Time to write about time zones

With Daylight Saving Time ending Sunday morning, this 2013 idea from Quartz showed up on my social media news feed:

Daylight saving time in the US ends Sunday, part of the an annual ritual where Americans (who don’t live in Arizona or Hawaii) and residents of 78 other countries including Canada (but not Saskatchewan), most of Europe, Australia and New Zealand turn their clocks back one hour. It’s a controversial practice that became the official standard in America in 1966 and adjusted throughout the 1970s with the intent of conserving energy. The fall time change feels particularly hard because we lose another hour of evening daylight, just as the days grow shorter. It also creates confusion because countries that observe daylight saving change their clocks on different days.

It would seem to be more efficient to do away with the practice altogether. The actual energy savings are minimal, if they exist at all. Frequent and uncoordinated time changes cause confusion, undermining economic efficiency. There’s evidence that regularly changing sleep cycles, associated with daylight saving, lowers productivity and increases heart attacks. Being out of sync with European time changes was projected to cost the airline industry $147 million a year in travel disruptions. But I propose we not only end Daylight Saving, but also take it one step further.

This year, Americans on Eastern Standard Time should set their clocks back one hour (like normal), Americans on Central and Rocky Mountain time do nothing, and Americans on Pacific time should set their clocks forward one hour. After that we won’t change our clocks again – no more daylight saving. This will result in just two time zones for the continental United States. The east and west coasts will only be one hour apart. Anyone who lives on one coast and does business with the other can imagine the uncountable benefits of living in a two-time-zone nation (excluding Alaska and Hawaii).

It sounds radical, but it really isn’t. The purpose of uniform time measures is coordination. How we measure time has always evolved with the needs of commerce. According to Time and Date, a Norwegian newsletter dedicated to time zone information, America started using four time zones in 1883. Before that, each city had its own time standard based on its calculation of apparent solar time (when the sun is directly over-head at noon) using sundials. That led to more than 300 different American time zones. This made operations very difficult for the telegraph and burgeoning railroad industry. Railroads operated with 100 different time zones before America moved to four, which was consistent with Britain’s push for a global time standard. The following year, at the International Meridian Conference, it was decided that the entire world could coordinate time keeping based on the British Prime Meridian (except for France, which claimed the Prime Median ran through Paris until 1911). There are now 24 (or 25, depending on your existential view of the international date line) time zones, each taking about 15 degrees of longitude.

Now the world has evolved further – we are even more integrated and mobile, suggesting we’d benefit from fewer, more stable time zones. Why stick with a system designed for commerce in 1883? In reality, America already functions on fewer than four time zones. I spent the last three years commuting between New York and Austin, living on both Eastern and Central time. I found that in Austin, everyone did things at the same times they do them in New York, despite the difference in time zone. People got to work at 8am instead of 9am, restaurants were packed at 6pm instead of 7pm, and even the TV schedule was an hour earlier. But for the last three years I lived in a state of constant confusion, I rarely knew the time and was perpetually an hour late or early. And for what purpose? If everyone functions an hour earlier anyway, in part to coordinate with other parts of the country, the different time zones lose meaning and are reduced to an arbitrary inconvenience. Research based on time use surveys found Americans’ schedules are determined by television more than daylight. That suggests in effect, Americans already live on two time zones.

It’s true that larger time zones would seem to cheat many people out of daylight by removing them further from their true solar time. But the demands of global commerce already do that. Many people work in companies with remote offices or have clients in different parts of the country. It’s become routine to arrange schedules to coordinate people in multiple domestic time zones. Traders in California start their day at 5am to participate in New York markets. True, not all Californians work on East Coast time, but research by economists Daniel Hamermesh, Catlin Meyers, and Mark Peacock showed communities are more productive when there’s more time coordination. Californians who work on Eastern time require services that can accommodate their schedule and see less of their families on Pacific time.

Frequent travel between the coasts causes jet lag, robbing employees of productive work time. With a one-hour time difference, bicoastal travel would become almost effortless. It might make international business harder, but it’s hard to say for certain. The east coast would be seven hours behind continental Europe, but one hour closer to time zones in Asia. Also, the gains from more frequent inter-state communication might outweigh the cost of extra international coordination. …

Spain technically should be on Greenwich Mean Time but it is on Central European time. Many Spaniards believe being out of sync with solar time lowers productivity. But that is because the Spanish workday has not fully integrated with the rest of Europe. One major factor that used to throw workers off was a three-hour lunch break, but this practice of siesta has largely been abandoned in cities. Still, this shows that optimal time zones account for commerce and common cultural borders, not just longitude. The problems Spain has, being on Central European Time, wouldn’t apply to America because states are better economically integrated and already follow similar work schedules.

Sure, moving the continental states to two time zones would cause two-hour jumps between adjacent time zones and America won’t line up with the time zones of countries directly north and south, unless this catches on as a global trend. But the discontinuity ship already sailed when rich Western countries haphazardly adopted daylight saving and most other countries didn’t. Time is already arbitrary, why not make it work in our favor?

As someone who has lived in the Central Time Zone my entire life, I guess I would be fine with this, although I can only imagine the complaints of people when the sun doesn’t rise until 9 a.m. in another month.

Michael Barone evaluates:

This would result in late dawns in the eastern United States and early dawns on the West Coast, and it would result in no place in the continental United States being more than one hour different from each other. [Economist Allison] Schrager points out that time zones were first created in 1883 for the convenience of the railroads; before that, each local community had its own time zone. But convenience changes with changes in transportation modes. In the railroad age, almost no one moved across more than one time zone line in a single day. Today, in the jet airline age (which started, let’s remember, more than 50 years ago), it’s routine for many people to move across three time zones in a single day. And for people to have occasion to speak with others across similar distances.

As Shrager points out, the difference in the way people actually live would be less than many people think. As I’ve often observed, people in the Eastern and Central time zones do things at the same time; the only difference is what it says on the clock. People arrive at work in Washington at 9:00 and Chicago at 8:00–that is, simultaneously–they have lunch at 12:30 and 11:30, the watch local newscasts at 6:00 and 5:00 and they dine at restaurants at 8:00 and 7:00.

I’ve found a variation on that theme in traveling to Mexico City, in the Central time zone, and Los Angeles, in the Pacific time zone, two time zones away. People in these two cities also do things simutaneously–lunch in Mexico City is at 2:00 and in Los Angeles at noon and dinner in Mexico City is at 10:00 and Los Angeles at 8:00. Meanwhile, Texas, also in the Central time, seems to work and dine in pretty much its own times, not simultaneously with either the East or West Coasts, just as it has its own separate electric grid.

As sensible as Shrager’s proposal is, it would be bound to meet with determined resistance, just as Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels’s proposal rearranging the line between the Eastern and Central time zone within Indiana received great opposition in the years after he was first elected governor in 2004. People get used to their time, and develop an attachment to early (or late) sunrises and sunsets and the like. Shrager points out that Alaska went from four time zones to one in 1983 (with very minor exceptions); but the large majority of Alaskans live in the zone running north from Anchorage to Fairbanks, where the time didn’t change much at all. The minorities elsewhere adjusted, as they are used to do in a latitude where the sunrise moves 20 minutes earlier every week from December 21 to June 21. Similarly, China declared itself one time zone in 1949, though it spans give geographical time zones. But more than 90 percent of Chinese then and now lived in the Chinese equivalent of our Eastern and Central time zones, making the adjustment to a similar time zone relatively minor–and also, if anyone has forgotten, it was a vicious dictatorship which imposed much more onerous adjustments on the people it ruled than a single time zone.

I could certainly live with two time zones, just one hour apart, in the continental United States, as someone who lives on the East Coast and makes multiple short trips to Central, Mountain and Pacific time zone places every year. It would be convenient also, as Schrager notes, for West Coast financial traders who start work at 5:00am. Presumably these are two significant demographics in the Atlantic’s readerships, though as Schrager concedes, “not all Californians work on East Coast time.” That’s a pretty grand concession; I’m guessing that “not all” equals about 99.9 percent of the state’s working population.

But the Atlantic’s demographics do not encompass all of America, and as convenient as having two time zones would be for some of us, and as logical as the case for this reform is, I feel sure that resistance will heavily outweigh support. We will continue in many cases to act as if we had only two time zones (eating simultaneously in New York and Chicago) but will resist like the dickens erasing those only-somewhat-adjusted-since-1883 time zone lines on the map. Time has an emotional, even spiritual, as well as a rational component.

One thing about the “coastal elites” (but not necessarily limited to them) is their belief that everyone is an internationalist doing business all over the world every day. That is a ludicrous belief. Unless you ship something overseas or your customers are overseas, the vast majority of retail businesses have customers within miles of their front door. Even business services companies’ customer bases decrease as distance from the office increases.

One thing that would need to accompany this is something that is unrelated yet overdue — starting school later in the day. In rural areas children already have to get on buses in the dark even under standard time, and this would obviously make that problem worse. An increasing number of studies suggest that children are sleep-deprived as it is, and most may be in school physically but not mentally when school starts around 8 a.m.

The author did address this and other objections in a subsequent post …

What about living in darkness?

Many people were concerned about losing daylight and being further out of sync with solar time (when the sun is at its zenith at noon). This may increase rates of depression from less sun exposure. This is especially true in New England with its very long nights. And this may be especially worrying now that more people bike to work. But we already live in darkness. The demands of work and increased economic integration with other time zones has already removed us from solar time. Interesting research from the University of Texas showed that Americans are more likely to set their schedules with television viewing—not the sun. …

Is this just coastal elitism?

Another commenter felt the fly-over states were being punished to accommodate people on the coast. But really the opposite is true. People on central and Rocky Mountain time keep their current time and longer days. The east coast goes on central time and the west on Rocky Mountain time.

What about the children?

It is true that some children, especially on the west coast, will arrive at school in the dark. But a high school teacher writes that most of his students would prefer more daylight at the end of the day when they are done with class and playing sports.

… though not necessarily persuasively. (One high school teacher does not a counterargument necessarily make, and parental safety concerns undoubtedly will trump the teacher’s claim, though I already addressed that.)

After the first time I wrote about DST, I also wrote about a pair of hair-brained ideas, to get rid of time zones entirely and to adapt a new calendar. This showed up again from the Washington Post in early 2016:

Last Summer, North Korea did something a little odd. On the 70th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from Japanese occupation, the closed and authoritarian state announced it was permanently turning its clocks back half an hour. The country was creating its own time zone: Pyongyang time.

As a plan, it didn’t make a lot of sense. Many, understandably, interpreted it as just another example of Pyongyang’s characteristically illogical policy logic. Yet Pyongyang time also highlighted something else. All around the world, time zones make little sense. Russia currently has 11 time zones, while China just has one. Spanish people are said to be constantly tired because they are in the wrong time zone. Nepal is –inexplicably – the only country in the world to have a time zone that is set to 45 minutes past the hour.

Looking over this chaotic landscape, it’s reasonable to ask: Are time zones inherently flawed? That’s what Steve Hanke and Dick Henry think.

A few years back Hanke, a prominent economist with Johns Hopkins University and a senior fellow with the CATO Institute think tank, and Henry, a professor of physics and astronomy at Johns Hopkins, teamed up to propose a new calendar designed to fix the inefficiencies of the current one. The plan was dubbed the “Hanke-Henry Permanent Calendar.” Last month, after reading a WorldViews story about Pyongyang time, Hanke reached out to us to detail another idea that he and Henry had devised to fix the chaos caused by time zones.

The plan was strikingly simple. Rather than try to regulate a variety of time zones all around the world, we should instead opt for something far easier: Let’s destroy all these time zones and instead stick with one big “Universal Time.” …

The logic of Universal Time is strikingly simple: If it’s 7 in the morning in Washington D.C., it’s 7 everywhere else in the world too. There are no time zones. Wherever you are, the time is the same.

While it may ultimately simplify our lives, the concept would require some big changes to the way we think about time. As the clocks would still be based around the Coordinated Universal Time (the successor to Greenwich Mean Time that runs through Southeast London) most people in the world would have to change the way they consider their schedules. In Washington, for example, that means we’d have to get used to rising around noon and eating dinner at 1 in the morning. (Okay, perhaps that’s not that big a change for some people.)

But in many other ways, Hanke and Henry argue, the new system would make communication, travel and trade across international borders far, far easier.

Again, though, most people neither communicate nor travel nor trade across international borders. This would be another reason for Americans, who already look askance at business in their current swing to left-wing and right-wing populism and for the most part dislike their employers, to hate business more.

The Post interview revealed:

WV: So, the Universal Time Zone system. What lead you to argue so strongly for that option?

HH: Because from a physics point of view, there IS only one time! And this principle of physics lines up perfectly with the principles of economics. That is precisely why Hanke and Henry addressed this topic in a segment of a Johns Hopkins course on problems in applied economics.

What? Maybe there is only one time (although would you ask economists for physics information?), but the fact is that the sun rises and falls differently everywhere every day. From the perspective of human beings, which is the only perspective that counts, time is in fact not the same.

WV: But why would it work better than, say, regulating time zones so they tie in better with the local solar time?

HH: Local solar time was fine, when almost all activity was local! Today, much activity is global, and ONE time is called for. You’d quickly get used to the new reading on your watch and your clock. I (Henry) recall when my elderly mother in Canada said to me, oh, it was hot today, 30 degrees! If she could change [from measuring temperature in Fahrenheit to measuring it in Celsius], everyone can change!

Someone might want to point out Henry that (1) the U.S. has not adopted the metric system and specifically Celsius temperatures, which (2) are less accurate than Fahrenheit temperatures, since 1 Fahrenheit degree equals 1.8 Celsius degrees.

WV: Are there any drawbacks that you could see?

HH: Not really. Except that the tricky part of implementation is the setting up of hours-of-work around the world. This is where even China, with its single time, has not fully succeeded: there must be local regional “opening and closing” hours for government offices and for businesses. No one wants people having to work without the sun being up.

WV: But isn’t China’s system – in effect, having a local time and Beijing time – in some way inefficient?

HH: No it is NOT inefficient. It combines the best of both systems: One universal time, combined with local work time connected with the sun being up. This is not rocket science!

WV: People have been suggesting variations on the idea of a worldwide time zone for at least a century. Why has a system based on local political decision prevailed?

HH: Everything based on local political decisions always prevails: We need to get the politicians on board! In fact, with our scheme, local political influence on hours of work would be local to the city or the state. You preserve local control of hours of work! Having said that, hours of work based on the boundaries of the present “time zones” likely would prevail as “hours of work” zones.

WV: You’ve also written extensively above calendar reform. Do you see this as part of the same problem, or a separate issue?

HH: We propose worldwide adoption of the Hanke-Henry calendar on 2018 January 1 Monday, and adoption of world wide use of Universal Time at that moment. It is ONE issue, and should be implemented world wide, all at once, on 2018 January 1 Monday. One common standard, world wide, overlaid with local and religious calendars as people want, no problem! Please see (and publish if you wish) the attached Hanke-Henry Permanent Calendar!

That would be …

If this strikes very conservative readers as being steps toward one-worldism, well, they are.

WV: Do you think a move toward a Universal Time Zone and a new calendar system is possible without some sort of supranational body taking charge?

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