Final Say: Fergus Cullen
Fergus Cullen, 39, is the executive director of the Yankee Institute fo Public Policy, an independent think tank dedicated to creating new ideas for lower taxes and smaller government. He resides in both Hartford and New Hampshire.
What’s a typical day like in a “think tank”?
We put our hands together and we furrow our brows, we scratch our chins and stare at the ceiling until an idea arrives in our head. [laughs] We do a lot of policy research. We try to see what’s going on in other states. We don’t want to re-invent the wheel but there are states that are doing good things. The state of New York, for example, these days is doing good things. We try to promote those in the state of Connecticut while also doing research on things happening in the state that perhaps somebody else isn’t already doing. To try and just put forth educational materials. All of it does come with an agenda—we are an organization that believes in limited government, so everything we do is done from that standpoint.
Why do you think the Yankee Institute [YI] seems to be the target of so many conspiracy-type theories?
Number one, it’s a sign of our effectiveness. SEBAC’s quotes from earlier this year, and I’m paraphrasing, were, “We didn’t mind Yankee while they were small and didn’t have any influence, but once they actually started doing stuff and were being effective, then we minded.” We mostly take the attacks as a badge of honor.
So what are you bringing to the next state union picnic?
A tall glass of lemonade to help them cool off a little bit. [laughs] It was SEBAC, the broader coalition [of union negotiators], that we got into this tussle with. I think we certainly won that bout by unanimous vote of the judges, so we’ll see if they want to tangle with us as quickly again.
What’s the biggest challenge of being an independent think tank in such a deeply blue state like Connecticut?
It’s a target-rich environment and we’re a small organization with three-and-a-half staff. There’s so many different things we can go after, but being selective about what topics we pursue is a challenge, again, being such a target-rich environment from a policy perspective in terms of things we think the state is doing wrong.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about YI?
That we're anti-government. We’re pro good government and we think that government is more effective when it focuses on doing a small number of things, and doing them in a limited way. When government tries to do too many things, it does too many of those things poorly. We’d rather they stay focused on fewer things, do them better, and that is a government we could support.
Business and politics seem more and more inextricably linked—should they be, and if not, how do you go about breaking them apart?
We mostly think the role of government is staying out of the way of job creators. I cringe when I hear any politician, Republican or Democrat, talking about government creating jobs. All government is can do is help create an environment where entrepreneurs who take risks can reap rewards, and that’s how jobs are created. We’re deeply concerned about the fact that we’re going back twenty years now with zero net private job creation here in Connecticut. That’s deeply troubling. There is job creation taking place in other states. We think there’s a relationship between the state’s decision to adopt an income tax, which was 20 years ago this month, and that there’s been zero net job creation in twenty years. It sends a signal to capital and job creators and entrepreneurs about the direction the state is moving in. Connecticut, alas, has been moving toward [becoming] a state that’s hostile toward entrepreneurship, job creation and wealth. We think that’s been a real problem for this state.
Recently, CBIA said 75 percent of Connecticut businesses had a negative view of the state’s business climate, and 63 percent are pessimistic that it can be fixed within 5 years—is it really that bad?
We think so. Again, contrast what’s going on in Connecticut with what’s going on in New Jersey and in New York, and let’s remember that Connecticut is in the same media market as both. What I mean by that is that people are aware that Gov. Cuomo is cutting taxes and cutting spending. They’re aware that Gov. Christie in New Jersey is doing the same, and they see Connecticut doing just the opposite. So the direction that the state is moving in, the message that it sends to people who employ other people, is exactly the opposite of what’s needed. So I share that pessimistic outlook, which is unfortunate.
In a nutshell, if possible: What in specific should Connecticut do to get back on track?
Number one, they should be cutting spending and not raising taxes. So Gov. Malloy’s plan to raise taxes by some $1.6 billion a year—and let’s remember, that’s not just for one year, but that’s for all years, in perpetuity moving forward. He describes himself as being “anti Christie”—that’s his term, not ours. We think he should be more like Christie and not less like Christie. And more like Gov. Cuomo. If you are a business owner or somebody who has an idea, or somebody thinking about expanding your business, and you work in the tri-state area and you’re thinking, “Where should I do it?” all the incentives are for you to do it in New York or New Jersey now, and not do it in Connecticut. That’s why you have the chairman of UTC saying a year ago, “We’d rather do business in other state rather than Connecticut.” This is a company that is one of the 30 components of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, there are 49 other states who would love to have UTC there, and Connecticut just makes it very difficult and gives them incentives to carry on their business and be successful somewhere else.
Does the Connecticut press have a liberal bias?
Ahh ... no. We certainly feel like we get a fair shake from Connecticut media.
Do you think you may get more positive local press if you called it the Red Sox Institute?
Well, it depends if you’re on the eastern or western part of the state. It really goes with the Merritt Parkway. If you’re on the western side of the Merritt, you are in the New York media market, you’re more likely to read the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, and follow New York sports teams. Meanwhile, I’m a Red Sox fan for sure, and the real troubling thing is that when we get a big crowd for one of our events and they’re disappointed to see me as a speaker because they thought they were going to get Jorge Posada or Mark Teixeira instead. We get very crestfallen audiences because of that.
What’s tougher: Running for office or running a marathon?
I just got into the Boston marathon for next year! So I know what I’m doing for the winter—no excuses, I’ve got to train. What’s tougher? Running for office is tougher, there’s no question about it. Everyone’s a critic, lots of people are willing to say what you’re doing wrong, why should’ve won if only you had listened to them or done what they had said. Lots of people are willing to stand up and say what’s wrong, very few people are willing to stand up and do something about it. I give a lot of credit to those who are willing to commit to their community to try and improve them, even when I don’t always think their ideas are right.
If you had to run for political office, what office would you go for?
Hog reeve. You know, this is a position that we in New England used to have to round up stray livestock. It used to be an elected position in many communities because it took the trust of the people to have a good hog reeve. So if I were to be a candidate, I think that’s what I’d be.
Have you ever considered a run for political office?
I have, but you can sometimes have even more influence outside of elected office than you can have inside the elected office. I enjoy the policy side and the advocacy side, and often times think that I am more influential and can have more of an affect working outside of elected office than I could working inside of elected office.
Speaking of influence, why do you think the Tea Party isn’t more influential in Connecticut?
Well, Connecticut is a blue state. I’ve spoken to a number of Tea Party groups, especially in Eastern Connecticut. I think that support for Tea Party sentiment is very strong, that is to say, concern about the size and scope of government, government spending, debt—a lot of this was embodied in concern about Obamacare and TARP and the bailouts. I think that’s very real, and the grass-roots activists that I’ve met through the Tea Party events and groups are real people who are concerned about the future of our great nation. It’s very heartfelt. I think it’s often dismissed, but I think the sentiment that they express is a very mainstream view.
Why is “free enterprise” seemingly at odds with “organized labor” when it seems as though they have a common goal, which is working and making money?
We often say there are two groups of people in Connecticut: Those who enjoy the high pay and generous benefits and security that comes with government jobs, and the rest of us who pay for them. I’m deeply resentful of the unions when they claim to be the only ones who are out there speaking for working people or working families. The 90 percent of Connecticut residents who are not union households are working people, too. In fact, they are not only working to support their own family, but for union families as well. So this idea that only unions are talking for working people is one that I find really offensive. Are they naturally at odds with each other? I just don’t think there’s a recognition on the unions’ part that the rest of us are paying their salaries and putting bread on their tables in addition to doing it for ourselves. If they had their way, there’d be more and more union employees and fewer and fewer non-union employees. We think that’s just simply not sustainable for a healthy economy.
Your CTSunlight.org deals with transparency in Connecticut state government—everyone talks about transparency, but are things becoming more transparent?
I think we’re becoming more transparent. I want to credit Nancy Wyman when she was the comptroller and her successor has followed though—they could not have been more cooperative with our requests for CTSunlight. When we first approached them, we did so with a massive unprecedented amount of Freedom of Information Act requests. They really could’ve stalled, they could’ve dragged their feet, they could’ve put up barriers, and instead, they were very cooperative. The site has certainly exceeded our expectations in terms of visitors—we still average between 3,000 and 4,000 visitors a week. And then, imitation being the most sincere form of flattery, the state legislature itself, just over a year ago, said, “We ought to be doing this and not relying on an independent third-party group to do it,” and they put up their own transparency site, which we think is a good one. We would like to see it expand to the local level, to municipalities and school districts—every school district employee’s name, position and salary and benefit structure ought to be posted in something as simple as an Excel spreadsheet in the school district’s website. We just think that more sunlight and disclosure there is about how government actually spends tax dollars, the more downward pressure on spending there will be, and this in turn, protects taxpayers.
The YI has been linked to the Koch Brothers and the conservative elite—why is that portrayed as a bad thing?
First of all, this is a shibboleth of the left. The fact of the matter is that we admire the Koch brothers, who are fabulously successful business people in America, and we respect the free-market system that has allowed them to be so successful, and we appreciate that they are so supportive of others who try to protect that free-market system so that others can be as successful as they were. That being said, they don’t fund us. We have no connection to the Koch brothers, so this class envy and resentment of successful people we think is a banality of the left and they ought to just get over it and try to be as successful as the Koch brothers.
Now that you’ve been asked to leave the campus of Trinity College, do you have plans where you’re going next?
We have until the end of the year to vacate the space, but yes. We’ve been there for thirteen years and then all of a sudden in the middle of the summer challenge we had, they decided we weren’t suited for the space any more, which is their right. We believe in property rights and that’s their space and they have the right to do with it what they will, but we do think the timing was a little bit curious.
Are you staying in Connecticut?
Oh yeah. We’ll probably be staying in the Hartford area. We have some time to figure it out. The good thing is that we had like a dozen offers of free space from people who admire what we do, so that was a help, too.