Beltway Confidential

Should the U.S. have just two time zones?

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Beltway Confidential,Michael Barone

The United States, declares economist Allison Schrager in The Atlantic, should have only two time zones. That sounds pretty radical to Americans who have been used to living in a nation with four time zones since 1883. (Actually, we have been living with more, at least since Alaska and Hawaii were admitted to the Union; and Shrager would allow Alaska and Hawaii/Aleutian Islands separate time zones.) Schrager argues that the changeover would actually be quite easy. When the U.S. goes off daylight savings time (except for Arizona and Hawaii, which don't observe it), which happens this year on Sunday, November 3, Americans in the Eastern time zone should set their clocks back one hour, as usual on these occasions (when you shift to daylight savings time, you essentially move one time zone to the east; when you go off, you shift one time zone to the west). Those on the Central and Mountain time zone shouldn't change their clocks at all, while those in the Pacific time zone should set their clocks forward (i.e., move one time zone to the east).

This would result in late dawns in the eastern United States and early dawns on the West Coast, and it would result in no place in the continental United States being more than one hour different from each other. Schrager points out that time zones were first created in 1883 for the convenience of the railroads; before that, each local community had its own time zone. But convenience changes with changes in transportation modes. In the railroad age, almost no one moved across more than one time zone line in a single day. Today, in the jet airline age (which started, let's remember, more than 50 years ago), it's routine for many people to move across three time zones in a single day. And for people to have occasion to speak with others across similar distances.

As Shrager points out, the difference in the way people actually live would be less than many people think. As I've often observed, people in the Eastern and Central time zones do things at the same time; the only difference is what it says on the clock. People arrive at work in Washington at 9:00 and Chicago at 8:00--that is, simultaneously--they have lunch at 12:30 and 11:30, the watch local newscasts at 6:00 and 5:00 and they dine at restaurants at 8:00 and 7:00.

I've found a variation on that theme in traveling to Mexico City, in the Central time zone, and Los Angeles, in the Pacific time zone, two time zones away. People in these two cities also do things simutaneously--lunch in Mexico City is at 2:00 and in Los Angeles at noon and dinner in Mexico City is at 10:00 and Los Angeles at 8:00. Meanwhile, Texas, also in the Central time, seems to work and dine in pretty much its own times, not simultaneously with either the East or West Coasts, just as it has its own separate electric grid.

As sensible as Shrager's proposal is, it would be bound to meet with determined resistance, just as Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels's proposal rearranging the line between the Eastern and Central time zone within Indiana received great opposition in the years after he was first elected governor in 2004. People get used to their time, and develop an attachment to early (or late) sunrises and sunsets and the like. Shrager points out that Alaska went from four time zones to one in 1983 (with very minor exceptions); but the large majority of Alaskans live in the zone running north from Anchorage to Fairbanks, where the time didn't change much at all. The minorities elsewhere adjusted, as they are used to do in a latitude where the sunrise moves 20 minutes earlier every week from December 21 to June 21. Similarly, China declared itself one time zone in 1949, though it spans give geographical time zones. But more than 90 percent of Chinese then and now lived in the Chinese equivalent of our Eastern and Central time zones, making the adjustment to a similar time zone relatively minor--and also, if anyone has forgotten, it was a vicious dictatorship which imposed much more onerous adjustments on the people it ruled than a single time zone.

I could certainly live with two time zones, just one hour apart, in the continental United States, as someone who lives on the East Coast and makes multiple short trips to Central, Mountain and Pacific time zone places every year. It would be convenient also, as Schrager notes, for West Coast financial traders who start work at 5:00am. Presumably these are two significant demographics in the Atlantic's readerships, though as Schrager concedes, "not all Californians work on East Coast time." That's a pretty grand concession; I'm guessing that "not all" equals about 99.9 percent of the state's working population.

But the Atlantic's demographics do not encompass all of America, and as convenient as having two time zones would be for some of us, and as logical as the case for this reform is, I feel sure that resistance will heavily outweigh support. We will continue in many cases to act as if we had only two time zones (eating simultaneously in New York and Chicago) but will resist like the dickens erasing those only-somewhat-adjusted-since-1883 time zone lines on the map. Time has an emotional, even spiritual, as well as a rational component.

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