Colorado's `Governor Gloom' tells it just the way he sees it

``We are committing all the economic sins that history tells us not to commit.'' Seated, with long legs stretched onto an empty chair, the gray-haired politician settles into a favorite topic. Colorado's outspoken Gov. Richard Lamm -- or ``Governor Gloom,'' as he is sometimes called -- is on the verbal warpath again.

``How can you ignore that our trade-deficit spirals, our physical plant deteriorates? All these signals I think are telling us -- are flashing warnings -- that this economy cannot be sustained for another 10 years under conditions where you borrow 20 cents out of every dollar you spend.

``I think we have been prodigal parents,'' he adds. ``History is not kind to civilizations that have heaped debt upon their children.''

If all this sounds a bit gloomy, that's because it's meant that way.

But underneath the glum and sometimes controversial statements -- Mr. Lamm caused an uproar last year when he mused about the ``duty to die'' of terminally ill patients -- there lies another theme. Lamm is one of a few thinkers beginning to frame the nation's challenges -- especially its growing dependence on debt -- in moral terms.

Is it fair to children, he asks:

That the national debt is approaching $2 trillion? By 1989, Lamm says each man, woman, and child could be paying $750 in annual taxes just to pay the interest on the debt.

That retirees' benefits will continue to grow, even though there will be fewer wage-earners to support them?

That Americans are spending money on current consumption rather than future investment in such things as infrastructure and education?

Other thinkers raise the same intergeneration issue.

``I'm OK,'' says Philip M. Klutznick, a Chicago businessman who has served in seven of the last nine presidential administrations. But ``the combination of these things is a very great danger to my children and grandchildren.''

In a recent Washington Post article, economist Paul Samuelson writes: ``Those who study the lessons of history realize that economic law will exact its retribution, not in the short run of 1986 and 1987, but in the shape of the less progressive society we carry into the next century.''

Lamm sounds some of the loudest warnings:

``How can you ignore that our trade deficit spirals, our physical plant deteriorates?

``I think the warning signals of an empire in real serious trouble are flashing all around and . . . we refuse to act on them. I look at it as (though) there is a bunch of mine fields out there. I don't know which one we're going to hit -- the international debt? -- but I do think we will hit one of them unless we change our ways.''

Changing America's ways won't be easy, he acknowledges.

``The only honest political platform is: I'm going to raise your taxes and I'm going to cut your benefits. . . . That's the difficulty. It isn't that these problems are insoluble, but politically they cause pain.

``Does our political system have the maturity? Can it make the hard choices that are necessary to do this. I go back and I ask myself in history: When was there ever a democracy that reformed itself from its excesses? I can't find one. I can find [action] when Pearl Harbor hits, when Dunkirk hits. [But] I am not at all sure that democracy doesn't need a crisis to act.''

For all the dire words -- his book ``Megatraumas,'' comes out this fall, for example -- Lamm sees himself more as a Paul Revere than a doomsayer.

``In the Old Testament -- not in the history of democracy, but in the Old Testament -- Jonah is an example [of] where a warning was given and was heeded,'' he says. ``Jonah went and prophesied doom for Nineveh. And they reformed!''

Will Americans listen to modern warnings?

``I think a lot of people absolutely believe what I'm saying, but it doesn't translate itself into the political system,'' he says.

In fact, Lamm is leaving the political system -- at least temporarily. For personal and family reasons, he says he won't run for a fourth term as Colorado governor or seek any other political office in '86. After that he's unsure. A run for president is sometimes mentioned, but Lamm suggests he might not want it:

``I think the person that takes office in 1988 is going to be left holding a terrible fiscal bag,'' he says.

``I may be a voice crying in the wilderness,'' he says of his dire warning. And ``people don't want to hear this.''

``If a Paul Revere would ride tonight, he would be arrested for disturbing the peace . . . especially if he had interrupted `Hill Street Blues' or `Three's Company.' ''

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