Spain's Time Travel Won't Make People Work Harder
Spain's political leaders, in their infinite wisdom, have decided that moving to a new time zone will make the country's people more productive. They might want to consider Russia's disappointing experiment in chronological manipulation.
The Spaniards are concerned that the sun rises later in their country than in other longitudinally similar places, such as the U.K. Specifically, on Oct. 26, the last day of daylight saving time, the sun will rise at 8 a.m. sharp in Liverpool and at 8:39 in Madrid, though the two cities are almost on the same meridian, 3 degrees west of Greenwich.
Spain has been an hour ahead of the U.K. since 1942, when dictator Francisco Franco decided to synchronize his military machine with those of his allies, Hitler and Mussolini. To that end, he moved Spain from Greenwich Mean Time to Central European Time.
The late-rising sun is perhaps the most lasting legacy of Franco's regime in modern Spain. Because of it, people go to work later than in the rest of Europe. Everything else happens late, too: lunch at 1 p.m. or 2 p.m., dinner at 8 p.m., TV prime time at 9-10 p.m., immensely popular soccer games at 10-11 p.m.
Critics of this state of affairs say that because time is out of whack, people take longer lunch breaks, come home later, spend less time with their families and sleep less, which makes them lethargic at work. In 2012, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Spain's gross domestic product per hour worked stood at 81.2 percent of the U.S. level. The euro area as a whole was 85.9 percent as productive as the U.S.
On Sept. 26, the Spanish parliament's equality commission approved a report advocating a time-zone switch. "It is a complex task as it involves changing our daily customs, but it is undeniable that as a result, we will converge on Europe in many areas where we now lag behind, particularly in productivity and competitiveness," the report said. Now the government has to study the matter in detail, and Economy Minister Luis de Guindos promised "not to put it off too long."
The lawmakers and bureaucrats would like Spaniards to start work earlier and finish no later than 6 p.m., doing away with short morning breaks and extended lunches. Vaulting from one time zone to another would be just a first step.
Judging from the experience of another country with lagging productivity, Spain's time travel might not have the desired effect. Just two years ago, the Russian government decided that the country should no longer switch back and forth between astronomical and daylight saving time -- a move that experts said would allow people to catch more sunlight during working hours on short winter days. Various regions were supposed to get 7 percent to 17 percent more work-time daylight.
"I have decided that we will stop switching to winter time starting this fall," announced then-president Dmitry Medvedev. "We will have more daylight. I think that would be interesting and, in general, useful for our country."
Not much happened. Russia's productivity remained at about 39 percent of the U.S. level. People continued to go to work at 9 a.m. and leave at 6 p.m., complaining that they felt like zombies getting up and traveling to the office in total darkness in winter. The complaints have been so loud that the Russian parliament is now looking to repeal Medvedev's decision.
It's a nice symbolic move to finally put an end to Franco's dictatorial time zone game. It would be wrong, however, to expect fundamentals like productivity to improve simply because the government fiddles with the clocks.
(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is a Bloomberg View contributor. Follow him on Twitter.)