Happy New Year! (or Years ?)

January 2, 2012

Since this is my first post of 2012, let me start by wishing all of you a very happy, healthy, and successful year.   Although this is the year, according to fans of the Mayan calendar doomsday prediction, that we will all disappear, let’s at least make it good while it lasts.

Also, by coincidence, a story at the PhysOrg site reports on a proposal by two professors at Johns Hopkins University for an overhaul of the calendar.  (Wired also has an article on this.)  The basic idea is to arrange the calendar so that a given date, such as December 25, falls on the same day of the week every year.

Using computer programs and mathematical formulas, Richard Conn Henry, an astrophysicist in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, and Steve H. Hanke, an applied economist in the Whiting School of Engineering, have created a new calendar in which each new 12-month period is identical to the one which came before, and remains that way from one year to the next in perpetuity.

This is accomplished by dividing the year into four identical 91-day quarters, with each quarter having two 30-day months followed by one 31-day month.   (The existing month names would presumably be retained.)  This would produce a 364-day, 52-week year.  Of course, the complication for all calendar schemes stems from the fact that the year is not an integral number of days long; a year lasts 365.2422 days.  That is why, in the existing Gregorian calendar, we have leap years.  The developers of the new calendar would handle this by inserting an extra seven-day week, after December, every five or six years, whenever the corresponding Gregorian calendar for that year would begin or end on a Thursday.  (The first few years with the extra week would be 2015, 2020, 2026, 2032, 2037, 2043, and 2048.)   Messrs. Henry and Hanke have a web site, which includes the proposed calendar and a FAQ list.  The Cato Institute has also republished a copy of an article on the calendar, originally written for Globe Asia.

The authors claim that a switch to the new calendar would produce many benefits.  For example, since there would be fixed correspondence between dates and days of the week, schedules (for academics, say) could be put together once and for all.  (It is of course true that this could be done with the existing calendar, at the cost of having ordinary and leap year versions for each of the seven possible days for January 1.)   They also claim that a significant economic benefit would accrue, because artificial day count conventions could be eliminated.  (For example, US corporate bonds traditionally have accrued interest calculated based on the “30/360” rule: that is, all months are assumed to have 30 days, making the year 360 days long.)

I am very skeptical that this would amount to much.  I worked in the investment / banking industry for more than 30 years, and I don’t remember ever meeting anyone who saw this as a significant problem, even before the era of ubiquitous personal computers.  The interest calculation conventions are, of course, well known, and the securities are priced accordingly.  Getting rid of these conventions would simplify things somewhat, but I doubt that actual savings would be significant.  We would get rid of the requirement to handle leap years correctly, but would have to build in the logic to identify the years that have an extra week, which at first glance is of about the same complexity.

The authors also propose that the existing structure of local time zones be eliminated, and that everyone switch to using UTC time (a successor to Greenwich Mean Time).  As a practical matter, this strikes me as a bit silly.  The correspondence between UTC and local time is well-defined (I grant that Daylight Savings Time is a nuisance), and UTC is already used for many things, such as aviation, and the Internet’s Network Time Protocol.

The whole proposal, to me, is reminiscent of the periodic proposals for English spelling reform, or for replacing the standard QWERTY keyboard.  In each of these cases, there is in principle some benefit in efficiency and simplicity to be gained, but the effort involved in making the change is significant, and the switch is to some degree an “all or nothing” proposition.  I accept that English spelling is not phonetic (although not necessarily illogical), and I accept that another keyboard layout might allow faster typing.  However, I know how to spell with the current system, and I can touch type on any standard keyboard at a pretty rapid pace, so any potential benefit to me personally is small.

Probably the only way a calendar change like this could occur is with a significant push from governments, public authorities, and other large institutions.   (After all, the last calendar change, to the current Gregorian calendar, begun in 1582, had to be imposed by the Pope.)  Considering all the fuss that was made about the Y2K issue, it would probably not be easy.

That leads me to the final slightly puzzling aspect of this.  As I noted earlier, the Cato Institute has posted the article by Henry and Hanke on its Web site.  But Cato has at least a somewhat libertarian policy outlook, which it describes this way:

The Cato Institute is a public policy research organization — a think tank — dedicated to the principles of individual liberty, limited government, free markets and peace.

A wholesale change of this kind, which I think would have to be imposed “top down” in order to become anything more than an eccentricity and pet subject for cranks, seems an odd cause for Cato to take up.

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