Each time we Americans need to change our clocks, it’s accompanied by an undercurrent of grumbling about how disruptive it can be to our daily routines.
Indeed, in certain states that are in close physical proximity to time zone boundaries, the issue can be controversial enough to affect the popularity of elected officials, as has happened in Indiana and Arizona.
Daylight savings time, an innovation that became popular in the 1970s, continues to be a nettlesome issue because of when it is in effect in the United States – nearly a month earlier and a month later than before … and no longer in sync with other countries (if they even observe DST — and many of them don’t).
Daylight savings time is supposed to be more energy-efficient. But it turns out the energy savings are minimal if any. Uncoordinated time changes could very well undermine economic efficiency far more than any positive impact in energy savings.
A case in point: Lack of synchronization with European time changes is estimated to cost the airline industry nearly $150 million in travel disruptions each year.
Moreover, some investigations have found that daylight savings time may actually cause worker productivity to be lower.
Does the current time zone structure have to be cast in stone? Of course not. The history of “time” is actually one of pretty constant change, dating all the way back to when time zones were first implemented in the 1880s.
Before then, each city and town had its own local time which was established by calculating the solar time in the local location using sundials. Effectively, this meant that there were more than 300 different time zones in the U.S.A.
The American railroads were more streamlined: They operated with only about 100 time zones.
Clearly, introducing four time zones for the continental U.S. was a way to introduce simplicity while compromising only a little regarding human biorhythms.
Of course, it took awhile for the time zone system to be adopted worldwide, but eventually it happened.
The economic and commercial landscape looks far different today than in the late 19th Century. We are no longer bound by the physical limitations of geography in terms of how we do business.
As a result, some economists are suggesting that it’s time to overhaul the time zone structure and to move to a system that is even simpler and less disruptive to people’s lives.
One economist, Allison Schrager, has come up with the most radical solution I’ve seen yet. Drawing from economic models plus her own experiences working across multiple time zones, Dr. Schrager has put forward the following recommendations:
- Scrap daylight savings time altogether
- Consolidate and reduce the four current continental U.S. time zones (Eastern, Central, Mountain, Pacific) to just two (Eastern, Western)
Under the Schrager scenario, the new time zone map for the continental United States would look like this:
Dr. Schrager points out that, while a fewer number of larger time zone geographies would seem to remove some people further from their “true” time zone, the realities of global commerce are already doing that anyway.
By contrast, she sees the benefits as more major. For example, frequent travel between time zones under today’s four zones causes jet lag, robbing employees of productive work time.
With just a one-hour time difference between New York and California, bi-coastal travel would become almost effortless in that regard, Schrager maintains.
As for the disruption such a change might cause to international business coordination, Dr. Schrager contends that just as it took one or two countries to start things off in the 1880s, someone needs to step up to the plate today to start a new trend.
She says: “… 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 savings time and most other countries didn’t. Time is already arbitrary; why not make it work in our favor?”
Does Dr. Schrager raise some good points? Would simplifying the time zone map and ditching daylight savings time be a “net positive” or not?
Some of her arguments seem to make sense to me. What do you think? Please share your thoughts with other readers if you’re so inclined.