By: Madeline Fortier
This interview with Carol Liebau was conducted before the Buckley Program’s dinner seminar on Connecticut state politics with her at Mory’s Temple Bar on Tuesday, February 21st. This transcript has been condensed and lightly edited from a longer interview.
Carol Liebau is the President of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy in Hartford, Connecticut. She is an attorney, author, political and policy advisor, and media commentator who has contributed to the editorial pages of The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Times, The Orange County Register, The Sacramento Bee, and The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Liebau attended Princeton University, where she was editorial chairman of The Daily Princetonian, and she is a 1992 graduate of Harvard Law School, where she served as the first female managing editor of The Harvard Law Review.
The Yankee Institute is an economic think-tank that looks for free market solutions to solve fiscal problems in the state of Connecticut, dealing with issues like pensions, the state budget, and the minimum wage.
Madeline: Hi Carol, thank you for being here today. The Yankee Institute is focused on solving fiscal problems, specifically in the state of Connecticut. Are there any solutions to Connecticut’s massive debt problem that either you or the Yankee Institute sanction? If you had to pick one, what would you say is the best way to address the debt?
Carol: The Yankee Institute considers looking at Connecticut’s structural problems to be central to dealing with the debt. One of these problems is the way Connecticut has worked with the public sector and public sector unions. Last year, the Yankee Institute published a study called “Unequal Pay,” which found that public sector employees earn 25 to 46% more in total compensation than their private sector counterparts with the same skills, the same work experience, doing the same jobs. This means that the public sector workforce is being supported by the private sector workforce. This results in a level of pensions that is unsustainable for the fiscal health of the state.
Madeline: This seems to tie into the Yankee Institute’s focus on eliminating government inefficiency.
Carol: Yes. What we do is develop and advance policies that promote smart, limited government, fairness for taxpayers, and an open road to opportunity for all the people of our state. Of course, there are some things that state government must do and should do, but we don’t want any more government than we need.
Madeline: So just cutting where it’s not necessary.
Carol: Absolutely. We’re conservatives. The government that governs best governs least.
Madeline: You mentioned in a piece on “Five ways to turn Connecticut around,” that working for special interests and conflicts of interest has been a problem. How do you suggest that be fixed?
Carol: We need to look more closely and carefully at our conflict of interest rules and our ethics rules, and become committed to more transparency. Connecticut’s Speaker of the House, for example, works for a public sector union. That, obviously, creates terrible conflict when the house looks at and votes on public sector union contracts. How can responsibilities as a member of a public sector union be separated from his responsibilities to represent the taxpayers of Connecticut? The solution may just come down to asking the government to be involved in many fewer things. In national politics, we question the importance of and focus on lobbyists. Well, it’s because the government wields so much power over every area of our lives. Analogously, maybe if state government had fewer regulations, less intrusion, and less micromanaging, there would be less opportunity for cronyism and the sort of thing that gives government a bad name.
Madeline: Through my experience last year on the campaign team for a New Haven Alder election, I became more aware of local politics and observed how unions seem to be involved across the political realm. And this seems to be the case on the state level too, in Connecticut.
Carol: Unions’ active political involvement make it very difficult for those lines to be separated. The Yankee Institute also put out a study called “Union Time on the Taxpayer Dime” this year. We found that public employee union members who work for the state government are actually paid by taxpayer dollars to do public union work on state time. Given the fact that union dues are taken from their paychecks, without their consent because they’re required to be union members, it’s remarkable that nonetheless, they’re paid with taxpayer dollars to do union work on state time.
Madeline: I hear there was a clash at the state capital today about labor costs and the recent proposals to raise Connecticut’s minimum wage. What are your thoughts on that and the minimum wage?
Carol: The minimum wage sounds very good in the abstract. Who could disagree, in principle, with the idea, if it worked, that we should raise the minimum wage to fifteen dollars? But, if it worked, why not raise it to a hundred dollars or a thousand dollars an hour? It isn’t a good idea, of course, because it makes it too expensive for a lot of businesses to be able to operate. If that’s the case at a hundred or a thousand dollars, it can be the case, not as dramatically, but every bit as truly, at fifteen dollars, or pick your number. There’s constant pressure to raise the minimum wage, for the state to set a number that all businesses must match.
What raising the minimum wage does, of course, is hurt the people most vulnerable, the people most in need of getting the first step onto the bottom rung of the ladder of success. It pushes the people who are the most marginally attached to the labor force, out of the labor force. Because those are the first people to go when it would be more expensive to pay them than to have an hour of their labor’s worth. So, we believe in fighting for those people who want the dignity of a job and who believe in the dignity of work. We believe that your work is inherently valuable and inherently dignified if you do it well—not just worth something when you’re paid fifteen dollars an hour. And a lot of this pressure comes from unions, because if the unions gets the minimum wage up to fifteen dollars, they can begin arguing for wage increases even higher than that for their members. It shows a certain lack of concern for the impact that’s going to have on the people who are most struggling to get by.
Many advocates for a higher minimum wage argue, “you can’t support a family of four on a twelve-dollar minimum wage,” but the fact is that a fast food job was never intended to support a family of four. Much of the demographic the minimum wage affects is young people, or people for whom it’s their first job, or people working a part-time job. We need to ask ourselves, “why are we holding out fast food jobs as the pinnacle of a career?” We should be talking to people about how to get the education, job training, and opportunities that will allow them to aspire to careers that offer greater opportunity and higher income than a minimum-wage fast food job to support a family of four. Hopefully we can have those jobs go more to young people who need to learn the valuable skills of showing up on time, working as part of a team, discipline, or older people who may need a little income on the side.
Madeline: What do you find fulfilling about your job as President of the Yankee Institute, and what do you see as the future of the organization?
Carol: I believe that everyone should be free to succeed. That is Yankee’s tagline, which it adopted not too long after I got there. It makes me sad to see wasted human potential, and all of us have potential. Oppressive government, arrogant government—anything that stands in the way of every human being reaching his or her potential—that’s not right. I believe in natural rights and natural law. Who is government to take them away? So, what I hope Yankee Institute has done, is doing, and will continue to do is get a lot of government nonsense out of the way so that each and every one of us here in Connecticut truly is free to succeed.
Madeline Fortier is a sophomore in Berkeley College.