Universal Time: The radical plan to destroy time zones

The logic of Steve Hanke and Dick Henry's proposal is strikingly simple: wherever you are, the time is the same

Adam Taylor
Friday 12 February 2016 16:23 GMT
While it may simplify our lives, the concept would require some big changes to the way we think about time
While it may simplify our lives, the concept would require some big changes to the way we think about time (AFP/Getty Images)

Last Summer, North Korea did something a little odd. On the 70th anniversary of Korea's liberation from Japanese occupation, the closed and authoritarian state announced it was permanently turning its clocks back half an hour. The country was creating its own time zone: Pyongyang time.

As a plan, it didn't make a lot of sense. Many, understandably, interpreted it as just another example of Pyongyang's characteristically illogical policy logic. Yet Pyongyang time also highlighted something else. All around the world, time zones make little sense. Russia currently has 11 time zones, while China just has one. Spanish people are said to be constantly tired because they are in the wrong time zone. Nepal is –inexplicably – the only country in the world to have a time zone that is set to 15 minutes past the hour.

Looking over this chaotic landscape, it's reasonable to ask: Are time zones inherently flawed? That's what Steve Hanke and Dick Henry think.

North Korea new time zone

A few years back Hanke, a prominent economist with Johns Hopkins University and a senior fellow with the CATO Institute think tank, and Henry, a professor of physics and astronomy at Johns Hopkins, teamed up to propose a new calendar designed to fix the inefficiencies of the current one. The plan, dubbed the "Hanke-Henry Permanent Calendar," Last month, after reading a WorldViews story about Pyongyang time, Hanke reached out to us to detail another idea that he and Henry had devised to fix the chaos caused by time zones.

The plan was strikingly simple. Rather than try to regulate a variety of time zones all around the world, we should instead opt for something far easier: Let's destroy all these time zones and instead stick with one big "Universal Time."

Does that sound extreme? Perhaps, but perhaps not. The map below gives you an idea of what the world looks like now, and what it would like if we instead stuck to single system of Universal Time. The logic of Universal Time is strikingly simple: If it's 7 in the morning in Washington D.C., it's 7 everywhere else in the world too. There are no time zones. Wherever you are, the time is the same.

(Washington Post)

While it may ultimately simplify our lives, the concept would require some big changes to the way we think about time. As the clocks would still be based around the Coordinated Universal Time (the successor to Greenwich Mean Time that runs through Southeast London) most people in the world would have to change the way they consider their schedules. In Washington, for example, that means we'd have to get used to rising around noon and eating dinner at 1 in the morning. (Okay, perhaps that's not that big a change for some people.)

But in many other ways, Hanke and Henry argue, the new system would make communication, travel and trade across international borders far, far easier.

Washington Post's WorldViews recently conducted an interview over email with Hanke and Henry in which they explained why time zones had to go, why Universal Time was a better system, and why the time has also come for their proposed calendar reform. The exchange, lightly edited for clarity, is below (Hanke and Henry gave joint responses to the questions).

WorldViews: It was mentioned in a previous email that there were around five countries who changed their time zones last year. Is this a large number for one year?

Hanke and Henry: It is about par for the course. It remains a political football, which would disappear if our ideas were adopted.

WV: So why do countries change their time zones?

HH: Usually for political reasons, but sometimes for economic reasons. We are on the right side of history: Look at the U.S., where local time in each city was the norm until the railroads came, and time zones were created. Sandford Flemming, a Scottish-Canadian railway engineer, was the first to propose a system of world-wide time zones in 1889: “the twin agencies steam and electricity” annihilated distances and made reform necessary. Today the agency of the Internet has annihilated time and space completely, and has set us up for adoption of world-wide time.

WV: What problems have time zones created around the world?

HH: [Former President Dmitry] Medvedev consolidated Russian time to some extent in 2010, but these reforms have been undone by the Duma in July 2014. Bungled implementation of a good idea. Now North Korea has adopted a half-hour difference between Chinese time and Japanese time. Confusion abounds! Indonesia, where one of us (Hanke) was [former President] Suharto’s chief economic advisor during the Asian financial crisis of 1998, is a large country that you should keep your eye on, as they have proposed to abolish two of their three time zones for economic reasons. That would put Indonesia in the same time zone as Singapore.

WV: Do any time zone policies strike you as particularly egregious?

HH: You are asking if some strands of spaghetti are worse than others: they are all bad.

WV: So, the Universal Time Zone system. What lead you to argue so strongly for that option?

HH: Because from a physics point of view, there IS only one time! And this principle of physics lines up perfectly with the principles of economics. That is precisely why Hanke and Henry addressed this topic in a segment of a Johns Hopkins course on problems in applied economics.

WV: But why would it work better than, say, regulating time zones so they tie in better with the local solar time?

HH: Local solar time was fine, when almost all activity was local! Today, much activity is global, and ONE time is called for. You’d quickly get used to the new reading on your watch and your clock. I (Henry) recall when my elderly mother in Canada said to me, oh, it was hot today, 30 degrees! If she could change [from measuring temperature in Fahrenheit to measuring it in Celsius], everyone can change!

WV: What would be the major positive points of a Universal Time system?

HH: 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.

WV: But isn't China's system – in effect, having a local time and Beijing time – in some way inefficient?

HH: No it is NOT inefficient. It combines the best of both systems: One universal time, combined with local work time connected with the sun being up. This is not rocket science!

WV: People have been suggesting variations on the idea of a worldwide time zone for at least a century. Why has a system based on local political decision prevailed?

HH: Everything based on local political decisions always prevails: We need to get the politicians on board! In fact, with our scheme, local political influence on hours of work would be local to the city or the state. You preserve local control of hours of work! Having said that, hours of work based on the boundaries of the present “time zones” likely would prevail as “hours of work” zones.

WV: You’ve also written extensively above calendar reform. Do you see this as part of the same problem, or a separate issue?

HH: We propose worldwide adoption of the Hanke-Henry calendar on 2018 January 1 Monday, and adoption of world wide use of Universal Time at that moment. It is ONE issue, and should be implemented world wide, all at once, on 2018 January 1 Monday. One common standard, world wide, overlaid with local and religious calendars as people want, no problem! Please see (and publish if you wish) the attached Hanke-Henry Permanent Calendar!

[Note: The Washington Post's Laris Karklis actually made a clearer version of the calendar, which we've included below]

(Washington Post)

WV: Do you think a move toward a Universal Time Zone and a new calendar system is possible without some sort of supranational body taking charge?

HH: For now, at least, we are relying on social media to start the ball rolling. 2018 January 1 is only two years away! Spread the word! Let’s go viral!

© Washington Post

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