City Paper is not for tourists
For nearly 100 years, daylight saving time has been a pox on American sanity. It’s time for its long, dumb history to end.
Enough with changing our clocks (car, watch, bedside, kitchen); enough with the cutesy mnemonic devices (“spring forward—-or backward?”); and enough with remembering things period (“is it this Saturday?”). Daylight saving time has been tried and tested all over the world for different reasons by many generations, and the only solid, incontrovertible fact to glean from this grand temporal experiment is that it’s a pain in the ass.
What has daylight saving done for D.C.? Except for making people miss flights, morning meetings, and an hour of dear sleep, it’s given us precious little. The District has a particularly tortured relationship with DST, having been the subject of a little experiment of Warren G. Harding. Harding generally opposed DST, but in the summer of 1922, he mandated that federal employees in the District of Columbia observe it. D.C.’s federal workers wound their clocks back an hour and had to go to work at 8 a.m. instead of 9. Private employers were allowed to follow suit or not. Predictably, a shitshow followed, as detailed by David Prerau in his book Seize the Daylight: The Curious and Contentious Story of Daylight Saving Time. Harding, regarded by many as one of the United States’ worst presidents, repealed his order following a summer of chaos.
Despite the annoyance of changing clocks and losing sleep (which always seems to coincide with the onset of a cold or a hangover, doesn’t it?), DST persists, presumably because of the strong economic or scientific arguments in its favor. Except there aren’t any.
Since World War I, DST has been implemented for different reasons, including energy crises, war, and Woodrow Wilson’s golf game. (Wilson, a serious golfer who was possibly looking for an extra hour on the links, twice vetoed Congress’ repeal of DST in 1919. Congress eventually over-rode his foolish ass.) Energy savings have most often been trumpeted by DST proponents in the U.S. and were a driving force in George W. Bush‘s extension of DST in 2005. But the science on this is hardly conclusive.
Belief in DST’s energy-saving powers is often traced to a 1970s study from the Department of Transportation. A later review of that research by the National Bureau of Standards, however, found that the results were not significant. A more recent study by Yale professor Matthew Kotchen of energy consumption in Indiana (a state that formerly did not observe DST, and then observed it on a county-by-county basis) found that Indianans actually increased their energy use during daylight saving time by 2 percent: People might have turned on their lights less frequently, but they ran their air-conditioners more.
If the science behind DST’s supposed energy-saving powers is so inconclusive, why does this irritating pastime persist? Good question; let’s ask 7-Eleven. The convenience-store chain was the main source of funding behind a coalition supporting the extension of DST in 2005. Why? Because more sunlight in the summer meant more retail business. The National Golf Association also supported the extension, estimating that increased sunlight would increase golf revenues by $200 or $300 million, as detailed by Michael Downing in his 2005 book Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time.
Much respect to 7-Eleven’s right to sell more slushies, but seriously, fuck you, 7-Eleven. And keeping people in khakis out on the putting green later is hardly a good reason to inconvenience, oh, the whole rest of the population. Madness indeed, Michael Downing.
The coalition against DST is widespread and crosses denominational boundaries. The National PTA and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops both opposed the extension of DST on the grounds that children will have to travel in pre-dawn darkness to school. Observant Jews also voiced opposition—the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism wrote a letter to Congress in 2005 explaining that the late sunrises would interfere with the faithful’s ability to pray in the morning and still get to work on time. (Certain prayers cannot be recited before sunrise, per Jewish law.) DST is also, reportedly, bad for cows.
Not every tradition in this nation must have extensive economic or scientific justification to be observed. Our school year is based on the notion that children need to help mom and dad harvest crops, for starters. But when a tradition has no rock-solid proven record of doing anything beside messing with the REM cycles of the American public and the bus routes of schoolchildren, it must be said: Daylight saving time, you’re a disgrace.
(And for the forgetful: It starts on Sunday at 2 a.m.)
Photo via the Harris & Ewing Collection of the Library of Congress