, and natural capital metrics).

      I would also like to gently note that my perspective on the metric system differs from yours. Every grocery store product in my fridge has measures of weight and volume in grams and liters. My car’s speedometer and odometer read out in kilometers. I have kept my default measuring units in computer software set to centimeters for over 20 years. All scientific journals report measures in metric units. And on a trip to London a couple of years ago, I found that the shift to metric units was not as complete as I’d expected, as I saw miles and pounds in widespread use.

      Recent work in positive psychology recognizes the way in which we construct reality through the projection of expectations and so focuses on developing strengths by building on what is being done right, at whatever level that happens to be. Consultants call this appreciative inquiry, and have found considerable value in creating ways to make people feel safe in improving quality by removing any opportunities for blaming. Instead of identifying problems that need to be solved and focusing on what’s being done wrong, we identify solutions and focus on expanding them. David Cooperrider is one of the originators of this perspective (Cooperrider & Srivasta, 1987).

      This positive approach taps right into the heart of Rasch measurement’s delineation of the measurement continuum and disclosure of the item hierarchy (see Solloway & Fisher, 2007, for some elaboration of this connection in the context of mindfulness practice). Normal use of test or survey results may focus extensively on questions answered incorrectly or with the most disagreement. But when the item hierarchy is understood as an illustration of the developmental sequence people move through as they grow in the domain measured, it is then understood as a map to be followed to the goal of superior performance. Items lower on the scale, ones that are more easily accomplished, have to be achieved before items higher on the scale. If you can’t read “Where the Wild Things Are,” you’re not likely to do very well with “The Good Earth.” If you’re not available to clients or employees, or communicating with them in their language, you’re not likely to be getting very far in making them feel part of a team. If employees don’t feel part of a team, paying them more will likely make things worse rather than better.

      With the results of Rasch scaling in hand, it can be seen that focusing on the failure to achieve the highest levels of performance is misguided and doomed to more failure, since efforts are being made to take on levels of complexity that have no foundation in existing practice. None of this is really new, of course; Falmagne and Narens (1983, p. 287) remarked over 25 years ago that “There is a slow but steady recognition of the odd fact that the language itself which we use in our quantitative description of the world, conditions in a subtle way the image that we obtain.” I’ll be interested in checking out the Cialdini pieces, but I’m less and less interested in persuasion as a means, since I think the tipping point is going to be defined by practical utility and the creation of value. Measurement models of individual response structures within variables enable us to do things that statistical models of aggregate group relations between variables (Classical Test Theory and IRT) simply do not address. I’m pressing on with my search for how and where to plant the seeds of living capital, nurture them to maturity, and harvest their abundance….

      And thanks to you, Matt, for pushing the dialogue forward.

      Cooperrider, D. L., & Srivasta, S. (1987). Appreciative inquiry in organizational life. Research in Organizational Change and Development, 1, 129-169.

      De Soto, H. (2000). The mystery of capital: Why capitalism triumphs in the West and fails everywhere else. New York: Basic Books.

      Falmagne, J.-C., & Narens, L. (1983). Scales and meaningfulness of quantitative laws. Synthese, 55, 287-325.

      Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2002, Spring). “The Mystery of Capital” and the human sciences. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 15(4), 854 [http://www.rasch.org/rmt/rmt154j.htm].

      Solloway, S., & Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2007). Mindfulness in measurement: Reconsidering the measurable in mindfulness. International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, 26, 58-81 [http://www.transpersonalstudies.org/volume_26_2007.html].

  4. Matt Barney Says:

    With your follow-up notes, you always give me great gifts of new ideas, great examples and diverse citations, thank you.

    I’ve followed closely the developments in Authentic Leadership Development, which was inspired by the Positive Psychology movement. I’m familiar, but somewhat skeptical about the Organizational Development movement’s Appreciative Inquiry, because in my experience, AI often comes along with unscientific values and interventions that lack evidence. While I very much appreciate the exiting, maximum-potential orientation of Positive Psych, I don’t want to ignore legitimate dysfunction that is also worthy of Rasch Measurement (e.g. Occupational Therapy, Clinical Psychology) and scientific intervention.

    I also interpret your examples a little differently. To the best of my knowledge, there is no government regulation requiring the agricultural industry to place both measurement systems on products you voluntarily buy and put in your refrigerator. I believe they do this of their own free choice, because they recognize a) some forward thinking Americans like you prefer both; b) visitors from other countries might be more likely to buy; c) it might make any future government transition that much more palatable. The government standard is then complimented with one offered voluntarily by the market.

    I’m fully in agreement with you about the power of Rasch Measurement’s item hierarchy – in fact, it was one of the things I liked the most about Rasch when I first learned about it, after graduate courses in CTT and IRT. I especially like how it’s much more ergonomically in line with how people are used to thinking about measurement; and incredibly helpful to direct people’s attention toward the next appropriate step in their developmental journey. In my current role, we standardize all our feedback for leaders in this way, for the same reasons you outline.

    You also make an excellent point about Utility – one that Hayek or von Mises might also make. I agree with you that demonstrated superior utility will trump influence. But influence can help gain access to early samples and subject pools that will help demonstrate this utility – so much so that further persuasion may not be required. In my current role, I’m actively testing hypotheses from my Cue See model of intangible asset valuation, in one of our business units, in just this way.

    But I differ with you on the futility of envisioning the highest levels of performance. I’m sure you’ll agree that with very powerful interventions, leveraging n-way interaction effects, we have the potential to move people more quickly up Rasch Measures. This is obviously an empirical question, but I don’t think it’s a pipe dream. Consider the example from the first industry I worked in as an I/O Psychologist – Semiconductors. Back in the “olden” days of the early 1990s, engineergs focused on smaller and smaller chips, measured in microns. Moore’s law, the observation that transistor density doubled every 18 months, while the die shrank, got cheaper, and used less power, is an powerful example. There are many interventions engineers did to shrink die, and maintain this general pattern of better, faster, cheaper every 18 months. Interaction effects between better photolithography, better etching, better chemical dips all provide a sort of emergent effect on multiple outcome factors of engineering interest. Today, Intel measures their semiconductors in the nano-scale.

    While I don’t expect to grow leaders at the same pace as semiconductors progress, I have similar aspirations for the leaders I look after. After Ken Lay (Enron), Dick Fuld (Lehman Brothers), Bernie Maddoff and countless other leaders who either cooked the books or made terrible decisions about risk, we need far better ways of selecting and growing leaders along a variety of important Rasch measures. Incremental improvement is necessary, as you point out, but my intervention planning will not be sufficient if I accept low standards. Organizations – NGOs, for-profits and even governments – exist to realize goals. If their living or dead capital isn’t performing together in combination to a sufficient level in order to realize them, then leaders are responsible for making appropriate changes.

    As usually, I very much appreciate the friendly and deep dialog. If you have additional thoughts on my other observations that make me skeptical about government standards, I would very much welcome additional thoughts.

    Regards,

    Matt

    Barney, M.F. (2009, April). Enhancing Utility Analysis to Influence Your CFO: Introducing the Cue See Model. Poster at the 2009 Annual Society for Industrial-Organizational Psychology (SIOP) Conference, New Orleans, LA.

    Barney, M.F. (2009, February). Leading Scientifically – Introducing the Cue-See Model for Evidence-based Leadership. Invited address, Society of Psychologists in Management (SPIM). San Diego, California.

  5. livingcapitalmetrics Says:

    More fascinating observations, Matt. Thanks for that. It is great to hear how you’re using item hierarchies as leadership maps. Would love to do a workshop on that some time, and also on the Cue See method of intangible asset valuation. And it is an utter shame that you were apparently here in New Orleans in April to present the Cue See model, and didn’t let me take you out for a beer!

    I don’t think we actually differ, by the way, in the utility of visualizing the upper reaches of the construct. The point is to approach it, as you apparently do, through the course of the challenges presented in their developmental order, from the bottom up. Leaping to the top of the scale to take on something for which no foundation has been laid is quite contrary to any principles of or potentials for leadership.

    As to your sense of the place of the metric system in the US (referring here and in much of what follows to Wikipedia’s article on metrication in the US), it’s been used here since the early 1800s, Congress authorized its use in 1866, and the US was one of the original 17 signers of the Metre Convention in 1875. Since 1893, the US customary units (foot and pound) have been defined relative to the meter and gram. The metric system has been the mandated system in the US National Bureau of Standards (now NIST) since 1964.

    In my opinion, one of the major errors of the Metric Conversion Act of 1975 was to make changes voluntary (which would seem to accord with your distrust of government, Matt), but even this tepid effort was undercut when the Reagan administration dismantled the US Metric Board in 1982 as part of its sweeping reductions in government (which, on the face of it, Matt, looks like another thing you would seem to favor). (I feel that the other major error was to base the transition on translations from the customary units, which did nothing but over-complicate the issue.)

    And contrary to your sense that the widespread use of metric units on grocery store products is entirely voluntary, the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1992 required everything to be labeled in both customary and metric units. Most states have adopted laws allowing metric-only labeling, and there is a strong push underway at the federal level for this so that businesses don’t have to print different labels for domestic and export sales.

    As I know well from the federal grants I’ve applied for, all measurement in the Federal government is metric (excepting domestic reports on agricultural production figures), and the US military has generally very high levels of metric usage because of its international activities (excepting ongoing use of ammo calibre measures, many of which are in inches). Of course, the famous exception is Lockheed Martin’s use of pound-force seconds instead of newton seconds in its Mars Orbiter thruster performance data, which ultimately led to the failure of the project.

    Interestingly, most of the world still uses feet in aviation, and the US construction industry and building codes are the areas of the economy most heavily invested in customary units. The metric system is taught universally in US schools, and high school and college texts and curricula use nothing but metric units, in complete accord with the global sense of the metric system as the language of science. Cars are built universally in metric units.

    So it is quite an uneven hodgepodge of zigzagging steps forward, backward and sideways. There are even situations in which customary and metric units are mixed, as in auto exhaust emission grams per mile, or Boeing’s kilogram per inch running load limits.

    Moving on to other topics, lots of things coming up here, and I lingered a bit over your request for input regarding the gold standard. A small foray into the web showed me that I know next to nothing and hardly know even where to start. I do remember reading something years ago that I remember as very helpful, but couldn’t find it. So I have questions. Honest questions that may be also irredeemably dumb questions. I’ll risk looking like an idiot on the off chance I’ll learn something. At least I know I don’t know.

    So, first off, I always thought that the difference between the gold standard and the floating currency values was analogous to the difference between the kilogram standard, which is the only remaining metrological standard based in an actual exemplar, and the standards for time and length, which are based on the abstract and universally reproducible standard of the cesium wavelength. This shift from concrete to formal standards, with the market setting and resetting currency values in relation to each other, seems to me a natural step in integrating higher levels of complexity in simple systems. Is this wrong or too simplistic for words?

    Past that, I also thought that the reason for abandoning the gold standard had primarily to do with the fact that the value of the capital circulating in the economy and serving as the basis of production had long since far exceeded the value of all the gold and other precious metals in existence. What exactly would it mean for the currency to be backed by gold, if there isn’t enough gold to go around? Wouldn’t that result in a wildly unrealistic inflation to the price of gold? You and others speak of a fiat currency, but wouldn’t a forcible and artificial manipulation of the price of gold amount to the same thing?

    Finally, associated with this situation is another factor: only about 4% (maybe less by now) of the money supply exists as actual currency. What does it matter if the currency is backed by gold if it is used in such a small fraction of actual transactions? Do you want to somehow also back all credit and checking transactions recorded in a currency value with a gold standard, too? How would that work?

    And again, maybe these questions show so much ignorance and open up so many basic needs for correction that there is really nothing that can be said apart from, “Go do your homework!” If not, a few general pointers might be in order…..

    Thanks, Matt. It’s a real pleasure to engage on these topics.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: