Lamm on the Line

Presents an interview with former Colorado governor and presidential hopeful Richard Lamm. Bid to win the Reform Party's nomination as presidential candidate for the November 1996 elections; Views on health care; Economic agenda.

By Peter Doskoch, published on September 1, 1996 - last reviewed on June 19, 2012

After 12 years as the governor of Colorado, he quit politics in 1987 to teach college, think, and do something he rarely had time for in the state house--read books. But this summer, ex-Democrat Richard Lamm, 60, threw his hat into the presidential ring, seeking the nomination of Ross Perot's Reform party.

Though a social liberal--he's long supported the environmental and abortion rights movements--Lamm echoes the fiscal conservatism Perot espoused in 1992. One pundit has called Lamm's campaign "Perot-less Perot-ism"; meaning, perhaps, that Lamm won't woo voters with charts and homespun humor--or baffle them with paranoia about his daughter's wedding.

We spoke to Lamm shortly before the Reform party's mid-August convention. As this issue of Psychology Today goes to press, Lamm still hopes to outmaneuver Perot for the party's nomination. By the time you read this, he may have pulled off a remarkable upset--or failed in his quest to shake up the status quo. But whether or not Lamm's candidacy thrives, the questions he raises won't go away.

PT: If you beat Ross Perot, you'll be perceived as a giant-killer.

DL: I think there's a combination of Cinderella and David and Goliath in this that would capture the public imagination.

PT: You've been talking about the three demographic trends that the Democrats and Republicans ignore: the dropping birth rate, the aging population, and the fact that we live longer than we used to.

DL: I'm not complaining as much as I'm saying: We have to react to this reality. I mean, I've got an 88-year-old father.

PT: "React to the reality" means we have to reconsider entitlement programs like Social Security

DL: Yes. I think that the current demographic reality has made the New Deal unsustainable. We're living 30 years longer than we were in 1900. And if this has rendered obsolete a bunch of our favorite social programs, we should at least recognize that we're reacting to a success story.

PT: Can you face the American Association of Retired People and say: Look, for all of you making income X or more, we can't afford to pay out what we in effect promised you?

DL: Yeah. I look forward to showing the nation that this isn't a generational war but a generational misunderstanding. Many seniors understand that Social Security is social insurance as opposed to a program where we put money aside for our own retirement. But most elderly individuals think they're getting their money back. So it isn't selfishness as much as a misunderstanding. American public policy is run on a myth.

PT: You have a lot of things to say about health care--that there are too many doctors, that we're keeping people alive longer than they need to be, that we're obsessed with technology. Can you expand on that?

DL: I think modern societies have to ask a very basic question: What strategies buy the most health for people? Doctors can do so many marvelous things now. They can keep a corpse alive, almost. But the dilemma is that we've invented more health care than we can afford to deliver to everyone. We ration it by leaving 41 million people out of the system--41 million of our neighbors and friends.

I've been around the world twice looking at health care, and it seems to me that in the developed world there's an inverse correlation between how much money you spend on health care and how healthy you are. Germany and the United States spend the most money on health care, and we've got among the worst statistics in the industrialized world. Japan spends the least, and they're the healthiest. When I went to Japan to see why, they told me: In 1947 we had a choice to make. Do we build a big health-care system like you Americans, or do we give everybody good nutrition, a job, a higher standard of living? And they found that a health-care system has very little to do with the health of a nation. I am convinced that I could provide more health by giving people jobs and the sense of self-control over their lives that comes with a job.

PT: Let's say you have an 85-year-old lady who has Alzheimer's disease and a failing heart--what do you do? You're talking about getting the best care for the most number of people, and it means changing some basic premises of how we administer health services in America.

DL: That's crucial to my candidacy. It does not make sense to give a heart bypass to an 85-year-old with Alzheimer's disease. Not when, at the same time, we're not vaccinating all our kids, and 74,000 women delivered babies two years ago without any prenatal care. Aldous Huxley said that facts do not cease to exist just because they are ignored. And I think America has pushed the snooze alarm on many of the most pressing issues facing us. An election should be a time when we debate the real issues, rather than talking about reducing the gas tax until next January.

PT: One of your pet peeves, if you will, has been military pensions.

DL: When I was in the army, we made $88 a month. With the all-volunteer army, we changed the pay scale and made it competitive with the private sector. But we did not adequately change the pension system. The average enlisted man or woman retires at 39, the average officer at 42. And we, as a nation, can no longer afford to retire people--anybody, from any situation--at age 39. If we're going to extend life expectancy, we have to extend work expectancy. We don't live in the age of Baron von Bismarck, who set 65 as the retirement age--at a time when the average German lived to be only 47. We have to be mature enough to recognize that an aging society has to make some hard choices.

PT: One way we distort and simplify elections is to see them as generational conflicts.

DL: To me, the failure of liberalism--the tradition I come from--was not recognizing there has to be justice across the generations. We are paying 600,000 millionaires a subsidy on Social Security and Medicare, and doing it by taxing workers who often can't afford health care. You're not a responsible liberal if you start a program and then put the debt incurred on your kid's credit card. There was every reason for my parents' generation to borrow money to fight the Depression and to fight Hitler. There was no reason why my generation could not have paid its own way.

PT: What role do you see Generation X playing in the future of American politics?

DL: I always look for a new wave of enthusiasm because it's enthusiasm that changes the world. My feeling is that the next big enthusiasm to come into American politics is going to be Generation X waking up to what my generation has done to them. I look back and I see the energy the civil-rights and women's movements brought to politics. Right now, in the Republican party, the Christian Right is bringing a new enthusiasm. And I'm counting on young people to not be blindly apathetic but to help me correct the situation. Lamm's law of public policy is: The earlier the solution, the less draconian the solution.

PT: You're about 10 years older than the first wave of baby boomers. They've obviously influenced your thinking.

DL: Yes. Not only me, but all of America. And I have definitely been impacted by their culture--they've been the dominant influence on the way I wear my hair, the way I dress.

PT: An issue you've talked about quite a bit is immigration.

DL: I think America's first duty is to its own huddled masses. The Labor Department says we're going to create 18 million new jobs in the 1990s, and we're going to admit 13 million immigrants. One of the wisest things that was ever said to me was: Maturity is the recognition of your limitations. And I think that the United States has to understand that it's not good public policy to bring in a new generation of poor people every year to compete against our own poor trying to get a start up the ladder.

PT: And when people say that this country was founded by immigrants. . .

DL: I reply: Beware of solutions that were appropriate to the past but are disastrous to the future. We've had six doublings of our population in our short 200-year history. Just two more doublings gives us almost as many people in the United States as there are in China. I see no public-policy reason why we want two people in America for every one that's here now. I don't think that we have too many national parks or too many jobs; I don't think that we have too much clean air, or that we don't have enough sprawl in our cities. I stand for stabilizing our population, but in a compassionate way I think we can continue to accept immigrants, but I think that we can't take them in as large numbers, and we should take them for their skills.

PT: What's your position on term limits?

DL: That started here in Colorado. I've got mixed emotions about them, but I support them. There is no contest in most congressional districts. Ninety-five percent of the incumbents get re-elected, and it's because of special-interest money I know who's going to win every congressional race in Colorado. And I would rather have democracy really work and give the voters a true race between parties, but I don't think that's happening in most of America. So I support term limitations to force a change.

PT: You're a lawyer, and you write with great wit and disdain about our litigious society What would you do to stop it?

DL: That's a political problem, not a conceptual one. All you have to do is look at what other developed countries do. They have no-fault automobile insurance; they have limits on contingency fees; they limit class-action suits; they have more intelligent ways to resolve differences among their citizens. A plane crashes in Japan, and it's all cleared up in 30 days. The American ethic is to sue the bastards, and it goes on for 10 years, taking some of our brightest young men and women as lawyers to argue about it. Forty percent of America's Rhodes scholars go to law school, and that's a terrible drain of talent into a counterproductive measure.

PT: You've expressed your concern about the federal budget deficit. Do you fear for our economic future?

DL: I sure do. I think that the actual deficit this year is not the $160 billion that they brag about, but it's probably closer to $800 billion. The federal government puts no money aside for military and civil-service pensions, and we have this incredible liability in Social Security, which is simply going to run out of money when the baby boomers start to retire. I think that if we really had to put money aside for retirement and other benefits, like General Motors has to, our deficit would be much higher. My generation has been masking both the debt and the deficit.

Despite the lesson of the 1980s, when we tripled the deficit that our kids will now have to pay off, we are talking about tax cuts. Politicians just have this wonderful way of fooling themselves, of having blind spots when it comes to their self-interest.

PT: Well, they don't get to be politicians for very long if they tell people that they're going to get taxed more and have less desirable services.

DL: Yeah. This is not a failure of politics but a failure of culture. Americans know what they want but not what they can afford, and they've lost any kind of tradition of saving and working for the future.

PT: In your book Megatraumas, you basically say that any politician who proposes cutting Social Security makes himself unelectable. What makes you think that you're going to be successful with these ideas when Bruce Babbitt wasn't in 1988 and Paul Tsongas wasn't in 1992?

DL: I may still be right; I may have written my own obituary there. But my feeling is that we now have this magic moment in history where enough Americans understand that we have to amend Social Security and Medicare if we want to save them. I think I can get Americans to vote for some modest sacrifices.

People understand diets. They're never pleasant, but you sure feel a lot better after you're done with them. And America has been over consuming. But we can say: Look, folks, all we have to do, literally, is to go back to a 1985 standard of living. We just have to make a modest sacrifice. Everybody has to tighten their belts one notch, except those people whose belts are already tightened all the way

I sum it up sometimes by saying that the economy in the nineties cannot sustain the dreams of the sixties. We come from this culture of sort of unlimited expectation. But maturity is the recognition of our limitations. We still are a rich country; we can give people good lives. We don't have to shred the safety net, but we have to make some hard decisions.

PHOTO (COLOR): Richard Lamm