Don't Give Central Planners the Time of Day

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The ridiculous idea of abolishing time zones has reared its empty head again, its backers displaying the vacuous arrogance of central planners in the process. Here's an excerpt from an interview in the Washington Post:

[World Views]: What would be the major positive points of a Universal Time system?

[Steve Hanke and Dick Henry]: The reason all the airlines in the world use, today, now, Universal Time (Greenwich time), is so that planes don't crash into each other. Every pilot and navigator knows what time it is. As it stands now, we passengers don't have what the pilots do have and we miss flights because of clock issues and time zones and daylight savings time ... and it's not just airline flights, it is conference calls as well.

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.
Hanke and Henry object to the complex time zone maps and political finagling of our current system, and are fixated on the fact that communications technology makes it possible for us to communicate around the world, in real time, at any time. And while there is a grain of appeal in the apparent simplicity of not having to reset those few timepieces that don't automatically do so thanks to that same technology, there are many practical problems they overlook -- as Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times and others have noted. I encountered my favorite example, making an international call, some time ago, and I'll quote part of it again:
"We don't centre our waking/sleeping cycle on solar noon, fool nephew," Uncle Steve explains. "We centre the school day on solar noon. In countries above and below certain latitudes, where seasonal variation in the amount of daylight is significant, it's important for there to be the maximum amount of light when children are going to school in the morning, and coming home from school in the afternoon. Here in Melbourne, solar noon is about 10:30 Standard Time, so the average school day is timetabled from 07:00 to 14:00, and a typical working day runs from about 07:00 to 15:00. That means that on a working day, I get up at 05:00, at the earliest."

"Ooogh. Sorry. That's about two hours later than I reckoned," I tell him.
It astounds me that a scenario like this doesn't occur to or deter Hanke and Henry, who unwittingly concede that we might regress to a system much like the patchwork of local times we had before the conception of the current system of time zones. (They refer to it as "local regional 'opening and closing' hours".) At best, we'd end up with time zones by another name, since sunrise and sunset are of some consequence to practically everyone.

In fact, now that I think of it, their system would make it much harder to adjust to a different local noon. Currently, if I jet off to Los Angeles, my smartphone will reset itself to the local time and I'll know right away what part of the day it is. (Or, maybe I have to find a clock and reset my watch to it, like that's difficult.) But under this proposal, I'd pay for the "convenience" of possibly not having to reset my watch by having to find out what local noon is, and then asking somebody or mentally calculating -- jet lag notwithstanding -- every time I look at my watch, just to have a clue what part of the day it is.

I have noted before that central planning removes an enormous amount of thinking from an economy. This is in part because the input of countless individuals, who know their own situations better than someone far away does, is bypassed. But this crusade shows us another way central planning dumbs things down: It imposes the limitations and conceits of the planners on everyone else.

It may be true that one time zone might, in some ways, simplify interacting with others across the world -- at least for those who can't just pay attention to time zones, or convert everything to Coordinated Universal Time, or (best yet) let their computers do it. But, unlike many of those computers, we aren't locked in a closet and tied to the grid with electric and data umbilicals. We have to interact with local people, too. Perhaps the only thing more astounding to me than the fact that someone is tilting at this windmill is that this silliness is being taken at all seriously.

Here's a truly radical proposal: More people should quit attempting to outsource their own thinking to central planners: If central planning can screw up a licked problem like coordinating local times across the globe, then just imagine what it can do to something that really needs a solution!

-- CAV

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