time: it's complicated

Posted on: Mon, 01/02/2012 - 01:34 By: Tom Swiss

As the year opens, it's worth taking a moment to reflect on the subject of time.

Time-keeping is complicated. A great example is the recent movement of the international date line to put Samoa and Tokelau on the other side, as the U.S. declines in relative importance as a trading parter compared to Australia, New Zealand, and China.

Time exists at the intersection of cosmology, biology, culture, politics, economics, and technology. The cosmological aspects of time are tricky enough, with at least two different but useful ways to define a year, the "solar year" (or" tropical year"), and the "sidereal year". Neither year works out to an even number of days -- and there are slightly different ways to define "day", as well.

Add in the biology of circadian and seasonal rhythms, and the impact those had on the development of agriculture, and thus on the development of civilization itself, and of politics, religion, and economics, and it should be apparent that messing with the calendar and our system of timekeeping is not something to undertake lightly. It would require expertise in a variety of fields.

Or, of course, one could just sweep the complexity under the rug. This seems to be the approach taken by Richard Henry and Steve Hanke, whose proposal to alter the calendar recently captured some imagination in the press.

The Hanke-Henry Permanent Calendar is a week-based scheme, with 364 (52 * 7) days in most years and 371 days in leap years. By Henry's own admission, it is "not nearly as accurate" as the Gregorian calendar and its 365 or 366 day years, in terms of keeping the calendar year synchronized with the solar and sidereal years.

So what's its motivation? Hanke and Henry are quite clear about that: "Our calendar is largely the product of disputes among churches — disputes important to those churches, but which should not be allowed to impact commerce and efficient business organization today."

While I don't give a damn about any church's opinions on timekeeping, as a Pagan the observation of the solstices, equinoxes, and cross-quarter days is important to me. The gross inaccuracy of the Hanke-Henry plan would have these days wander about the calendar.

They claim that their proposal is "religiously unobjectionable" because it doesn't mess with the author's interpretation of the Judeo-Christian sabbath. Obviously they didn't take into account Neopagans. That's not much of a surprise, but it is pretty silly that in an age where a Hindu in India may be doing business with a Shintoist in Japan, their consideration of religious issues is limited to the nature of Sundays. Heck, it doesn't even take into account that contemporary Catholics might object to messing with a calendar designed by a Pope.

Beyond that, I'm not pleased with the idea of changing our calendar around just to please bankers and capitalists. When "commerce and efficient business organization" are the motives behind a suggestion, this usually means "bend over" to the rest of us.

The fact that their proposal seems to have support from the hardcore capitalists of the Cato Institute should set off alarm bells for anyone more concerned with human dignity than dollars. Their suggestion of decoupling the work day from the solar day, so that "bank employees in the far East of Russia would start work with the sun well up in the sky, while bank employees in the far west of Russia would be at their desks before the sun has risen", shows their disregard for the quality of life for working people.

It's bad enough that our society pays little attention to the ebb and flow of sunlight during the seasons (daylight savings time, which these guys would do away with, being one of the few exceptions); to ignore the daily cycle entirely in the name of businesses efficiency is inhumane.