Home > Economics - General > An ounce of inefficiency (Crossposted at CT)

An ounce of inefficiency (Crossposted at CT)

January 24th, 2006

This post by Belle Waring at CT, on the fact that the US appears unlikely ever to go metric prompted me to try and put together some thoughts I’ve had for a long time.

When I lived in the US around 1990, I was struck by all sorts of minor inefficiencies that seemed to be sanctified by tradition. In addition to its unique system of weights and measures (similar to, but confusingly different from, the Imperial system I had grown up with), there was the currency, with no coin of any substantial value, thanks to inflation (this particular inefficiency was subsequently enshrined in the Save the Greenback Act), and the practice of quoting prices net of sales tax, so you always had to pay more than the marked price. And then there was a huge, but ill-defined, range of activities where tips were expected, apparently regardless of the quality of service. In all of these cases, Americans seemed much more willing to put up with day-to-day inefficiency in the name of tradition than Australians would be, and much more resistant to government action that would sweep such inefficiencies away in the name of reform.

Bigger issues like creationism can be fitted into this picture. As far as I can see, very few supporters of creationism (or intelligent design or what have you) have any desire to see it taught in university biology departments [there are a handful of exceptions, like Bob Jones, that are resolutely stuck in the pre-Civil War era on most things] or applied by oil geologists. Their big objection is seeing evolution stated as fact in museum displays or taught in high schools. Broadly speaking the position seems to be like that with the metric system – scientists are welcome to be evolutionists as long as they don’t try and ram it down the throats of our kids. Obviously, this is costly; as with metric and traditional measures, the two systems are bound to clash from time to time.

Then there’s the inefficiency that seems to be built in to the US system of government. When I lived there, I was subject to four different levels of government (town, county, state and federal) with multiple overlapping responsibilities, and procedures that seem designed to achieve maximal inconvenience for citizens (not to mention resident aliens!).

All of this of course, was set against the background of a general level of technology in advance of very other country in the world, and an economic system in which the pursuit of efficiency wasn’t much hindered by concerns about equity. At least for the upper-middle class to which I belonged, these things produced a very high standard of living.

How much do these minor inefficiencies matter? In one sense, I think, quite a lot. In another, they don’t matter very much at all, and can in fact be defended on cultural grounds

The direct costs of the inefficiencies I’ve mentioned are all small, but taken together I wouldn’t be surprised if they added up to several percentage points of national income, or hundreds of billions of dollars per year. I think, for example, that a payment of a dollar a day would be a bargain for an average American adult if it could deliver a sensible coinage and posted prices that actually corresponded to the amount to be paid. Multiplied out, that’s around $60 billion a year or 0.5 per cent of national income. And requirements for goods to be made in non-metric measures amount to a kind of trade barrier which seems likely to have a similar cost.

Even more than this, the attitude underlying the adherence to traditional measures is that the US is rich enough and important enough to do what it likes, and the rest of the world can like it or lump it (an attitude not unique to this issue). There’s a lot of truth in this, and it helps to explain why the US is pretty much self-sufficient in a wide range of cultural services. On the other hand, it’s not conducive to success in export markets for goods. Now that the US no longer has a big technological lead, the lack of interest in what foreigners think is one of the factors explaining big trade deficits with almost every other country in the world (Australia is one of the few exceptions).

So, in these ways, adherence to inefficient traditions matters quite a lot. On the other hand, taking the long-term historical view, they scarcely matter at all. Suppose inefficiency costs 6 per cent of national income. With productivity rising at a rate of 2 per cent a year, that means that the average living standard that might have been reached in 2006 will in fact be reached in 2009. For any given person, this trend effect will be swamped by year to year fluctuations in income and expenses. And in most households, there are probably inefficient arrangements that cost a fair bit, but are maintained because that’s the way things have always been done in the family.

Moreover, looking around the world it seems that nearly every country has its sanctified inefficiencies. France has its heavily protected agriculture, as does Japan, and Britain has a whole set of hangovers from the class system and reactions against it. I don’t buy general claims about Eurosclerosis, but there are clearly plenty of features of European social welfare systems that don’t stand up to close scrutiny. In Australia, although agricultural protection is pretty much gone, we spend a lot of money ensuring that much the same bundle of services is available everywhere in the country at the same price, regardless of the cost of delivery.

In a world where the level of technological development and the basic pattern of consumption are much the same in all developed countries, such idiosyncratic differences between countries that are an important barrier to a completely globalised uniformity.

BTW, if you want to comment on this post, you might be better off at CT which is currently leading JQ 92-0.

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  1. Dogz
    January 25th, 2006 at 09:42 | #1

    BTW, if you want to comment on this post, you might be better off at CT which is currently leading JQ 92-0.

    96-1.

    Everyone is so well-behaved over at CT. No fistfights or slanging matches. Dull for me. So I’ll throw my 2 cents in here:

    Having lived at various times in Europe, US, and Australia, my observation along these lines has been that any two first-world cultures (or at least western first-world cultures) have more-or-less equal amounts of “good stuff”, but usually in different areas. The US is great if you’re into buying lots of cheap consumer goods, cars, etc. France is excellent for food, wine, art. Britain has tradition, pubs, ascerbic humour. Aussies look after their built environements, are friendly, optimistic and hardworking yet laid back.

    I’ve always wondered whether you could somehow get the best of all worlds, but it seems that cultures have a fundamental upper bound on their “good stuff”, which is kind of the dual of JQ’s thesis that every culture has a lower-bound on its inefficiencies (or “bad stuff”).

    [as an aside, I wonder if the cultural difference between comment threads on JQ and CT is an example of the OZ-US cultural difference. Comment threads here resemble Australian parliament question time (ie, often indistinguishable from a kindegarten playground or the chimp enclosure at the zoo), whereas over at CT they're much more like watching US congress debates - polite but seemingly of no consequence]

  2. Crispin Bennett
    January 25th, 2006 at 10:32 | #2

    Dogz, nice observations. Just to add an aside to your aside: CT and JQ comment threads may represent the debating styles of their respective countries’ patricians rather than the population at large. The US PAL’s debating style is sickeningly well-represented in usenet: “You’re an a???ole!” followed by “Well, d???wad, you’re an even bigger a???ole” (due deference to JQ’s sensitivities). As for Australian PAL discussions, well, they’re a bit hard to find, aren’t they?

  3. GP
    January 25th, 2006 at 10:52 | #3

    I am not used to commenting to posts on the internet but I have to say that this is the most ignorant collection of words that I have ever read anywhere. Perhaps a bit of background. I was born in Australia and left in 1980 (therefore experienced conversion to both decimal currency and metric and also no tipping for services rendered). I lived in the States for 20 years (mostly west coast where there is tipping, decimal currency and a little metric when useful). Now I live in Norway (where there is decimal currency, little tipping and, surprisingly, some imperial left over from long ago). In this process I have experienced a few different systems and also converted back and forward a couple of times. I think that I can give your readers a few alternative ways to look at the issues that you raise.

    On Metric Conversion:
    To my friends in the US and Europe I always use this as an example where Australia went completely overboard, but also illustrates how the country is willing to go all the way to bring itself up to date. I find that as a young country, not sure of its place in the world, Australia is very ready to adopt ideas from outside. Almost always this is a fantastic strength, allowing the country to reform and solve problems that older states can’t manage to do. Australia’s metric conversion addressed all areas of measures. I was into home conversion at the time so I had my share of material problems. New metric doors that didn’t fit old walls and metric drywall (whoops I mean gyprock) that missed the studs. I think that metric conversion cost a lot and since the calculator was invented at about the same time, the main reason for making the conversion (mental arithmetic) went away. You should note that not only the US failed to complete the change, Britain and Canada also stumbled. They realized that as the costs mounted, and the benefit shrank, this might not be a good idea. Australia ploughed on, all the way to “Kilo Pascal� in automobile tires to “Low Joule� sodas (sorry, “fizzie drinks�). The US, Canada and Britain are left with pragmatic halfway systems that reflect their respective needs. They have balanced conversion cost and their respective priorities in trade and commerce.

    On the Efficiencies of Metric Conversion:
    Where on earth did the savings of 6% of GDP come from? I worked in the electronics industry in California for 20 years and we used to call that a DRE, a “Direct Rectal Extraction�. John, I made a quick evaluation of your posts and you seem to specialize in DREs.

    On Tipping:
    This is an area where I had to spend a lot of time with my American friends. I used to live in North Beach, San Francisco. I had a number of friends who waited tables in Pier 39, a big tourist hangout. Australians are a bit famous, perhaps for the wrong reasons. The simple rule is to “go local�. Tipping is a way for you to directly vote on the service you are getting. Things are the way they are for historic reasons. Australians drive on the left, Americans and most other people on the right. People who wait tables in the Pier 39 make two thirds of their money from tips. That’s how the salaries are set up. On a given day if the wait staff get too many tables with Australians they don’t eat. For a guide, the neutral tip is 15%. If the service is bad, tip 10%. If the staff went out of their way to make your meal enjoyable, tip 20%. Tip in places where there is personal service, restaurants and hairdressers. Don’t tip in Burger King and just round-off plus 5% in a taxi. Two dollars per bag for a Bell Hop. In New York they might glare at you for being too cheap. That is just hustle. If you have money give them more. If you don’t, give them the finger. They like the direct approach. Enjoy yourself, lay back, and think of England. Really, how much money does it all add up to anyway?

  4. jquiggin
    January 25th, 2006 at 11:09 | #4

    GP, as you’re not used to commenting on the Internet, I’ll give you some tips.

    (1) People whose first comment starts with something along the lines of “this is the most ignorant collection of words that I have ever read anywhere” generally get treated as trolls or worse.

    (2) Your arguments may seem overwhelmingly convincing to you, and evidence of your superior intelligence, but you’ll find others disagree. If you don’t want to be treated like a fool, try a more humble approach to start with.

    (3) In this case your arguments about metric conversion are weak, you’ve taken an aggregate number from an illustrative example and misinterpreted it as an estimate of the cost of not being metric and your points about tipping largely repeat what is said in the post. You similarly repeat the argument of the post in saying that Australains are more willing to adopt outside changes than Americans.

    (4) Reference by anonymous commenters to their industry experience in a way that is supposed to add some sort of authority is generally considered silly.

  5. wilful
    January 25th, 2006 at 11:38 | #5

    Ignorant words, GP? Try reading more, typing less.

    As someone who’s grown up entirely metric, I do not understand or like imperial measurements, they seem quaintly ridiculous and likely to create a serious chance of error when precision is needed. I thank the rationality and lack of subservience to tradition in the wise Australians who supported making the change (still, we could have had royals instead of dollars!).

    I don’t believe that we provide subsidised rural services based on tradition or just because ‘that’s the way it’s always been’, I think we do it because there is a genuine commitment to social equality and belief that subsidising rural services is a deliberate choice to increase fairness. That and the fact that the National/Country Party have been able to exploit weaknesses in the electoral system since Federation.

    Australia is probably overgoverned as well, thoguh I think much less so than the US. One of the Kennett government’s greatest reforms was turning ~270 local governments in 75 in one brief period, with virtually no political or cultural pain. It was a badly overdue reform, but not one that many people didn’t accept. Institutionally, we are prepared to discuss in a much more open manner the appropriate roles for each tier of government than the US appears able to.

    Basically I disagree that there is a necessary upper bound to the efficiency of a society, if you take a longer view.

  6. HUMAN ID: 6,493,482,220
    January 25th, 2006 at 11:41 | #6

    Always feels funny when the word ‘efficiency’ is applied to every thing in the house even the humans.

    So we too here, still prefer six foot one to 183cm (or six inches to a piddly sounding 15cm for that matter?) and damn the loss of GDP!! Boy that’s confusing behaviour, but it is hardly a challenge to our superior brains and not nearly as inefficient as street signs in four languages (eg. in CH) which may cause a dangerous delay in driver comprehension and a potentially huge drain on the public purse from paint and emergency care.

    We’re not outputs and our confusing daily behaviour and funny illogical habits – well, that’s the human bit making sense of the world. Like addressing each other with extremely inefficient and arbitrary sets of (sometimes silent) letters called NAMES. Gosh how do we remember all these people, it’s too confusing. If humans were actually efficient we’d call each other by a number and ditch this ambiguous language tradition.

    The “inefficiencies that seemed to be sanctified by tradition” that PJQ referred to is the very stuff of our lives and of human culture.

    We invent and revise lots of little systems to add up stuff and do things for us and then we invent some more to pass the time. Sometimes we hang onto to things cos we like them.

    Very shortly, I myself am off to celebrate the chinese new year 4073 with the relevant business council. They keep going on about a dog or something, I don’t know – I’m not sure how efficient it is but I think I’ll go anyway. If I could work out when to turn up that is.

  7. HUMAN ID: 6,493,482,220
    January 25th, 2006 at 11:52 | #7

    Apologies for that appalling inefficiency: it is actually the year 4703, err, somewhere.

  8. Chris
    January 25th, 2006 at 12:59 | #8

    Other American inefficiencies pale into insignificance compared to their having 2% of the population either in or running the penal system and another 3% either in or supplying the armed forces. What would their growth be without that handicap?

  9. Ian Gould
    January 25th, 2006 at 13:49 | #9

    Chris – and imagine if they could reduce their spending on health-care by 10% or so (which would leave it substantially higher than in other devleoepd countries with similar or higher life expectancy).

    Still dogz has a point – there seem to bwe upper bounds on “good stuff”.

    I tend to think that the UK, Canada, Australia and the Netherlands have a marginal advantage over both the US and the more heavily regulated and taxed EU economies such as France and Germany.

    But that’s really a matter of personal taste as much as anything.

  10. Will De Vere
    January 25th, 2006 at 14:45 | #10

    For a nation that believes itself to be the most technologically advanced in Galactic history, the United States seems to be unusually rich in archaic and inefficient details. Examples:

    The currency, notes and coins. Bizarre but exotic.

    The Imperial system of weights and measures.

    A creaky and well-nigh ridiculous electoral system (Federal elections on TUESDAYS, Rube Goldberg/Heath Robinson voting machines).

    Tipping, instead of proper incomes.

    An atavistic devotion to constantly reading the entrails of the Founding Founders for new clues.

    (Not to mention poverty, racism and a disturbing devotion to a mythical super-being…)

  11. Will De Vere
    January 25th, 2006 at 15:04 | #11

    Founding Founders = Founding Fathers.

  12. Will De Vere
    January 25th, 2006 at 15:12 | #12

    some more ingenious Yankee inefficiency:

    Admitting students to Uni on the basis of how good they are at SPORTS!

    And not letting them drink until they’re 21!

    And I could go on, but it’s too absurd.

  13. StephenL
    January 25th, 2006 at 16:19 | #13

    As well as the refusal to offer dollar coins, Americans refuse to introrduce notes that are reasonably difficult to forge. Australian plastic currency has been taken up by quite a few countries around the world not only because the notes last longer, but becuase they are harder to forge.

    I wonder how much cost to the American economy forgery represents, particularly with colour printers.

  14. Terje Petersen
    January 25th, 2006 at 16:41 | #14

    The metric clock never seems to have caught on although it was part of the metric package originally implemented by the french.

    When I open the newspaper in Australia I find the gold price in Troy Ounces (an old imperial measure used for nothing but gold) and US dollars. I then have to convert this to an Australian dollar price in grams manually (I then choose to invert the number to figure out what the aussie is worth in gold grams).

    When I fly it is still in feet.

    If you play golf it is still in yards.

    In England you buy your fuel in Litres but the speed limit is measured using miles. Also when shopping in England the tins and bottles are all in metric but the vegtables are in imperial weights.

    Land in Australia is still refered to as acreage.

    There are still some things that Australians like so little that they will run a mile to avoid.

    Apparently the Chinese have figured out that if they all changed over to an alphabet based language the cost would break even after just ten years.

    And why don’t the French just promote European integration by dumping that silly language of theirs?
    :)

  15. wilful
    January 25th, 2006 at 16:50 | #15

    How about dvorak keyboards instead of damn qwerty?

  16. Seeker
    January 25th, 2006 at 18:12 | #16

    Historical and chauvinistic reasons aside, I don’t understand why the world isn’t metric on everything, including the clock. I grew up during the changeover period in Australia. My formal technical training used metric though imperial was still used informally by a lot of people in my field, particularly for length measurements. Overall, the imperial system(s) are much less user friendly than metric, and I am glad Australia went fully metric for all formal measurements.

    Having said that, I understand that many common and informal expressions that use imperial terms are here to stay, and rightly so. The various metric versions just don’t sound right. For example: ‘Give them and inch (25.4 mm) and they will take a mile (1.6 kilometres)’, or ‘An ounce (28.35 grams) of prevention is worth a pound (0.454 kgs) of cure’. Or the alternatives: ‘Give them a centimetre and they will take a kilometre’, and ‘A gram of prevention is worth a kilogram of cure’.

  17. Seeker
    January 25th, 2006 at 18:18 | #17

    And on qwerty v dvorak issue, as I recall the research showed that there is no optimal keyboard layout, for English at least. The only critical factors were keeping commonly used keys both close to the home positions, and spaced apart from each other. Neither dvorak, nor any other layout, has been shown to be significantly superior to qwerty, which is why the alternatives never caught on. It ceratinly wasn’t through lack of effort from the manufacturers of the alternatives.

  18. Seeker
    January 25th, 2006 at 18:20 | #18

    “ceratinly” = certainly. It has been a very long day.

  19. Mike Pepperday
    January 25th, 2006 at 19:12 | #19

    I don’t believe this efficiency argument about measuring systems. The Japanese have three alphabets and it doesn’t slow them down. While I don’t recall street signs in four languages in Switzerland they do have three parallel broadcasting services and the German Swiss speak French and English. It doesn’t slow them down. The Dutch learn, I think, five languages at school and have a native tongue which is pretty useless for scholarship but it doesn’t hold them back. Could it be, having multiple systems just keeps you sharp?

    I used to be a surveyor and mapmaker. We used chains and links in the countryside and feet in urban areas. For efficiency (I suppose) surveyors didn’t use inches but divided the foot into hundredths. So 0.01 ft equals one eighth of an inch (right?) and everyone was expert at mentally converting any fraction of a foot into inches and eighths. In coal mining both links and feet were in use and metalliferous mining it was feet and cubic yards. There were 27 cubic feet in a cubic yard (and no calculators).

    Then I lived in Europe and got used to the Napoleonic system including theodolite circles that were divided into 400 grads, not 360 degrees. And I began to realise that in some important respects Imperial is more user-friendly. The item that counts above others is the unit of length and the foot is definitely friendlier. Apart from the fact that you can put it in your school bag or briefcase, 0.01 ft. or 1/8 in. is a human kind of accuracy. A millimetre is an extra decimal place (which leads to blunders) and is far too fine for everyday use. On the other hand, a centimetre is too coarse. This might be part of the reason we cling onto our feet and inches for body measurements.

    Australians were conned in the 1970s into the metric system. Decimalisation of the currency had been such an easy thing that people were under the impression that metric conversion would be the same. I doubt we’d be poorer if we’d never changed. Probably all it achieved was relief from tiresome know-alls plaguing us to introduce an “efficient� system.

  20. Dogz
    January 25th, 2006 at 19:55 | #20

    I am too young to have grown up with Imperial but it certainly has a Baroque appeal. Who can deny the fun in foot, inch, hand, chain, rod, furlong, cord, rood, acre, ounce, pound, stone, etc. We may be economically better off with metric but we’re culturally poorer. And I completely agree RE feet and inches for height: I can imagine what 4 feet, 5 feet, 6 feet etc look like, and then mentally interpolate the inches. I can’t picture 150cm, 160cm, 170cm etc.

  21. jquiggin
    January 25th, 2006 at 19:57 | #21

    “The Japanese have three alphabets and it doesn’t slow them down. ”

    Well, that’s the point being discussed. In the post, I suggest that this kind of thing does “slow them down”, but not by enough that you’d notice it in the long run. I think it’s pretty clear that the Japanese alphabet problems have slowed them down in the computer era, though of course the problems have been worked around in the end.

    On metric vs Imperial, arguments about individual units are both endless and impossible to resolve. The big issue is when more than one unit is involved. To take a class of problem that arises in my work, suppose that some given amount of rain falls on a given area, and 50 per cent runs off. How much runoff is available for irrigation?

    The standard Imperial units would be inches (with smaller amounts being expressed in fractions as you note), acres and gallons, and would be a hideous mess. To get over the worst of this, special rain-specific and irrigation units (points for rain and acre-feet for irrigation) have been invented, but it’s still a painful business.

    In the metric system, the relative units are hectares, millimetres and megalitres and all you have to do to convert them is to keep track of the decimal point. Just multiply area by rainfall, divide by 2, and you have your answer.

  22. Terje Petersen
    January 25th, 2006 at 20:51 | #22

    And wasn’t it nice in 1966 when our basic unit of currency (the new aussie dollar) neatly equaled one gram of gold.

  23. abb1
    January 25th, 2006 at 22:14 | #23

    Jared Diamond writes in Guns, Germs and Steel:

    “Unbelievable as it may now sound, that keyboard layout [QWERTY] was designed in 1873 as a feat of anti-engineering. It employs a whole series of perverse tricks designed to force typists to type as slowly as possible, such as scattering the commonest letters over all keyboard rows and concentrating them on the left side (where right-handed people have to use their weaker hand). The reason behind all of those seemingly counterproductive features is that the typewriters of 1873 jammed if adjacent keys were struck in quick succession, so that manufacturers had to slow down typists. When improvement in typewriters eliminated the problem of jamming, trials in 1932 with an efficiently laid-out keyboard showed that it would let us double our typing speed and reduce our typing effort by 95 percent. But QWERTY keyboards were solidly entrenched by then. The vested interests of hundreds of millions of QWERTY typists, typing teachers, typewriter and computer salespeople, and manufacturers have crushed all moves toward keyboard efficiency for over 60 years.”

  24. Andrew Reynolds
    January 26th, 2006 at 00:29 | #24

    Hmmm,
    Is posting an article twice on seperate blogs an example of inefficiency?

  25. avaroo
    January 26th, 2006 at 04:13 | #25

    I think there are inefficiencies in any system, it’s just a question of what one is used to. Try getting married in Europe to a European, while being American. It was a bureaucratic nightmare, the civil service as well as the church service. Fortunately, I’m only planning on doing it once!

    As far as tips go, they are NOT expected regardless of service, at least in the US. That would be true other places, say in Europe, where the tip is built in, then it must be given regardless of service. It’s part of the actual charge for service. You can see it on your bill, you just cannot refuse to pay it.

    I’m not quite sure why bureaucracies between the county, state and federal levels within the US would much matter to anyone outside the US. Certainly, Americans don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how difficult building anything is Europe is, although surely it is. Why would it matter to anyone NOT inside the US. Perhaps the fact that we DON’T spend much time focusing on the internal workings of other countries is what has allowed us to move so far ahead technologically.

    I honestly don’t think that anyone in the US sits around thinking “the US is rich enough and important enough to do what it likes, and the rest of the world can like it or lump it “. I don’t think that enterst into it at all in daily life. It’s a curious way to look at the US. Surely we’re much like everyone else, we do things the way we do partly because that’s the way it’s always been but also partly because that’s the way we’ve decided to do tham. That cannot be any different than anyone else. When it comes to organizing the various levels of government, why on earth would we consider anyone other than ourselves in making decisions on such organization?

  26. avaroo
    January 26th, 2006 at 04:19 | #26

    On the matter of net pricing in the US, I like the way we do it. I like to know what tax is costing me, that way we won’t ever have something like at 22% VAT slip by us unnoticed. I’m amazed that people so willingly cough up such punitive taxes.

    On weights and measures, I’m strcitly Imperial, hubby is metric and the kids are bi. Everyone’s happy.

  27. avaroo
    January 26th, 2006 at 04:59 | #27

    “Could it be, having multiple systems just keeps you sharp?”

    Excellent point, particularly as it relates to the Japanese. Other people, including Australians, would be LUCKY to be “slowed down” the way the Japanese are. No offense meant to Australians but it’s nevertheless true.

    “Australians were conned in the 1970s into the metric system. Decimalisation of the currency had been such an easy thing that people were under the impression that metric conversion would be the same. I doubt we’d be poorer if we’d never changed.”

    I doubt the US would be richer if we had changed.

    “Probably all it achieved was relief from tiresome know-alls plaguing us to introduce an “efficientâ€? system. ”

    ivory tower academics?

  28. Iain
    January 26th, 2006 at 09:18 | #28

    Interesting thread.

    There is some evidence to suggest that people that grow up in bi-lingual countries have a mild advantage in academic performance (Canadians from Montreal would no doubt agree, others may disagree). The logic behind this seems to be that, even though two languages is one more than is absolutely necessary, the process of going through the learning of a more complex system has hidden long term advantages.

    I have always wondered whether the same type of logic could be (very roughly) applied to non-metric accounting. That is, because it is more complex to learn and apply – this creates some advantage in thinking and education.

    btw, as someone who uses a two handed dvorak – I can safely vouch for its performance. All the vowels neatly together, and left – right hand balance : can’t beat it.

  29. Ian Gould
    January 26th, 2006 at 12:31 | #29

    Mike Pepperday: I don’t believe this efficiency argument about measuring systems. The Japanese have three alphabets and it doesn’t slow them down.

    Have you studied Japanese, Mike?

    The Japanese writing system is extremely inefficient and has indeed “slowed them down”.

  30. Ian Gould
    January 26th, 2006 at 12:35 | #30

    >I honestly don’t think that anyone in the US sits around thinking “the US is rich enough and important enough to do what it likes, and the rest of the world can like it or lump it “. I don’t think that enterst into it at all in daily life. It’s a curious way to look at the US. Surely we’re much like everyone else, we do things the way we do partly because that’s the way it’s always been but also partly because that’s the way we’ve decided to do tham.

    Americans (and Australians) tend to be conservative (in the original non-political sense) for the simple reason that they have political and economic systems that, by and large, work and work well.

  31. Ian Gould
    January 26th, 2006 at 12:41 | #31

    >I doubt the US would be richer if we had changed.

    Well US manufacturers (and service companies) need to swirch between metric packaging and sizes when producing for the export market andimperial units for the doemstic market, similarly in reverse for foreign companies wanting to export in the US.

    The US system of weights and measures probably acts as a minor non-tariff barrier making it harder for foreign companies to sell their goods in the US and therefore allowing US firms to charge consumers higher prices.

    Of course, the US has such a large (and competitive) domestic market that the effect is minimal. For ustralia, a much smaller market with lower levels of domestic compeitition and greater dependance on international trde the costs were probably higher.

  32. January 26th, 2006 at 13:50 | #32

    What a load of nonsense. As Grampa Simpson once put it:
    “I get fourteen rods to the hogshead, and that’s the way I likes it!”

  33. Mike Pepperday
    January 26th, 2006 at 19:52 | #33

    “Have you studied Japanese, Mike?

    The Japanese writing system is extremely inefficient and has indeed “slowed them downâ€?. ”

    Ian, your question is ad hominem. Even if I had an in-depth knowledge of Japanese it would not qualify me to say whether or not it had slowed them down.

    Your claim of extreme inefficiency is one linguists endorse: Japanese is an “agglutinating” tongue to which ideograms are unsuited. Hence their supplementary phonetic alphabets. But to claim it slowed them down you need a bit more evidence than the word “indeed”.

    Of course, the basis for claiming they were not slowed was their strong economic, industrial and military performance over the last century.

    The whole point is that handicaps can somehow have an opposite effect. It seems analagous to asking a busy person if you want something done or the way small men are (allegedly) more aggressive or the way the richest countries are the ones without natural resources. These do seem to be handicaps – and yet…

  34. Atticus_the_Lawyer
    January 26th, 2006 at 20:15 | #34

    There is something about the imperial measures that is convenient. It’s easier to guess a person’s height in feet than in metres or centimeters, for example. I suspect that’s not an accident but a product of the way these measures evolved. The problem is that the imperial measures just don’t line up with each other very well.

    My half-joking solution is that we create a system of “metric imperial” measures. So a “metric foot” would be 30cms and a “metric pound” would be 0.5 kgs, etc…

  35. Ian Gould
    January 26th, 2006 at 22:18 | #35

    >But to claim it slowed them down you need a bit more evidence than the word “indeed�.

    You mean like regularly seeing University-educated Japanese referring to Kanji dictionaries in the course of reading even a newspaper due to the huge number of “nonstandard” characters?

  36. avaroo
    January 27th, 2006 at 06:06 | #36

    “Well US manufacturers (and service companies) need to swirch between metric packaging and sizes when producing for the export market andimperial units for the doemstic market, similarly in reverse for foreign companies wanting to export in the US.”

    You’ll find most US packaging has both metric and imperial weights on the same package.

    “The US system of weights and measures probably acts as a minor non-tariff barrier making it harder for foreign companies to sell their goods in the US and therefore allowing US firms to charge consumers higher prices.”

    Honestly, most American consumers don’t pay much attention to weights and measures to begin with. For example, Mexican groceries sell quite well in the US yet I couldn’t tell you the weight of most items (all in only metric I’m sure) I buy on a regular basis. I think we buy by sight rather than by actual measurement. If the package looks like the amount I need, I buy it.

  37. Mike Pepperday
    January 27th, 2006 at 09:59 | #37

    “You mean like regularly seeing University-educated Japanese referring to Kanji dictionaries in the course of reading even a newspaper due to the huge number of “nonstandardâ€? characters?”

    No, Ian, I don’t mean that. You are just giving a specific instance of what I had written. You are missing the point. We AGREE that it’s a handicap per se.

    But are the outcomes inefficient? It seems not. Maybe while this individual is diligently getting around his handicap we are at the pub. I don’t know.

    There are people insisting on teaching and speaking Welsh and Friesian and no doubt many other “useless” local tongues. Think, too, of the new Jewish state deliberately deciding to adopt Hebrew and its alphabet. Apparently what’s important, what matters in life, are these “inefficiencies” – which turn out not to be inefficient after all.

  38. January 27th, 2006 at 12:52 | #38

    As that point about the origins of QWERTY showed, it can be a good thing to be inefficient. Indeed, one of the main advantages of the Weston Differential Pulley is its inefficiency (you don’t have to worry about a load running away).

    But I am really posting because this reminds me of a remark John F. Kennedy is reputed to have made about New York: he said it was a city that combined northern charm with southern efficiency.

  39. Terje Petersen
    January 27th, 2006 at 12:54 | #39

    When doing housework it is good to be inefficient. It will save you membership fees at the gym.

  40. avaroo
    January 27th, 2006 at 13:34 | #40

    “But I am really posting because this reminds me of a remark John F. Kennedy is reputed to have made about New York: he said it was a city that combined northern charm with southern efficiency.”

    Nope, he said that about Washington DC

    http://quoteworld.org/quotes/7638

  41. January 27th, 2006 at 15:13 | #41

    It was because I was uncertain that I put in the word “reputed”. I certainly heard it in that form.

  42. hirvi
    January 28th, 2006 at 05:22 | #42

    “I like to know what tax is costing me, that way we won’t ever have something like at 22% VAT slip by us unnoticed. I’m amazed that people so willingly cough up such punitive taxes”

    VAT can’t slip by unnoticed – it must be itemized: for just about every purchase I get a receipt stating the price without tax, the rate of tax, the amount of tax paid, and the total price including tax. It’s efficient and transparent.

    I don’t know how you knew it, but we do actually pay 22% VAT for most things. However, it’s fallacious to think this punitive, because the government spends the money on worthwhile programs, and in ways that individuals couldn’t. For example, free education to PhD; comprehensive healthcare; and the world’s lowest child poverty rate (according to many studies). There’s much more besides.

    I realise you see things differently; but for what our society gets in return, practically all of us pay that tax without a grumble.

  43. avaroo
    January 28th, 2006 at 06:41 | #43

    “VAT can’t slip by unnoticed”

    It sure can. Just include it in the advertised price. No one stops even for a moment when looking at the price of anything to wonder how much of that price is tax, itemized bill or not.

    “I don’t know how you knew it, but we do actually pay 22% VAT for most things.”

    I’m not sure who you mean by “we”. Vat varies from country to country. My experiences with VAT have all been in Europe.

    “However, it’s fallacious to think this punitive, because the government spends the money on worthwhile programs, and in ways that individuals couldn’t.”

    Most people wouldn’t give money directly to other people to allow them to stay home rather than work a job. And that’s what much of it goes for in Europe, unemployment benefits.

    “I realise you see things differently”

    I sure do. Education isn’t “free” anywhere, unless all your professors are volunteers. I wouldn’t trade my education in the US for one anywhere else in the world. No one comes anywhere close to US universities. I wouldn’t trade US healthcare for healthcare anywhere else in the world. Poverty is relative.

  44. hirvi
    January 28th, 2006 at 08:01 | #44

    “It sure can”

    No it can’t. Law states you have to specify it. End of argument.

    “Most people wouldn’t give money directly to other people to allow them toThey can do it better than you in every way. stay home rather than work a job. And that’s what much of it goes for in Europe, unemployment benefits”

    No, Europe works less to produce more, and the US buys it.

    Germany exports more in absolute terms in than the entire US.

    What were you saying about Europe?

  45. Ian Gould
    January 28th, 2006 at 08:07 | #45

    >I wouldn’t trade US healthcare for healthcare anywhere else in the world.

    Well considering that your healthcare system costs about 50% more than that of most other developed countries (from memory approximately 12% of GDP versus 8%) and average US life expectancy is 2-3 years shorter than for some other develoepd countries, I doubt you’d find anyone to trade with.

  46. hirvi
    January 28th, 2006 at 08:10 | #46

    “Poverty is relative”

    No, it is a very severe condition, and one that every seriously responsible and capable government does everything it can to lower.

    Sorry, but I’d take your silly “poverty is relative” sticker and put it through a very gruesome shredder.

  47. Terje Petersen
    January 28th, 2006 at 08:32 | #47

    Poverty is a word that maybe used to mean something. However it has become a devalued and near meaningless term. It is now used as an alternative substitute for the word equality. Everywhere poverty seems to have become redefined to mean below average income.

    The “Henderson Poverty Line” is promoted (in Australia) by some as a reasonable boundary point for defining poverty. Those households with an income level below this threshold may be defined as suffering poverty. Such an approach might be a useful way in which to measure progress in combating poverty. However each year the line is moved as living standards rise. So people who are no worse off than the previous year can become redefined as impoverished simply for not keeping up with the Jones.

    The media use of the word poverty is also unhelpful. We read articles talking about Australian kids living in poverty. And in the same newspaper we read about kids in Ethiopia living in poverty. The problem is that the former are amoungst the worlds most afluent kids. Any suggestion of equivalence in their situation is absurd.

  48. avaroo
    January 28th, 2006 at 09:17 | #48

    “No it can’t. Law states you have to specify it. End of argument.”

    The law cannot state that you must notive it though.

    “No, Europe works less to produce more, and the US buys it.”

    Yes, Europe works less, because there are no jobs. And yes, the US buys what those who do work produce because we have the money to do so. Because we work.

    “What were you saying about Europe?”

    That it’s an economic basketcase.

    “No, it is a very severe condition”

    but still relative. It’s one thing to be poor in Chicago, quite another in Khartoum.

  49. avaroo
    January 28th, 2006 at 09:20 | #49

    “Well considering that your healthcare system costs about 50% more than that of most other developed countries (from memory approximately 12% of GDP versus 8%) ”

    There’s no doubt that we spend more on healthcare than anyone else, and no doubt that we’re willing to do so.

    “and average US life expectancy is 2-3 years shorter than for some other develoepd countries, I doubt you’d find anyone to trade with. ”

    That would come as a surprise to all the people who come to the US FOR healthcare they cannot get at home. Including many Canadians. Life expectancy isn’t the only measure of a healthcare system. Don’t forget we pretty much let anyone in here, and then provide healthcare for them. That isn’t true of anywhere else.

  50. Ian Gould
    January 28th, 2006 at 10:02 | #50

    I’m sure your view would come as surrise to the 60 million or so uninsured ameircans and the americans who regualrly visit Canada to buy their prescription drugs.

    Life expectancy is indeed only one measure of the efficiency of a healthcare system, it however an important one and given the massive additional spending in the US you’d expect the US to at least match other countries spending 1/3 less.

    Out of the Top 30 countries as measured by the UNDP’s Human Development Index the US ranks 29th in life expectancy ahead of only Denmark.

    US life expectancy is on par with that in significantly poorer countries such as Greece and Portugal.

  51. avaroo
    January 28th, 2006 at 10:49 | #51

    Persoanlly I agree with you. We should refuse to seel drugs to Canadians at pices lower than Americans are charged for them. That way the price would fall for Americans. If Canadians couldn’t afford them, they could simply do without.

    Uninsured does not mean no care. You can ask the millions of Mexicans who land here every year. They are certainly uninsured, but they still receive medical care. At taxpayer expense.

    In the US’ case, life expectancy is not an accurate measure. Now if you can find a nation that has people entering it at the rate the US does, then we could compare. But there isn’t such a nation. When Greece and Portugal take in the immigrants we do, then we’ll do a comparison.

    Do you not find it amazing that even with our “subpar” healthcare, that people come from all over the world to get US healthcare? They’re not, uh, going to numbers 1-28 on the UNDP’s index. How do you explain that? People just like second rate healthcare?

    If you’re happy with what you have, I’m delighted.

  52. avaroo
    January 28th, 2006 at 11:06 | #52

    Perhaps it would be helpful to explain something to our non-American friends. While some of you think it’s awful that the US spends more than the GDP of quite a few nations just on our healthcare alone, we don’t see that as a bad thing. Healthcare is extremely important to Americans, we want the very best, we want the latest pharmaceuticals, we want every test and procedure there is for whatever is suspected to be wrong. And we’re willing to spend more than others are for healthcare, surely a choice we should make for ourselves.

    We wouldn’t accept being sent home with a magnifying glass at the age of 70, as my mother-in-law was in Germany, deemed too old by some government bureaucrat for cataract surgery. It may seem selfish to some of you, but we want it all. We’re not happy getting less simply because everyone else in the healthcare system is also getting less. That appears to be the feature of nationalized care that appeals to people in “tall daisy” societies. We’re not a tall daisy society.

    Universal insurance is NOT the same thing as universal healthcare. Canadians, who enjoy universal insurance, often cannot even find a physician. What good does insurance do you, if you can’t access a doctor? Same thing in Britain, we’d never wait the incredible amounts of time Brits wait, suffering lesser quality of life in the bargain. Quality of life is a huge factor for Americans. We wouldn’t accept the cancer survival rates Brits suffer.

    Now, can we be accused of doing too much? Probably. There are all sorts of end of life care issues we grapple with. Because we can do more to extend life in the US, we often do. That’s a choice we seem to have made as a society, again, surely we should be allowed to make the choice for ourselves. Not for us the euthanasia of the Netherlands, choices made based on the cost of care.

  53. Ian Gould
    January 28th, 2006 at 11:11 | #53

    >In the US’ case, life expectancy is not an accurate measure. Now if you can find a nation that has people entering it at the rate the US does, then we could compare. But there isn’t such a nation.

    Tell you what go check the immigration rates fro Canada, australia and New Zealnd then come back and talk.

    I think it might be pleasant novelty if you based your argumentsd on facts rather than assertions for a change.

    >Do you not find it amazing that even with our “subpar� healthcare, that people come from all over the world to get US healthcare?

    By that reasoning, India, the Phillipines and Thailand which have huge “medical tourism” industries must have top-notch health systems too.

  54. Ian Gould
    January 28th, 2006 at 11:21 | #54

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/spl/hi/world/04/migration/html/migration_boom.stm

    Oh look in 2000, Europe had accepted 60 million immigrants while North America (which included Canada and Mexico) had accepted 40 million.

  55. avaroo
    January 28th, 2006 at 11:23 | #55

    “Tell you what go check the immigration rates fro Canada, australia and New Zealnd then come back and talk.”

    surely you are joking

    “By that reasoning, India, the Phillipines and Thailand which have huge “medical tourismâ€? industries must have top-notch health systems too.”

    India’s is actually not bad and not in the least because many of its doctors are US trained. How do you explain the nuber of people coming to the US for healthcare?

  56. avaroo
    January 28th, 2006 at 11:23 | #56

    ah, the bbc, paragon of accuracy and objectivity….

  57. Ian Gould
    January 28th, 2006 at 11:28 | #57

    http://www.pstalker.com/migration/download/International%20migration%20data.xls

    Total percentage of population born overseas – 2001 (except UK (1990)).

    Netherlands 33%
    UK 21.3%
    Australia 23.1%
    Canada 18.1%
    New ZEaland 19.5%
    Switzerland 11.5%
    United States 11.1%

  58. avaroo
    January 28th, 2006 at 11:33 | #58

    and the US has HOW MANY people, versus the Netherlands?

    and HOW MANY people versus the UK, Canada, Australia? Switzerland?

  59. avaroo
    January 28th, 2006 at 11:37 | #59

    And, of course, the reason the Netherlands has such a high foreign born PERCENTAGE of the population isn’t because there are so many immigrants. It’s because native born Dutchmen aren’t having children. Not really a problem in the US.

  60. Ian Gould
    January 28th, 2006 at 12:13 | #60

    What does absoute population have to do with it?

    You claimed that the lower US life expectancy was due to a higher proportion (not a higher absolute number) of immigrants.

    I’ve shown that claim to be blatantly false.

    Is it really that difficult to accept that there’s ANY asepct of the US which isn’t superior to every single other country in the world?

  61. avaroo
    January 28th, 2006 at 12:16 | #61

    “What does absoute population have to do with it?”

    If you have 33% of your population foreign born because native born people aren’t having children, that’s quite different that having 33% foreign born because immigration in high.

    “You claimed that the lower US life expectancy was due to a higher proportion (not a higher absolute number) of immigrants.”

    Actually, what I said was the we pretty much let anyone in here and then provide them with taxpayer supported healthcare.

    “Is it really that difficult to accept that there’s ANY asepct of the US which isn’t superior to every single other country in the world? ”

    You appear to have quite a chip on your shoulder about the US. And I can’t really see any reason for it.

  62. January 28th, 2006 at 12:40 | #62

    OT, but the US really sucks at cricket if it makes you feel better. When you’re ranked worse than Namibia, it’s gotta hurt.

  63. Ian Gould
    January 28th, 2006 at 12:40 | #63

    Gross birth rates

    United States 14.14
    New Zealand 13.90
    Australia 12.26
    Netherlands 11.14
    Canada 10.84
    United Kingdom 10.78

    Yeah that 1.7% difference in gross birth rates between the US and New Zealand obviously explains the 75% difference in the percentage of overseas-born citizens.

  64. Ian Gould
    January 28th, 2006 at 12:45 | #64

    to summarise:

    Avaroo: America is the greatest coutnry in the world. We are superior to every other country in every conceivable way and you worthless subhuman vermin should fall to your knees and thank us for permitting subhuman vermin such as ytyourselves to infest our planet.

    Me: No, america is not perfect.

    Avaroo: Why do you hate America?

  65. avaroo
    January 28th, 2006 at 12:50 | #65

    “Avaroo: America is the greatest coutnry in the world. We are superior to every other country in every conceivable way and you worthless subhuman vermin should fall to your knees and thank us for permitting subhuman vermin such as ytyourselves to infest our planet.”

    I’m not sure how you get from “I wouldn’t trade US healthcare for healthcare in any other country” to your comment above.

    What is the source of your birthrate data?

  66. avaroo
    January 28th, 2006 at 13:06 | #66

    Actually, I’m quite surprised that the US would even be ranked in cricket, period. I’ve never known a soul who has even been to a cricket game, much less played in one.

  67. January 28th, 2006 at 13:13 | #67

    Avaroo, you are displaying the narrowness of your social circle now, hehehe…………..

    quick google reveals what seems to be MORE cricket clubs than in my area (jealous)

  68. avaroo
    January 28th, 2006 at 13:23 | #68

    My social cricle DOES NOT include many men who like to look as gay as possible while playing sports.
    :)

  69. avaroo
    January 28th, 2006 at 13:34 | #69

    Just a bit of levity….

    “Come on boys, polish those balls and prepare yourselves for a good googly hurtling down your crease. Cricket fever is here, it’s queer and it’s so deliciously strapping!”

    http://www.rainbownetwork.com/Fun/detail.asp?iData=24058&iCat=110&iChannel=20&nChannel=Fun

  70. hirvi
    January 28th, 2006 at 17:27 | #70

    “The law cannot state that you must notive it though”

    Notive?? – what does that mean? All I said was that we pay tax and get a fair deal.

    “It’s one thing to be poor in Chicago, quite another in Khartoum”

    You obviously haven’t been poor in Chicago or Khartoum. For your sake, I hope you never are.

  71. avaroo
    January 30th, 2006 at 06:21 | #71

    “Notive?? – what does that mean?”

    It should have read “notice”.

    “You obviously haven’t been poor in Chicago or Khartoum.”

    If you think being poor in Chicago is the equivalent of being poor in Khartoum, then you have little concept of being either.

  72. wilful
    January 30th, 2006 at 12:39 | #72

    You appear to have quite a chip on your shoulder about the US. And I can’t really see any reason for it.

    You really aren’t winning on the facts, so why not try a new tack?

  73. avaroo
    January 30th, 2006 at 15:44 | #73

    ah, is that what he’s doing? NOW it makes sense.

  74. hirvi
    February 1st, 2006 at 00:34 | #74

    “If you think being poor in Chicago is the equivalent of being poor in Khartoum, then you have little concept of being either”

    Allow me to disagree.

    Perhaps you haven’t noticed the homeless and (often) hungry people in your country, but it doesn’t mean they don’t exist. I’m not saying they’re on the point of starvation, but to think they don’t suffer severe deprivation and therefore “can’t be poor” is to be heartlessly far from reality.

  75. Ian Gould
    February 1st, 2006 at 15:40 | #75

    >ah, is that what he’s doing? NOW it makes sense.

    Yes because if we review the discussion you were the one providing detailed numerical data and I was the one making irrational and bigoted statements.

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