I Think I Just Solved Daylight Saving Time

There’s an unspoken assumption behind the recent move in Congress to put the United States on daylight saving time permanently. The assumption is that the vote about daylight saving time is important because the federal government decides when we wake up, when we go to school or work and when we go to bed.

Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, a sponsor of the Sunshine Protection Act that passed the Senate on March 15, says sticking with daylight saving time through the winter would reduce crime and give children more outdoor time in afternoons and evenings.

Members of the House who oppose the bill worry that under year-round daylight saving time, children would be going to school in the dark. But while they disagree with Rubio and his allies on how to set the clock, they seem to buy into the same unspoken assumption, which is that whatever Congress decides about the clock will govern how Americans live their lives.

Why, though, should Congress get to decide? The setting of the clock is less important than it’s made out to be. It’s really just a number. Let’s say the bill becomes law and everyone in, say, Vermont decides that it’s not safe for children to be going to school in the dark. There’s a simple fix: Start the school day in Vermont an hour later. That would instantly undo the damage.

Or let’s say the Sunshine Protection Act is defeated in the House and Congress goes the other direction, scrapping daylight saving time and mandating year-round standard time. If people in Florida don’t like that, they could start and end school in Florida an hour earlier, so there’s still plenty of time for after-school play and sports.

Likewise for companies, local government offices, churches, restaurants, clubs — really, everyone. If the federal or state government sets the clock in a way that doesn’t suit you, adjust your opening and closing times to right the wrong. Simple!

While we’re at it, why stick to the same hours year-round? A school board might want to start classes later in the winter than in the spring and fall, effectively creating its own customized clock change. Or not. Whatever suits.

To be sure, such adjustments would create some coordination problems, which is probably why they weren’t made in the past. For years, governments and employers have stuck with ill-fitting opening and closing times, winter and summer, to keep their people in sync with one another and with people in other places.

But uniformity has never been all Americans cared about. If it were, noon in New York would also be noon in Los Angeles, and the United States would be more like authoritarian China, where five time zones are reduced to one: Beijing Time. Americans are already experienced in making allowances for local needs.

And now two new forces, Covid-19 and information technology, have made coordination problems less of a concern than ever before.

The surprising success of working from home during the pandemic has demonstrated that it’s the work, not the face time, that matters. For example, if school starts later in the winter, that would prevent working parents from getting to the office at the usual hour. In the past that would have been a career killer. Now, for many, it’s business as usual.

Technology like Zoom, whose deployment was accelerated by Covid-19, makes it easier for individuals and institutions to set schedules as they see fit regardless of where Congress pushes the hour hand. With scheduling programs such as Doodle, Calendly and Google Calendar, you don’t even need to know what time zones the people you’re meeting with are in.

Rubio and his fellow sunshine preservationists are right about one thing: Springing ahead and falling back isn’t a great idea. It induces stationary jet lag in the entire population twice every year. But if we’re going to standardize on one clock, I’d prefer that it be standard time. Springing ahead permanently, and not returning that borrowed hour in the fall, would rob us of an hour forever, which seems regrettable.

Time zones were introduced in the 19th century for the convenience of railroads. Daylight saving time was likewise a command-and-control invention, put into effect during World War I in the hope of saving energy. (Whether it was successful in doing so is a matter of continuing debate.)

Technology and work arrangements have evolved to the point where we can rewind the clock to the preindustrial era in which people’s bodies were in sync with the rising and setting of the sun. There are still vestiges of that era: Parks and beaches are open from dawn to dusk. Muslims fast during daytime hours during Ramadan. In Judaism, there are 12 “seasonal hours” of daytime that are longer in the summer than in the winter. And farmers work by the sun when possible — although dairy farmers have to milk their cows according to when the milk trucks show up, which ties them to society’s relentless metronome.

I ran some of this by Daniel Hamermesh, an economist who has written extensively on how people spend their time. He is an emeritus professor at the University of Texas, Austin, and at Royal Holloway University of London. He disagreed with the part about people setting their own schedules by taking advantage of information technology and new work arrangements. An “overwhelming majority” of production workers have jobs in which “their schedules must be fairly rigid and coordinated,” he wrote to me in an email.

That’s fair. You can’t make a Frappuccino or a jet engine at your own pace from home. But a lot of this is about decisions of employers, not individuals. When will the Starbucks branch or the Pratt & Whitney plant open and close?

I agree with Till Roenneberg and Eva C. Winnebeck of the Institute of Medical Psychology at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich and Elizabeth B. Klerman of the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. In a 2019 article in Frontiers in Physiology: Chronobiology, they wrote:


Number of the week


According to FactSet, this number is the median estimate by economists for consumer confidence in March in nations using the euro currency. The confidence measure combines questions about the financial situation of households, the general economic situation, unemployment expectations and savings expectations over the next 12 months. The scale ranges from –100 to 100; a neutral reading is zero. The February number, which was recorded before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, was –8.8. The European Commission will release the official number on Wednesday.

Quote of the day

“I spent most of my youth in Clinton, La. Back then, Clinton had a population of around 2,000. It’s where my maternal great-grandparents lived, got married and had my grandmother in 1928. Somehow, even then, in the segregated South, my great-grandparents sent their child, my grandmother, to college. I am grateful they prioritized education — a commitment that has stayed in my family for generations.”

— Shalanda Young, in her confirmation hearing to serve as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, on March 2, 2021. (She was confirmed as director this month.)

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