Most people hate springing forward and falling back every year. Moving clocks ahead one hour in March only to return them to their previous settings in November wastes time — literally.
No adjustments to clocks change the length of the day, which is determined by latitude (distance from the equator) and season of the year. Daylight saving time, which kicks in this year at 2 a.m. March 12, simply shifts an hour of sunshine from the beginning of the day to its end. “Saving” an hour of sunlight requires losing an hour of sleep in the spring, reclaimed in the fall when standard time — observed for a mere four months — resumes.
Daylight saving time has been one of the many irritations of modern life since at least World War II. It became a permanent irritant during the oil crisis of the early 1970s when President Richard Nixon signed legislation mandating that clocks be moved forward one hour on an early March Sunday morning to save energy.
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The policy’s stated justification was that by providing an “extra” hour of sunlight at day’s end, people returning home from work wouldn’t have to turn on their lights as soon and, hence, consume less electricity than they would otherwise.
The energy-saving argument has been debunked many times since then by careful studies of energy consumption. One of the reasons it doesn’t pan out is because electricity provides comfort as well as lighting. Even if a family doesn’t turn on the lights until 8:30 or 9 p.m. during the summer, people still want to cool off after returning home from work — and for most Americans, a dip in the backyard pool isn’t an option. With millions now working from home, the energy-saving rationale makes even less sense.
Though computers, cellphones and many other digital devices adjust to the time changes automatically, most analog watches and clocks still must be reset manually. That’s an inconvenience, but additional costs are incurred as well.
First, changing time messes up our internal body clocks — in effect, causing people to experience the equivalent of jet lag without traveling to another time zone. Research shows that the shock to our circadian rhythms — the “physical, mental and behavioral changes” that occur naturally in response to light and darkness — causes sleepiness and inattention, which contribute to lower productivity on the job and spikes in heart attacks, workplace injuries and auto accidents in the days immediately after the time changes.
Implicit costs also are incurred whenever “clock time” diverges from “sun time.” According to my back-of-the-envelope calculation, we lose nearly $1.7 billion of valuable time to the annual spring-forward, fall-back exercise. The loss is based on what economists call “opportunity costs”: the value of time that could be better spent on more productive (or enjoyable) activities.
Economists typically base opportunity cost estimates on individual wage rates. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated average hourly earnings in January 2023 at about $33. Assuming it takes everyone about 10 minutes (0.16 of an hour) to change their clocks and watches, the opportunity cost amounts to about $5.28 per person. Just counting the 158 million Americans who currently hold some job, the one-time opportunity cost for the country is more than $834 million each time we change our clocks, or just under $1.7 billion a year.
The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that 18 states already have approved legislation making daylight saving time the year-round norm. Several other states are considering such legislation.
But the states can’t move forward because permanent daylight saving time is inconsistent with the Uniform Time Act of 1966. While it’s permissible to adopt standard time year-round, as Arizona, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and U.S. Pacific Territories have done, extending daylight saving time beyond the current eight months requires an act of Congress.
Given both the nuisance factor and the significant costs imposed on us by being forced to change our clocks twice a year, it’s hard to understand why Congress hasn’t done away with the irrational time-change regime.
The logical solution, therefore, is year-round standard time, which individual states remain free to adopt on their own.
Shughart II is a research director for the Independent Institute and the J. Fish Smith professor in public choice at Utah State University’s Huntsman School of Business. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.