The Steady Stater

Dick Lamm: The Almost Steady-State President

October 05, 2020 Brian Czech
The Steady Stater
Dick Lamm: The Almost Steady-State President
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The Steady Stater
Dick Lamm: The Almost Steady-State President
Oct 05, 2020
Brian Czech

It's not often that steady staters achieve success in the political arena; even less often do they run for and win public office; and never do they run for president. However, the former three-term governor of Colorado, Dick Lamm, is the one rare exception. In 1996, he ran for president as a member of the Reform Party, competing against Ross Perot for the party's nomination. In this episode, we chat with Lamm about his tenure as a steady-state politician, how he managed to win over voters, and his experiences with some of the biggest names in U.S. politics.

Show Notes Transcript

It's not often that steady staters achieve success in the political arena; even less often do they run for and win public office; and never do they run for president. However, the former three-term governor of Colorado, Dick Lamm, is the one rare exception. In 1996, he ran for president as a member of the Reform Party, competing against Ross Perot for the party's nomination. In this episode, we chat with Lamm about his tenure as a steady-state politician, how he managed to win over voters, and his experiences with some of the biggest names in U.S. politics.

Richard Tibbetts:

From the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy, this is The Steady Stater, a podcast dedicated to discussing limits to growth and the steady state economy.

Brian Czech:

Welcome to the show. I'm your host, Brian Czech, and our guest today is Richard or Dick Lamm, the three-term governor of Colorado and one-time presidential candidate. In case anyone is wondering why we invited Mr. Lamm to The Steady Stater, let me quote from his Wikipedia bio. "Lamm ran for governor of Colorado in 1974 on a platform to limit growth, and was elected." That, of course, is music to the ears of steady staters everywhere. Dick Lamm, welcome to The Steady Stater.

Dick Lamm:

Thank you.

Brian Czech:

Well, Dick, let's start right off with that Wikipedia quote. "Lamm ran for governor of Colorado in 1974 on a platform to limit growth, and was elected." How the heck did you manage to pull that off?

Dick Lamm:

Well, part of it was just good timing. It was a Watergate year. But perhaps of more interest would be that I went to a one room schoolhouse in Northern Illinois during the Second World War, and a teacher did something that sticks with me to this day. And you've heard it many times. It was about the prince who has a bet with the jester and the price says "what's the odds?" and the jester said "not very much, you just take a piece of rice and put it on the first square of a chessboard, and then double it for the next one and double it for the next one." And of course, the kicker is there's not enough rice in the whole kingdom, to be able to double through a rice through a chessboard. And that really stuck through me at [unintellig ble]. It was so vivid about geo etric growth and I've been ha nted by tha

Brian Czech:

Wow, what a story. I was actually going to ask you about that. Because when I was revisiting your bio, I was reminded that you're actually from Madison, Wisconsin, and I guess also grew up largely in Pittsburgh, and then there was some time in Illinois, and then you went back to Madison to attend the University of Wisconsin. Then, before ending up in Colorado, where you got a law degree at the University of Colorado, from what I can tell, you at least lived in California and Utah. So, were there any other particular experiences, beyond that metaphorical lesson from the schoolhouse, that you actually observed on the ground that got you following up from that lesson and thinking specifically about limits to growth?

Dick Lamm:

That's an excellent question. By the way, I did my law work at Berkeley, at the University of California at Berkeley. And after Berkeley, I came to Colorado, didn't know a soul, and started working my way up the ladder. But yes, I've always been an adventurer and I had a whole bunch of jobs during college. I was a runner on the New York Stock Exchange. I was a lumberjack in Oregon. I sailed a season on the Great Lakes, on the oar boats. So, I was an adventurous young man and the world was my adventure.

Brian Czech:

Wow, that's great. So, one thing we've discovered is there are some errors, perhaps, in that Wikipedia page, so we'll have to try to look into that too. Now, when you were campaigning for governor, that first time around 1974, as I understand it, you were talking a lot about growth issues, and in particular population growth. Did you also talk explicitly about limits to economic growth and/or GDP growth per se?

Dick Lamm:

Again, a good question. Let me say that I did not have any money. I was running in a primary against two very popular Democrats, so I walked the state. I came up with a gimmick where I started at the Wyoming line and walked straight down the front range to the New Mexico line. And I was able to capture the imagination of the press and the state and I won, essentially by coming up with a new campaign gimmick. I did talk about growth. I had led the fight against the Olympics. Colorado had bid to host the Olympics and they won, and I went against that and let a statewide initiative that defeated the Olympics. And so a lot of that was around growth. Colorado was growing too fast. And so the growth issue was part of my political platform. I was fighting in the legislature for land use planning. But the biggest thing where I got my constituency is I led the battle against the 1976 Olympics. In the 1972 Colorado elections, we defeated the Olympics and somebody at the victory party held me up to the top of the ceiling and said, "Ladies and gentlemen, the next governor of Colorado." I looked around and yeah, I saw that the same people that had defeated the Olympics could help me become governor. And so I ran for Governor and won.

Brian Czech:

Wow. First of all, that must have been quite a walk from Wyoming to New Mexico. And then for things to come together like that, that's just quite a great story.

Dick Lamm:

It was a magic time in my life. John Denver came down from Aspen to walk the last mile with me to the state capitol in a snowstorm, and he gave a concert on the steps of the capitol for all my supporters. I mean, it was a magic, magic time.

Brian Czech:

Wow, that's really something. Well, were there any other prominent politicians back then who spoke in a clear and critical manner about either population growth or economic growth?

Dick Lamm:

So, I was in the House of Representatives. In the Senate was a wonderful Republican senator, named John Birmingham. With this John Birmingham, who was a Republican senator, we just hit the magic time and the magic mood.

Brian Czech:

Oh, I see. Well, okay, so there was John Birmingham. What about Jimmy Carter? How close do you suppose he came to being a steady stater?

Dick Lamm:

Well, you know, I would love to have known him better. We got off on a bad foot because he tried to kill a bunch of water projects in Colorado, which is an issue that he was right on, but no Colorado governor could deliberately give up water projects. So, we had a little bit of an antagonistic relationship, and I would have loved to explore this better because I really got a feeling that Jimmy Carter, in his bones and in his nuclear engineering and in his just knowledge, he understood that there couldn't be endless growth.

Brian Czech:

Right, so those water projects, he was trying to kill those off, but you must have had a lot of pressure by your constituents to make these projects. Are we talking about hydropower dams or agricultural irrigation projects?

Dick Lamm:

We had a very powerful congressman named Wayne Aspinall who was able to get a bunch of these authorizations, okay? He couldn't get the funding for them, but he could get the authorization. And Jimmy Carter came along and said these are white elephants. They'll never pay for themselves. We don't need the water for you're spending hundreds of millions of dollars to dam up water, to grow agricultural products that are already in surplus in the nation. So, I really admired Jimmy Carter. He did not admire me because he felt that I should have had the courage of my convictions. But again, I say in my defense, no Colorado governor could give up five water projects that had been granted us by Congress. We worked it out, and we became friends. But again, Jimmy Carter loved the outdoors and he was a farmer and he understood carrying capacity and he understood that growth could not go on forever.

Brian Czech:

Well, you know, we're gonna have to have you on another time because we could talk for a whole episode about the 70's and Carter and so on. But you know, right now I want to shift a little bit to the 80's and 90's. So, how about Bruce Babbitt? I had the sense that he got it, limits to growth, I mean, but never quite came clean on it. It seemed like he signed on with that Clintonian rhetoric that there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment. Did you know Babbitt?

Dick Lamm:

I knew Babbitt very well, and very much admired him. He was very smart and a very good governor, but he could not take too long a lead from second base of conventionality and he would not he would not make population an issue. He made the environment an issue and he was really good at that, as he was a Secretary of Interior, but to make a big issue of saying we live in a limited planet and we have to understand the impacts of growth, he couldn't quite get all the way there.

Brian Czech:

Well, Dick, I want to keep talking with you, but we want to take a short non-commercial break and let Rick Tibbetts provide our listeners with a message.

Richard Tibbetts:

Hi there, we hope you're enjoying the show. I just wanted to take this brief intermission to encourage you to become a CASSE member. It's only $25 per year and CASSE members receive a five star rated book called Best of the Daily News, in addition to other exclusive CASSE offerings. Member support is invaluable in our fight to advance the steady state economy and to grow support for it around the world. In order to sign up to be a member, just go to our website, steadystate.org, pan over to the "Join" button, and click "Become a Member" in the drop down menu. Now, back to the show.

Brian Czech:

Well, how about Al Gore? Did you ever get a chance to talk with him behind the scenes about limits to growth, by chance?

Dick Lamm:

I never had a very good relationship with Gore. I don't know what exactly it was. He did not like me. We never had a warm relationship. I admired him a great deal. I went to one of his seminars. I think that he has been the leading politician in terms of trying to wake up our society on global warming and growth.

Brian Czech:

Yeah, you know, he wrote that book "Earth in the Balance," of course. And that was actually one of my favorite books when I read it back in the mid 90's. But he seemed to raise, in that book, toward the end of it, the notion that we could actually meld the two goals of economic growth and environmental protection. So, sort of like a win-win scenario. And I reexamined the book later and found that that section was actually kind of a flimsy argument, and it certainly flew right in the face of my PhD research at the University of Arizona. So I came away wondering, you know, if the book at least, caused as much harm as good, if it led a lot of the readers to believe in that win-win rhetoric. But you would say that Gore had a net positive effect?

Dick Lamm:

Well, Brian, you know, it's really interesting, because we've all had to deal with the idea that it's an atavistic part of the human being that we grow and that we expand and that we multiply, and I think that Al Gore saw where this was taking us, but that somehow he thought he could ameliorate the effects of growth, where I feel and felt from the very beginning that nobody can chase geometric curves. They move too fast on you. And you really have to come up with some variation of growth suppression.

Brian Czech:

Yeah, well, you know, there's a quote somewhere in there, maybe the "atavistic part of the human being."

Dick Lamm:

Yeah, I think that, you know, for a million years, the way we survived on a lonely planet was to have children and to multiply our economy, but he did not seem to, I hope I'm doing him justice, but he was reluctant to take population on individually.

Brian Czech:

Well, like I say, to me, there seems to be a lot of confusion that came out of the Clinton, Gore and Babbitt administration because on one hand, they were very strong on protecting the environment. But they seem to propagate that win-win rhetoric more than just about any other administration. So it's really, the verdict seems to be out on the net effect. But if you want readers to really get it about limits to growth, which books would be your best, let's say your top three recommendations?

Dick Lamm:

Let me go back about Al Gore and Bruce Babbitt. You know, new paradigms come hard, and it's always tempting to keep a foot in the old paradigm and the new paradigm. And it's pretty hard to cast yourself adrift in only the new paradigm. And I don't think they could do that. On the other hand, they were also running the country, and so it was easier for me, as just a mere governor, to be able to raise some of these issues. But I think that in terms, I mean, I loved your book. When I when I looked at things that really hit me hard, as to the new message, I think "Limits to Growth" is a little obscure, but it's still worth reading. And I think that Paul Ehrlich was worth reading. He was a great popularizer. All of these people, I'm sure that they've tried to do this to you, they're easy to try to put down, but I think that we're on the side of history. No trees grow to the sky, and no element of our economy or budget or environment can grow forever.

Brian Czech:

Well, those are definitely some good ones, and I wasn't expecting you to mention my book "Supply Shock," but I sure appreciate it. Now, going back to politics, again, when you were the governor of Colorado, you were a Democrat, and you served from 1974 to 1986. Then, when you were a presidential candidate in 1996, you ran with the Reform Party, the party started up by Ross Perot in 1995. What caused you to make that shift from the Democratic Party to the Reform Party?

Dick Lamm:

Well, it's a big question. But I feel I felt at the time that the Democratic Party was being controlled by the teachers union, by the trial lawyers. You know, our special interests might have been better than the Republican special interests, but they still bothered me. And so I, with a group of other people, said let's try to take the fiscally conservative Democrats and the socially liberal Republicans, and put them together in a new party. There not been a new party since the Republican Party in 1856. And we were audacious enough to feel that the country might be ready for a new political party, which would take elements of both the Republican and the Democratic Party, and have a fiscally responsible, environmentally aware, new party. It didn't work, but we tried it.

Brian Czech:

Well, it was a brilliant idea, the way you describe it, especially. I wonder about Ross Perot though. Did he understand the conflict between economic growth and economic sustainability?

Dick Lamm:

In my opinion, Ross Perot was all about Ross Perot. And I don't think that he really wanted to build a new party as much as he wanted to promote himself.

Brian Czech:

I see. Yeah, well you know, that's kind of reminiscent, I guess in reverse, of a certain other politician we have right now. I don't remember too much about Perot. What you're telling me does resonate. He had a huge ego and stuff, but I also vaguely recall him being a pretty pro-growth kind of candidate or certainly pro-business.

Dick Lamm:

I flew around a lot with Ross Perot to various things. We agreed to go together and so we went together to each make our pitch, to, you know, a big meeting in Valley Forge, and we really did not, I don't think we particularly, we didn't understand each other. We really didn't understand each other. He didn't understand what I was talking about and and I think I understood the fact that Ross Perot was an incredible egoist and smart guy, made a brilliant business success. He's much to be admired, but he's not a force for change.

Brian Czech:

How about Pat Choate, Perot's running mate? Was he saying anything about economic growth back then, one way or the other?

Dick Lamm:

He was. Yes, he was. And Pat Choate and I got along well. He understood. I suspect that he read your book early on. He understood the geometry of growth and change.

Brian Czech:

Well, I know he's a CASSE signatory, so he certainly has some knowledge about that. But I didn't know if back then he was saying anything. And that must have been an interesting dynamic then, with he and Perot. Well, let's shift gears a little bit and talk about the environmental NGOs. One time a colleague brought me a file that he had stored for decades, evidently, and it had an article from US News and World Report. The article was from, I want to say around 1970, and it mentioned that Friends of the Earth was warning Americans about the perils of economic growth, and that's about 50 years ago. As far as I know, with the exception of Greenpeace and the International Fund for Animal Welfare, none of the big environmental NGOs, including Friends of the Earth US, have said a peep about economic growth in the past few decades. In fact, the Nature Conservancy, The Audubon Society, National Wildlife Federation, they've all gone on record stating that economic growth and environmental protection are compatible goals. What do we do to get these NGOs back on track and leading instead of misleading on limits to growth?

Dick Lamm:

One bit of history first. Because of my frustration, along the line that you just articulated, I went to Paul Ehrlich and Paul Ehrlich and I started Zero Population Growth, and Paul was the first president and I was the second president. And we ran Zero Population Growth for about, I don't know, six or seven years. There's limits to the amount of people we can crowd on the earth.

Brian Czech:

Well, folks, we're going to have to end this one a little bit abruptly because we lost our connection with Dick. But we've been talking with Dick Lamm, the three-term governor of Colorado and the closest thing we've had in the USA to a viable steady-state presidential candidate, and we'll have him on the show again, for sure. Meanwhile, who's going to take up the mantle next, and win on a platform of limiting growth? Whoever it is, we'll need some of that Dick Lamm charm and verve. With that, I'm Brian Czech and you've been listening to The Steady Stater podcast. See you next time.