1984-2004: CEI’s 20 Year Report

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A Message from the President

CEI is 20, and I am supposed to summarize two decades? To paraphrase Mickey Mantle, had I realized CEI would live this long, I would have kept better records! CEI’s present activities are amply documented elsewhere in this report, and CEI’s future is also clear: To boldy go, á la “Star Trek,” where no free market organization has gone before. But reviewing CEI’s past will require some dusting off of memories. If that triggers the requirement for an OSHA approved respiratory filter—well, that’s one hazard of nostalgia.

Much of my vision for CEI emerged from my apprenticeship at the Council for a Competitive Economy. As the Council came to an end, friends encouraged me to create my own organization. They assured me that, with my alleged energy and enthusiasm, it would be easy. They lied. Our first year was incredibly difficult. One day, dejected, I told Fran that we might have to shut CEI down because we hadn’t raised any money after three months of existence. She said, “But Fred, that was part of your business plan.” “I know,” I replied, but now it’s actually happened!”

Fran wasn’t going to let me off that easily. “No you don’t,” she said. “You got us into this, and you’re going to keep going.”

And we did. My experience at the Council gave CEI its basic structure: an emphasis on regulation, an activist approach that would bridge the gap between the think tank and political worlds, and a soup-to-nuts organization modeled explicitly on the aggressive environmental groups I’d encountered. As much as I rejected their policies, I still admired their tactics. I envisioned an organization that would publish studies and organize path-breaking seminars, aggressively market these ideas to the relevant interest groups, and seek policy change by pushing legislators and regulators to “ do the right thing”—and sue when they wouldn’t.

We soon moved to a location across from The Heritage Foundation, in a not-yet gentrified building with one large room, a bathroom, and a balcony overlooking Massachusetts Avenue. From that balcony I would solicit donors, harangue policy makers, market the media, and talk to passers by. All in all, not a bad way to start an organization.

One of our early issues was a critique of the International Monetary Fund. At a Cato Institute conference, one critic of my talk claimed that abolishing the IMF would bring about financial Gotterdammerung. I responded that I doubted it, but that anyone who’s visited the IMF’s headquarters could easily envision Valhalla!

CEI itself soon moved, not to Valhalla but to a walk-up office above a Kinko’s copy shop on Capitol Hill. We had a grand total of four rooms. Tom Miller joined us to explore financial issues and antitrust regulation. One day Sam Kazman—then head of the Pacific Legal Foundation’s Washington office—walked in, suggesting that we stop griping about the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards and sue instead. CAFE wasn’t just expensive and ineffectual, it was deadly—a “blood for oil” program if there ever was one! I agreed and CEI joined with Consumer Alert to initiate our eventually successful challenge to CAFE. That effort later grew into our Death by Regulation project. We moved again, first to another walk-up above Sherrill’s Bakery, and then to our current location at the Valhalla of the Beltway, K Street. We were joined by others, among them R.J Smith, the father of free-market environmentalism. This area grew under the guidance of Jonathan Adler—now a law professor at Case Western Reserve University—to bring CEI to the forefront of this movement.

We expanded into other areas: biotechnology, insurance, financial derivatives, privacy, and the far-flung reaches of “network” deregulation (and, unfortunately, re-regulation) in such areas as electricity and telecommunications. Our efforts seemed to be heating up, but then we realized the cause was global warming—or, more precisely, global warming alarmism. This issue, with its threat to the legitimacy of energy, has become perhaps the most important regulatory battle facing civilization. It is a major focus of our efforts.

We are proud of our many successes—our CAFE victories, our challenge to the Kyoto Protocol and the precautionary principle, our defense of biotechnology, and our entry into the global environmental debate. CEI remains focused on actually advancing liberty. It is not enough to be right, we must also win! Logic alone wins few battles. We must find ways to communicate to those who don’t read the Federal Register before bedtime. We have enough marriage manuals; we need more children.

I would like to mention three late, great individuals who inspired CEI: Warren Brookes, in whose honor we instituted our Warren Brookes Journalism Fellowship; Julian Simon, memorialized in our Julian Simon Prize; and Aaron Wildavsky, the inspiration for CEI’s value-based communications project. Had we not been able to stand on the shoulders of these giants, we’d have accomplished much less. Their work continues to inspire us, and we hope that our work provides a fitting memorial to them.

Where are we going? Someone once noted that “the world of politics is always twenty years behind the world of thought.” If that means that politicians today are becoming attracted to the ideas we had when we first started, then that’s progress of a sort. But it’s not enough, and CEI seeks to close that gap.

Twenty years is a short time for an organization seeking to redeem the American Dream, but we’ve had a great start. At 20, CEI still operates in a target-rich environment. There are massive battles still to be waged and won. With your help, CEI will keep on fighting creatively and enthusiastically.