Like a lot of hardworking Americans, I often complain that there aren’t enough hours in the day. That’s why I dread what happens this weekend, when we’re all supposed to “spring forward” between sundown on Saturday and sunup on Sunday.
I want my hour back!
I know, I know: It will be returned to me later this year, when we “fall back” on the weekend of October 29-30. But here at NRO, we’re all about standing athwart history yelling “stop!” This Daylight Saving scheme, in contrast, demands that we holler “faster!” or “reverse!”
Can we please slow down and get something straight? There is simply no way to “save daylight.” People can spin the hands of their clocks like roulette wheels, but come Monday here in Washington, D.C., we’re still going to have sunshine for about 12 hours and 45 minutes. The sun can rise at a time of day we call dawn or Howdy Doody Time or whatever–but the stubborn facts of astronomy are at work here and they can’t be wished away.
The reason we have Daylight Saving Time (DST), of course, is because the politicians have mandated it. Washington is much better at wasting things than saving them, but federal lawmakers nevertheless spent much of the 20th century insisting, with typical modesty, that they could “save daylight.” (Why couldn’t they instead have tried to save Social Security?)
Congress passed the first DST law in 1918 and repealed it the next year. Franklin Delano Roosevelt imposed year-round DST for three years during the Second World War. In 1966, Congress approved a uniform DST standard for the whole country. In the 1970s, Richard Nixon had the nation go on DST for 15 consecutive months in order to conserve energy. The last president to modify DST was Ronald Reagan, who advanced DST’s start date to the first Sunday in April.
I recently wondered exactly why we observe Daylight Saving Time (DST). For some reason, I had harbored a vague notion that it had to do with farmers.
Well, it turns out that DST had nothing to do with farmers, who traditionally haven’t cared much for it. They care a lot less nowadays, but when the first DST law was making its way through Congress, farmers actually lobbied against it. Dairy farmers were especially upset because their cows refused to accept humanity’s tinkering with the hands of time. The obstinate cud-chewers wanted to be milked every twelve hours, and had absolutely no interest in resetting their biological clocks–even if the local creameries suddenly wanted their milk an hour earlier.
As Michael Downing points out in his new book, Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time, urban businessmen were a major force behind the adoption of DST in the United States. They thought daylight would encourage workers to go shopping on their way home. They also tried to make a case for agriculture, though they didn’t bother to consult any actual farmers. One pamphlet argued that DST would benefit the men and women who worked the land because “most farm products are better when gathered with dew on. They are firmer, crisper, than if the sun has dried the dew off.” At least that was the claim of the Boston Chamber of Commerce, chaired by department-store magnate A. Lincoln Filene. This was utter nonsense. A lot of crops couldn’t be harvested until the morning dew had evaporated. What’s more, morning dew has no effect whatsoever on firmness or crispness.
Perhaps farmers should take one for the team–i.e., put up with DST even though they don’t like it because it keeps city cash registers chinging into the twilight. Yet the contention that DST is good for business is doubtful. It may help some businesses, but it also stands to reason that other ones suffer. If people are more likely to browse the racks at Filene’s Basement in the daylight, then they’re probably also less likely to go to the movies or take-out restaurants. And in the morning, when it’s darker during rush hour, commuters are perhaps disinclined to stop at the corner store for a newspaper or the coffee bar for a latte. Although it’s impossible to know the precise economic effects of DST, any attempt to calculate them carries the malodorous whiff of industrial policy.
We’re also informed that DST helps conserve energy, apparently because people arriving home when the sun is still up don’t switch on their lights. Didn’t it occur to anybody that maybe they compensate by switching them on earlier in the morning? Moreover, people who arrive home from work an hour earlier during the hot summer months are probably more prone to turning up their air conditioners. According to Downing, the petroleum industry once was “an ardent and generous supporter” of DST because it believed people would hop in their cars and drive for pleasure–and guzzle more gas.
But the very worst thing about DST is that it’s bad for your health. According to Stanley Coren, a sleep expert at the University of British Columbia, the number of traffic accidents and fatal industrial mishaps increase on the Monday after we spring forward. (Check out one of his studies here.) The reason, presumably, is because losing even a single hour of sleep over the weekend makes a lot of people a bit drowsier on what we might usefully call Black Monday. Unfortunately, there’s no compensating effect of a super-safe Monday as we go off DST and “fall back” in the autumn.
So DST is deadly. But maybe we should keep that troubling little fact to ourselves, before Congress decides to impose the National Bedtime Hour.