Economics is a perennially relevant political topic. Of late, it has spawned discussions on minimum wage, taxation, trade deals, sanctions, inflation, privatization, deregulation and monopolization. What is missing from the public discourse, however, is quite literally one of the important economic issues of our time: daylight saving.
On March 9, clocks in the United States and Canada sprang from 2 a.m. to 3 a.m., local time. This follows a reverse movement that occurred Nov. 3 of last year. The purpose of this semiannual ritual, as you may be aware, is to keep clocks more closely synchronized with seasonal changes in solar time. As a result, people get to spend more of their leisure time in the daylight, which is claimed to have myriad benefits. Much of the Western world shifted to a daylight saving time scheme to save energy, but other pros include opportunities for shopping and recreation.
Now, as a college student whose schedule rarely follows the sun, it may be easy to dismiss such benefits. But daylight saving time does not just benefit middle-aged white women who want to go Nordic walking in Fairmount Park. For retailers, an increase of a few percentage points in shopping can mean millions of dollars in revenue. Such revenue translates to increased employment and overall economic prosperity.
Nevertheless, there has always been a strong lobby against DST. Particularly, farmers oppose it, for the switch disrupts their sun-tied schedule. One wonders, though, why workers who rely on the sun should care so much about adhering to a strict timetable. Just as farmers and farmhands work with changing seasons, they can change their schedules twice a year — it makes little sense for one sector of the economy to be spared inconvenience while the rest is denied the benefits of DST.
One argument that opponents offer, though, has merit to it: the switches to and from DST are awfully disruptive. When the nation switched to DST, not all of it did. Arizona (but not the Navajo nation) refuses to switch, as do Hawaii and the overseas territories. Canada switched too, except for certain regions of Saskatchewan and other backwater areas that do not abide by big-city rules. Mexico will switch April 6, except for ten border cities and Baja California — which follow the U.S. schedule — and Sonora, which does not switch at all.
Clearly, the inconsistency of DST is a nightmare for companies whose employees may cross borders every day. A key requirement for an effective DST regime is that the switch must be consistent within a large region. Unfortunately, the outlook for increased cooperation in this matter is grim; it is remarkable that the United States and Canada have come so far, but a universal scheme does not seem attainable if DST is regulated on the state, provincial or even local level. We should always hesitate to expand federal power, but this seems like an appropriate time if ever there was one. A federal law enforcing a uniform standard across the United States that coordinates with Canada and Mexico seems the only viable solution to the consistency problem.
If we are optimistic for a moment and assume that this common-sense reform passes, which in Canada would require a change to its constitution, a question arises: when should we switch to and from DST? As the specific dates are not too important, it makes sense that Mexico should switch to the U.S.-Canadian standard, being the odd one out. However, I propose that we switch to the dates the European Union has adopted instead. While it would be a tougher switch in the short term, trans-Atlantic consistency would be a strong benefit to trade. The EU’s dates are not inherently better, of course, but it must be easier to get three countries to agree than the EU’s 28, so following them is practical.
On that note, there is another respect in which European DST differs from that in North America. In Europe, all countries switch at the same time — at 1 a.m. universal time (a similar concept to Greenwich mean time), regardless of what time that is in the local time zone. In the U.S., we switch at 2 a.m. local time, causing a wholly unnecessary de-synchronization between time zones during the switch. It turns out that during those brief periods when the continent is not locked in bitter ethnic conflict, Europe has some good ideas.
I look forward to a time when the clock switches at the same hour on the same day from Hawaii to Romania. Much of the grumbling over DST will disappear when the process is universal (in the Western world, at least) and consistent. Though the benefits may seem small, the impact will be great on such a large scale. The necessary solutions are clear and the incentives self-evident: easier teleconferencing, international trade, communication and, of course, Nordic walking.
Kim Post is a copy editor at The Triangle. He can be contacted at [email protected]