“Out of the mouths of babes …”

This one was a puzzler for local fourth graders … at least the ones having trouble with arithmetic. In one of Bloomberg’s articles last week, it was reported that Nippon Yusen and Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. were among the companies pressing Panama to enlarge the 91-year-old waterway to take bigger ships at a time when growing exports from Asia clog U.S. Pacific ports. That’s what the report stated … U.S. Pacific ports. The report went on to estimate that Panama’s reluctance to spend some $ 10 billion needed to expand the canal would cost them about $ 210 million in annual revenues. The fourth graders had a hunch that this just had to be a “trick question”. It couldn’t be that simple, they reasoned. There must be a catch somewhere. “Why would anyone want to spend $ 10 billion in one lump in order not to lose $ 210 million a year?”, they wanted to know, after they huddled and figured out that it would take almost 50 years for Panama to break even on the deal.

Dumb kids. They actually thought that Nippon Yusen, Wal-Mart and those other countries pressing Panama are the ones that should be funding the canal expansion. They just don’t understand the ways of big business. Even a professor warned Panama that if it didn’t knuckle under to the demands of those advocating the use of megaships, the shipowners would take alternative routes such as the Suez Canal to reach ports along the Atlantic Coast. Just to be spiteful.

It wasn’t just the arithmetic that bothered the fourth graders, however. They were overheard asking one another why those in authority just didn’t clear up the mess in the U.S. Pacific ports, instead of passing the buck to the Panamanian authorities. [Kids nowadays are so slow!] And then one of the youngsters wanted to know why so much of our imports from Asia were being dumped into that one spot in California. “Most of us people don’t live in California, we live somewhere else”, she said. “When my mother does her weekly food shopping, she just goes down the street to the supermarket … she doesn’t drive all the way to Florida or Canada someplace.”

So there’s hope for this younger generation after all. They may be slow when it comes to math, but they have no trouble with logistics. Listen to some of the other questions raised by these neophytes after they sounded out the big words in Bloomberg’s report:
• If China and Japan are also using the canal, why can’t they pay for the expansion?
• If it takes an estimated nine years to complete the expansion project, don’t they know that inflation and cost-overruns will bring the price well above today’s $ 10 billion estimate?
• Why didn’t the owners of those 115 diverted ships at California last year know enough to send those ships to other ports in the first place? Don’t they have telephones out there?
• What about the poor people in Panama who have to move out of their homes if all those big pools are built? Where will they go to live?
• “Is that $ 10 billion a misprint?”, someone asked. “Two years ago, when I was in second grade, I remember them estimating that the cost of expansion would be at least $ 15 billion.” [It was that little girl again.] “It seems to me”, she said, “that if they’d just go back to smaller ships and deliver at more ports, their problems would go away.”

“Out of the mouths of babes …”