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The Panamanian Paradox

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Written by Matt   
Tuesday, 04 August 2009 08:06
Panama ParadoxWithout a speckle of a doubt, rx that which bothers foreigners in Panama most of all the ludicrously unusual characteristics and nuances of life in someone else's country, is the seemingly innate inability of Panamanians to do anything, from attending business meetings to serving a simple hamburger, on time. Give a local a paycheck and you can expect it to be spent, with cat-like reflexes, before the weekend's end but if it's doing anything else promptly you're concerned about, consider yourself victim to The Panamanian Paradox. The Panamanian Paradox: Nothing in Panama gets done on time other than the spending of paychecks, which is done with Armageddon-like urgency.

You don't need to live in Panama for long to know that Panamanians earn money to spend money. They turn the concepts of frugality and saving on their head - and while some consider it reckless, others consider it a refreshing dosage of carpe diem in a world that's otherwise gotten too future-oriented and punctual for its own good.

In trying to research the impact of geography on a country's productivity, I was faced with two options. First, I could read the illustrious six hundred thousand-page book - at least it looks to be that long - called Guns, Germs and Steel, which addresses such trends by way of long and drawn out sentences. The other, frankly more tempting option was to consult my college economics professor Dr. J. Wight who is able, usually within a matter of minutes, to send me an article (typically written by himself) outlining everything I'd ever want to know about even the most arbitrary of subjects.

According to Dr. Wight, lines of latitude correlate with low productivity. "Tropical cultures have a time orientation that celebrates living for the moment," he says in his piece The Equatorial Paradox, "since fruits and game are abundant year round; any stored provisions would rot. Persons living in temperate zones, however, need to save food for a harsh winter, and this creates future-oriented cultures that postpone consumption." Ahah! The graph above shows how the closer a country is to the equator, the more income/capita it makes (which theoretically relates directly to productivity).

There was also a separate argument stating that humans across varying lines of latitude simply have different biochemistries - bodies conditioned to survive in different contexts. "In colder climates the human body can only minimally change its autonomous physiological functions (e.g., shivering), and hence economic behaviors must adapt to achieve a livable body temperature. Higher levels of food consumption are required, as are efforts to secure clothing and shelter. While warm clothing and shelters can to some degree substitute for food, metabolic rates will still be 10-20 percent higher in colder climates. Thus, the demand for economic development is greater in temperate climates due to these physiological needs."

The last and probably most controversial theory (seeing as though it is mine) is meant to explain the lack of entrepreneurship or motivation or go-getterness in Panama and it has to do with the country's history as it relates to geography. The Camino Real (colonial gold trails passing through Panama), The Panama Railroad, The Panama Canal; Panama's history is characterized almost exclusively by foreigner demand (for goods, work, food...etc), a trend that intrinsically could have bred complacency or a sense of entitlement. Whereas the American Dream encourages people of every rank to achieve a better, happier, and richer life, the Panamanian Dream is something more akin to winning the lottery or selling ones farm for millions: no intense drive for self-betterment. The entrepreneur mentality one finds in Panama is almost exclusively reserved for those who have been born, educated, or exposed to life overseas (ie. the Chinese who set up shop on every corner, work their asses off until they can pay off their debt, then buy a new Prado and live in the hills).
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The tendencies of Panama's people to spend money or relax or accommodate foreigner demand are nothing to look down upon. In fact, one could argue that the Panamanian way of life is a simpler one, void of the extraneous bells and whistles that more "developed" countries covet in a material sort of way. One could also correctly point out that Panamanians are a very happy and proud people who know how to celebrate life and adapt and survive.

And of course there are exceptions to the theories above, which don't jive with ancient Mesopotamian, Egyptian, or Mayan civilizations who were closer to the equator yet "developed" far before, say Europe. There exist also, according to Dr. Wight's piece, outliers such as Bermuda and the Cayman Islands (low lines of latitude and high income/capita).

It's an odd thing about Panamanians in general, I find. As soon as they get paid its off to the races - El Costo, Conway, the Albrook Food Court - but give them a date and time for anything else and its added it to their list of things to do sometime before I die. Bank officers, lawyers, waiters, real estate agents, utility men, friends, relatives, doctors and my personal favorite, the firemen who left ten minutes late and were consequently caught in traffic and unable to save a burning home. This is not by any means a jab at the culture I have come to know so well, just an attempt to glimpse at what's behind their tardy veil.


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Interesting
written by S. B. Panama , August 04, 2009
I like this article Matt. Good analysis. I've always wanted to scratch my eyes out regarding the mentality in Panama - but its true - there's no use (or fairness) in trying to change or confront it.
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I like it
written by Rolando , August 17, 2009
So, the questions is, if it's not broken... smilies/grin.gif
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Good article
written by Panamadad , August 24, 2009
So true, So true! I've also considered that tropical life does come with the "Tranquilo" mentality. Life has been so relaxed and slow it's built in to the culture. As my auto mechanic says "Don't worry, be happy."
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If it's yours, it's mine
written by carold , September 24, 2009
Can your Dr Wight help me understand, what seems to be a general philosophy of many of the Panamanians; "If it's yours, it's also mine". There seems to be no guilt, or second thought given to the abundant petty theft that is taking place in Panama. Puppies are snatched out of their back yards just because 'they want it". Housekeepers rifle through your belongings and take the items that they would like to have. An easily jimmied window is an invitation to just come in and help yourself. If you need a translator to help you understand why your car just blew up, they factor a little bit in their for the service of helping you with the mechanic, even though you paid them as a translator.
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Last Updated on Tuesday, 04 August 2009 08:13
 
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