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Semi-annual Time Changes Are a Pointless, Disruptive, and Expensive Annual Ritual

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Semi-annual Time Changes Are a Pointless, Disruptive, and Expensive Annual Ritual

Business Insider March 13, 2021
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This Sunday, March 14, we will all take part in a pointless, disruptive, and expensive annual ritual. We (unless you live in Arizona, Hawaii, or Puerto Rico, or most other countries in the world) will set our clocks forward one hour and move from Standard Time (ST) to Day Light Saving Time (DST). 

For most of time's history individual towns kept their own time using sun dials. But industrialization, specifically railroads and the telegraph connected the world like never before, which required we implement universal time measurement. In 1884 our current time zone conventions were established at the International Meridian Conference and over the years adapted by each country. 

It took most people off their solar time (when the sun is directly overhead at noon), but we got something far more valuable in exchange: Coordination. The simpler, and more efficient the coordination is, the better. 

And this is why our semi-annual time changes need to end. It disrupts coordination, which is the whole point of keeping time. Most of the world does not observe DST. And countries that do adopt it do so on different days. 

This means for a few weeks each year there is total time chaos. People on the East Coast can't remember if Europe is five or six hours ahead anymore. It wreaks havoc on the airline industry, costing them hundreds of millions of dollars a year in non-pandemic times. JP Morgan estimates consumer spending drops 3.5% every year we return to Standard Time. There are also more heart attacks, strokes, car accidents, and depression. 

And for what benefit? None I can think of. 

As the economy evolves, the change to DST has outlived its purpose (though it is not clear it ever served any). The legend is that DST change began to accommodate farmers when we had a more agrarian economy. But that is a myth. In fact, farmers don't like DST either. It messes with their livestock, who don't understand why crazy humans change their schedules one day for no particular reason. 

The true origins date back to Benjamin Franklin, but it was not adopted until 1918 in order to conserve electricity during World War I. The idea was maximizing waking daylight hours meant less electricity was used—though it turns out we'd conserve more energy if we had year-round DST. Initially in peacetime, each state could choose whether, when, or if the entire state observed DST. But the inconsistency caused confusion and chaos. The Uniform Time Act of 1966 forced all states to commit one way or another and to change clocks on the same day. States can opt out of time changes, but they must be on ST (our winter hours) year-round. 

Since the pandemic there has been some momentum to do away with the time changes. Former Senator Orrin Hatch wrote an op-ed last fall pointing out the costs and limited benefits of ending DST, especially in a pandemic, where we are already cooped up and home, isolated and depressed. Why add another hour of darkness to our day? Outdoor restaurants would have benefited from that extra hour of sun and needed all the help we could give them. Besides many of us aren't leaving our homes early in the day to commute to work. Florida Senator Marco Rubio has just reintroduced his bill to make daylight savings time permanent. "The call to end the antiquated practice of clock changing is gaining momentum throughout the nation," Rubio said. 

There is no reason for time changes in a pandemic. But the case to end time changes is just as strong in the post-pandemic economy. We may go through an economic transformation just as profound as the industrial revolution that created the need for our current time conventions. Odds are more people will be working from home, at least part of the week. This makes coordination even more valuable as more people are in remote locations. There is also less need to change the clocks to maximize daylight because people are increasingly on their own schedules and not so beholden to the company clock. 

Our laws normally lag behind changes in the economy. But there are signs times may be changing. Before the pandemic Florida passed legislation to remain on summer hours year-round. It would not only be better for their citizens, but their many recreation businesses, outdoor bars, and restaurants. But putting Florida on permanent DST requires a change in federal law because states can only opt out of time changes if they stay on ST. 

But now it's not just Florida; bills to get rid of time changes are in 32 state legislatures and 71% of Americans support the idea. And it's not just Americans who are sick of this pointless and even dangerous ritual. In 2019 the European Parliament voted in favor of backing an EU committee draft directive to end the practice. 

The case to get rid of time changes is clear. But what is more contentious is what time should we go with, summer or winter hours? Americans are evenly divided on the issue. Some prefer brighter mornings, others long days.

Personally, I don't have a strong preference for ST or DST. My objection is the inefficiency that comes from changing one from one time to another. We should just pick one and keep it. We can't leave it to individual states to decide which one is right for them, otherwise we risk every state on its own time. This is why we need federal legislation that adopts one non-changing time convention for the whole country (or even better fewer time zones). 

As we recover from the pandemic there will be a reckoning of the society and economy we want. In a world where we are more connected by technology but also sometimes more isolated, that world should be one where we never turn our clocks back or forward ever again (unless we are traveling to a different time zone). 

This piece originally appeared at Business Insider

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Allison Schrager is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal.

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

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