On the recent December day when the East Coast was snowbound, Art Buchwald and I were chatting about his newest book, We'll Laugh Again. After September 11, he'd written, "One of the things I keep hearing is, if we are going to weather this crisis, we have to retrieve our senses of humor."
That's certainly easier to do while viewing the world through Buchwald's eyes.
We were talking about several aspects of American business, and I asked his prediction about what will happen with the economy during the next couple of years.
"That's a good question," he responded. "But I'm not high enough up on the scale to predict what's going to happen. I just play it day by day. I look every day at the Dow. I love businesses, by the way. I follow them like baseball. The first section of the New York Times I read is the business section. But every time I see Alan Greenspan at a party, he won't tell me what's going to happen. He's closed mouth when I come around him. I say, 'Give me a couple of points--up or down--that's all I ask.'"
I asked the man "who has pledged to buy American, no matter how difficult it is," what he thinks about offshore outsourcing.
"Well, you can't do anything about it. If you can pay someone $1 an hour in another country to make a pair of pants for you, you're not going to pay someone in this country $25 an hour. This is, I guess, just globalizing the world. It's a matter of people and machines."
He agreed with me that using a computer and employing the strategy of being a syndicated columnist (with the same level of effort from Buchwald for a column that appears in one newspaper or 100 papers) is sort of like outsourcing's leveraging of economies of scale. Buchwald loves computers, although he doesn't "look for a lot of tricks" from his. He uses it to write his columns, check his book sales on Amazon.com or Barnes and Noble, and says he enjoys being very creative (in romantic endeavors) in email.
Long before he was a writer, Buchwald told me, he used humor to get laughs in school. "I thought it was terrific because the laughs were a way of getting love." He says the options with his background (a foster child) were either to become very angry or to use humor as a way of getting away with anger. "Obviously, humor is much more socially accepted."
"I have very strong feelings on a lot of things," Buchwald declared. "My role is entertainment and making a point so that the reader or audience where I am speaking will accept the point. To me, the greatest compliment I can get is when someone nods their head instead of laughing, indicating, 'yeah, that's the way I feel.'"
Getting back to the subject of outsourcing, I asked him about Uncle Sam's money, reminding him that President Bush had campaigned on promises to enforce more outsourcing within the federal government. "What is your opinion of outsourcing and privatization in the federal sector?"
"I don't know if privatization is the answer," Buchwald replied," because as soon as somebody privatizes something, they raise the price. But government is slow, so government is not the solution. I'm against privatization of Social Security. The last two or three years have been a disaster--if you were a person having stock and making Merrill Lynch rich with your stock, you'd be in the sink right now. They may be slow in Social Security, but at least they've protected our money a lot more than I think privatization would. But I'm not against privatization where it makes sense."
"How would you compete with someone else for your own job, demonstrating that you can be more efficient and cost-effective, as government employees are now having to do?" I asked.
"A lot of that is just bidding," he told me. "This is a battle that goes on. But it's not a disaster."
"What do you think is a disaster?" (I dared to ask.)
"The thing I think is a disaster area - and it's going to get worse - is the health industry. And the drug industry," he said. "People can't afford the stuff. The health industry, with so few people really getting help - that's an area that is really getting hit hard."
His book details such ideas as opening gambling casinos in hospital wards with winnings paying for medical care, as well as an innovative method for lowering hospital operating costs by sliding a triple bypass operation patient right down to the parking lot just one hour and three minutes later.
Seeking an Artful comment on the healthcare industry's plight, I asked, "Do you have any suggestions on how the hospitals and doctors can cut their operating costs--without harming the patients?"
"There are several things that I still don't have the answers to. All I know is that I collect Medicare. And I'm glad I do. But here's the real problem. My doctor is a terrific doctor. He's not in it for profit. It's just because he's so devoted. He has everybody in this town and all the big shots in the government too."
"But he's there from 8:00 in the morning until 9:00 at night," Buchwald continues. "And from 5:00 until 9:00, he's just filling out papers. He's just working on paper. I don't know what the answer to that is, but there's a war going on now between the doctors and the health organizations."
He adds that he suspects cost-cutting efforts may lead to "high school graduates going over the facts of whether you should have an operation or not."
I'm nodding my head, Art.
Fortunately, they're turning to outsourcing instead.