Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Friday, December 30, 2011

Some Ramblings on Time and Money

Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution links to a piece in Wired about a new proposed calendar and timekeeping convention (he also links to a Cato post promoting the scheme). I will ignore the proposed calendar and focus on the timekeeping convention.

The basic idea is to force everyone to use Greenwich Mean Time, with no adjustment for daylight saving time (which would be abolished). So if it is 11 a.m. on Sunday in London, it is 11 a.m. on Sunday everywhere. (There would be no international date line, as the entire world would simultaneously pass from one day/date to the next.)

Obviously, people would not be compelled to keep their current daily schedules (e.g., getting up at 7 a.m. and going to sleep at 11 p.m.). Rather, it is anticipated that many people would wake up in the "astronomical" morning and go to sleep at "astronomical" night, regardless of the nominal time. (So for instance, a New Yorker might wake up at noon and go to sleep at 4 a.m., as this would correspond to 7 a.m./11 p.m. as currently denominated.)

What I find fascinating about this suggestion is something that its proponents seem to find uninteresting: the question of how "nominal" time may or may not have "real" consequences. Here's one of the proponents, Richard Henry, describing how he responded when a child told him she didn't like his calendar scheme:

And I said, ‘Why?’ She said, ‘My birthday is always going to be on a Thursday.’ I said, ‘You’re free to celebrate when you want! What the devil difference does it make what it says on the calendar?’
All right, so, one might ask Henry why he cares about timekeeping conventions at all. What the devil difference does it make what it says on the clock? I have a digital scale in the kitchen, and by pressing a button I can switch back and forth between metric and imperial units. With digital timekeeping, one could in principle do the same thing. And then it is very difficult to see why the "nominal time" would matter at all. (Already it is easy to find websites to convert between time zones, and in fact in some places there are multiple clocks on the wall for this purpose - some watches even have this feature.)

The answer, presumably, is coordination. The shift to time zones apparently took place because trains kept slamming into each other (or at least that's what I remember reading in Nature's Metropolis by William Cronon). (Previously, a local official computed noon the old-fashioned way and set a clock accordingly - therefore, time varied continuously, not discretely, with longitude. Or more precisely, there were a lot more discrete time zones, so that it verged on continuity. In jest, I once imagined exactly such a system, not realizing it was the status quo before the 19th century. Anyway you can see how difficult it would be to formulate train schedules in such an environment.)

So then to me, the interesting discussion is how much coordination matters - how much do nominal changes in timekeeping conventions affect real behavior? The answer seems to be "a lot," but it would be fun to look into this more closely.

But so anyway, it seems to me that these guys want it both ways. On the one hand, they claim that with their timekeeping convention Russia could coordinate banking hours across the country. On the other hand, if you don't like any of the perceived consequences of the system, then those consequences are treated as merely nominal changes that will not compel any change in behavior. Celebrate your birthday anytime you want, regardless of what the calendar says! What the devil difference does it make?

One could just as easily say, "What the devil difference does it make to banking hours in Russia? Just dictate their hours in Moscow time!" That is, if you want all the banks to be open at once, you hardly need to reformulate your entire conception of time in order to make it happen. In Soviet Russia, clock adjusts you for daylight saving time!

All right, so, all of this is by way of setting up an interesting analogy to monetary policy, a metaphor famously drawn by Milton Friedman (as related by Paul Krugman in the New York Times Magazine):

Back in 1953, Milton Friedman offered an analogy: daylight saving time. It makes a lot of sense for businesses to open later during the winter months, yet it’s hard for any individual business to change its hours: if you operate from 10 to 6 when everyone else is operating 9 to 5, you’ll be out of sync. By requiring that everyone shift clocks back in the fall and forward in the spring, daylight saving time obviates this coordination problem. Similarly, Friedman argued, adjusting your currency’s value solves the coordination problem when wages and prices are out of line, sidestepping the unwillingness of workers to be the first to take pay cuts.
This is pretty fascinating, as it again touches on the question of how nominal values can affect real outcomes. I want to think about it some more.

Anyway, I was a little surprised to see the abolish-time-zone scheme promoted on the Cato website - are time zones and daylight saving time now seen as socialist endeavors? Certainly I think there is a strong conservative distrust of any claim that nominal changes can have real-world consequences. I suspect that there is a psychological thread that connects the gold-bug obsessions of the modern GOP, sentiment against daylight saving time, and ultimately the desire to abolish time zones entirely. If the government can't meddle with time or money, we will be on our way to true freedom! Or at least off the road to serfdom.


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