Lamm: An advanced case of PMMP

July 12, 1996|By Ben Wattenberg

WASHINGTON -- Richard Lamm, former governor of Colorado, the newly declared candidate for the Reform Party nomination for the presidency, is a smart fellow and a strange piece of work. He suffers from an advanced case of PMMP, that is Periodic Millenarian Maladroit Projectionitis.

This is a serious, even dangerous, disease among public-policy wonks, and wannabe wonks. But strangely, Mr. Lamm's condition may be momentarily useful for himself, American politics and America.

Some years ago I wrote about Mr. Lamm just after two of his books had been published. A sense of what PMMP is can be gleaned from some of my critical excerpts:

''The approach of adjacent zeros on the calendar seems to have a devastating and depressing effect on the human mind. . . . Now we have three zeros to face, and the apocalyptic millenarians are already out in force, slapping their tambourines.

''Consider the interesting case of Richard Lamm, author of 'Mega-Traumas: America at the Year 2000.' It is a book that spells out Mr. Lamm's current concerns in the words of memos to a fictional president at the coming turn of the century.'' (When Mr. Lamm will still be president if he wins this year.)

''Mr. Lamm's . . . nickname is Gov. Gloom, and he believes we are running out of energy, running out of food, running out of jobs, running out of minerals. He says we have too much crime, debt, health care, doctors and lawyers. We have too many dead-end jobs, illegitimate children, people speaking Spanish, old people and, mostly, too many immigrants -- which is the topic of another new book by Mr. Lamm, 'The Immigration Time Bomb.'

''Mr. Lamm's metaphors go beyond bombs. Mankind, he says, 'is a cancer on the earth,' or alternatively, 'a locust on the land.' He says that the biggest problem we malignant insects have is that we won't face up to the grim facts. That is an odd approach from a man who broods about an energy crisis during an energy glut, a food crisis during a food glut, a mineral crisis when mineral prices have fallen, rising unemployment when unemployment is dropping, a shrinking Gross National Product while GNP grows, exponential population growth while fertility rates are declining.

''Further, Mr. Lamm frets about exploding bilingualism and an 'American Quebec' -- when bilingual education programs are being dismantled. He believes that more health care has tended to make us less healthy -- despite the fact that adult life expectancy is going up at the fastest rate in our history.

''To give Governor Gloom his due, his catalog of horrors includes a few that are worthy of attention. The official Social Security projections are probably too optimistic, and benefits will have to be stretched out. And he does say that not all of his dreadful scenarios are likely to occur. Indeed, the purpose of his harum-scarum alarums is to let us act now to head off disaster.

''But, ultimately, Mr. Lamm, Lammism, and all the little Lammniks who will try to scare us about the impending millennium will not help us as we go from here to there. That is so because of the iron rule of public activity: Wrong premises yield bad policy.

''A thousand years ago, as the millennium approached in medieval Europe, crowds were whipped into a frenzy by religious zealots who proclaimed that when three adjacent zeros popped up on the calendar, the world would end. It didn't. In fact, life goes on, and a thousand years later there are still zealots saying the same thing.''

So why can all this silliness be good for Mr. Lamm, American politics and America?

Mindless projections are mindless because human beings are a mildly rational species, and they do not continue destructive behavior forever once they know such behavior is indeed destructive. So when Mr. Lamm tells us that we must get the budget under control, that Medicare must be trimmed or it will go broke, that we must bite the bullet on Social Security, it is a message we should hear, and act upon, albeit more gently than Mr. Lamm proposes.

It will be easy for Mr. Lamm to deliver such an unpopular political message because he can't really believe that he has a serious chance to win the presidency. After all, in American history only one ''third-party'' candidate actually won. Curiously, he too was running just four years after his new party first surfaced as a national entity. That was Lincoln.

Ben Wattenberg is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 7/12/96

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