The wit and wisdom of Richard Lamm

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Former governor offers political insights during Evergreen appearance

By Sandy Barnes

When former governor Richard Lamm speaks, people laugh at his quick-witted humor. They also listen to what Lamm has to say about health care, education and the national debt.

“We are leaving our children such a staggering debt. If the government were to be audited, we’d be put in jail,” Lamm said during his presentation to the Rotary Club of Evergreen on May 9 at Evergreen Country Day School.

When he graduated from high school in 1953, Lamm said, the federal debt was almost paid back. By 1981, it had increased to one-third of the gross national product. Now the national debt is 100 percent of GDP, he remarked.

“America is insolvent,” Lamm said. ‘There are some tough times ahead.”

Lamm also lamented changes in the political climate over the years.

“In 1967, the Republicans were willing to work with us. There wasn’t this animosity there is now,” he said.

“Now you have this dialogue between the deaf and the blind,” Lamm said of the liberal Democrats and right-wing Republicans currently in office.

“We are leaving our children a system run by political interests,” he added.

The present generation is also inheriting a health care system of poor quality, Lamm said. “A system is more than good doctors and good hospitals,” he said.

Medical miracles are expanding faster than people’s ability to pay for them, Lamm said. A new drug to treat hepatitis C costs $1,000 per pill, he noted.

And social programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are driving our economy, Lamm said. 

“We’ve all felt entitled. The elderly are the worst in demanding entitlement,” he remarked.

To reduce federal spending on Social Security and Medicare, the full retirement age needs to be raised to at least 67 or 70, Lamm said. And, early-retirement benefits should be delayed until a person is 64 to 67 years old, he added.

If there are no downward adjustments to these programs, future generations will be unable to pay for them, Lamm said.

A related problem is that people are living much longer than they once did, he observed. 

“We are recipients of more life, more health care than in human history,” Lamm said. “Somehow we thought it was appropriate to add nine years to retirement.”

Another cost-saving solution he has proposed — which Lamm said the press mischaracterized — is not using extraordinary medical procedures to prolong the lives of elderly people.

“We have to look at ethical issues, like giving chemotherapy to someone with two months to live,” he said. “I think we should give no high-tech medicine to people over 85. Our aging bodies can prevent our children from going to college.”

“The ultimate question is: Can you downsize popular programs?” Lamm said. “Can we downsize a democracy?”

Responding to a question from the audience about America’s global responsibility, Lamm said: “Our first responsibility is at home. America isn’t as rich as it used to be.

“We have to rethink and withdraw. We’re going to have to cut military spending. We can’t be the hegemon of the whole world.”

The United States needs to think about its strategic interests, he remarked.

The first war in Iraq was worth waging, Lamm said. 

“The second was insanity,” he said.

Lamm also commented on inflated costs for college education.

“The cost of college is outrageous,” he said. “Everything is adding up to make college unaffordable. We’ve got to do something. Kids are getting out with enormous debt, and few jobs.”

Lamm also said he has seen a difference in college students while teaching university-level classes over the years. 

Instead of being in class, students in the 1960s wanted to be out on the streets protesting.

“All of our students were radical. They were a bunch of semi-revolutionaries,” he said.

“Now, I have to ban computers from the class. They are looking at Facebook,” he said of today's students.

Lamm is co-director of the Institute for Public Policy Studies at the University of Denver, where he teaches undergraduate and graduate classes. He served three terms as governor from 1975 to 1987.

Contact Sandy Barnes at sandy@evergreenco.com.