News & Politics

Mr. Ice Cream Sticks It to the Pentagon

Ben Cohen has built a grassroots organization of half a million to fight the obscene size of the U.S. military budget -- and he uses Oreo cookies to make the case.
Ben Cohen has an ax to grind with the Pentagon. Or an Oreo to grind, as it were. The man who co-founded Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream thinks there's a better way to spend $60 billion of the country's money than on Cold War weapons systems, and he has the numbers to prove it. Over a million people have downloaded the Oreo Cookie Budget animation that demonstrates the reorganizing of that cash, with each cookie representing $10 billion. Since its launch two years ago, legislation with 28 co-sponsors establishing the rearranged Oreo budget has been introduced to Congress. Not bad for a guy who started out trying to see if business could be used to promote progressive values.

Since departing from Ben & Jerry's after selling the company to Unilever in 2000, the ice cream magnate has spent his days building out True Majority, a nationwide grassroots coalition with over 500,000 members calling for everything from a sensible national budget to withdrawal from Iraq. He also founded a resource organization for business owners who are socially conscious called Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities. Together, they comprise the Priorities! Campaign.

AlterNet caught up with Cohen earlier this month.

What are some of the successes that you guys have had with True Majority? There have been a number of campaigns recently with taking back Ohio, Neil Young, getting out of Iraq …

Well, the question of Iraq is finally going to be debated on the floor of Congress, which is a victory of sorts. (Four House Republicans have recently signed a Democratic-sponsored discharge petition that would begin 17 hours of debate over Iraq on the House floor.) There's just a tremendous building of resistance to the Bush agenda, as evidenced by Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen. The big hope is that we're going to turn Congress around. That's certainly what I'm planning on, taking back at least one house. That should at least put a stop to any worse damage.

The thing about the Bush administration is that every time they do something, I used to say, "Oh, God, they couldn't possibly do anything worse than this!" And then the next week, they top it.

It's dumbfounding to watch.

It is, and what we've got is "outrage fatigue." There's just so many totally outrageous things that are happening -- there's so many violations of the Constitution, violations of bedrock American principles in terms of torture, and every time you hear about one of these things … It used to be that people would get outraged. And now, it's just old news, it's the same old thing. "Oh, look, they're going after the Constitution again!"

It's impossible for people to deal with it all. You have a fairly united group of people that are resistant to what he's trying to do, but how many horrible things has he done? 25? 50? I don't know. Nobody can keep focusing on all of those. So you have different groups focusing on different things, and you need to be able to focus on one issue for a while. But while you're dealing with one outrage, the next one comes along, and you have to drop what you were doing with the last outrage and go on to the new outrage … It's enough to run a person ragged!

Where do you see the areas of opportunity?

It's really about turning Congress around. I really think that the strategy of the Bush administration is to grab everything that they possibly can, because they know that once they're out of power, there's no more grabbing they can do. They know that some of the stuff they grabbed is going to be taken away once the other party gets into power. They're setting things up in a way that they're creating a huge deficit and decimating social programs, so that the Democrats will have no choice when they're back in office but to raise social spending. That's exactly how the Republicans want it, and that's how they're going to paint the Democrats. It'll be "tax and spend Democrats" all over again.

Are there ways progressives can counteract that?

I think we have to pin the tag of financial irresponsibility on the Republicans. W, the current Bush, isn't the first Republican to totally screw up the budget. Reagan screwed it up, Bush I screwed it up and Clinton finally made it right. Yet despite that, the Republicans still have a reputation for being more financially responsible, conservative, call it what you will. The Democrats have not taken on the mantel; they have not got the reputation of essentially being financial saviors.

Speaking of government spending, the Oreo budget animation is probably one of the most popular political Flash animations out there now.

Ben Cohen -- Oreo Animation
It's amazing. When it first went out about two years ago, it was downloaded over a million times, and it's still going around the internet. I think the key to it is that it actually provides a fair amount of information in a pretty entertaining way. It finally lets people get their arms around ridiculous numbers that get thrown around without any relationship to each other.

You listen to the news, read the news over the period of a couple weeks and you hear "$200 billion for this" and "$300 billion for that," "$150 million for that and $300 million for this" -- it's all more money than you can imagine. The human mind is not capable of conceiving of these things. By using Oreos to relate them to each other in terms of heights of stacks of Oreos, it becomes really easy to understand, and what ends up happening is that you deal in units of $10 billion, which is really the way Congress deals. When you talk about a $1 million to Congress, what is that, 0.01%? They're dealing in billions.

Let's talk a little about the world of socially responsible business. Since you've departed Ben & Jerry's, how is that world faring?

It's growing, kind of by leaps and bounds. In the early days of Ben & Jerry's, I knew I wanted to try and see if it were possible to use business as a force for progressive social change. I would always be prowling bookstores for anything I could find on what came to be known as "socially responsible business," and there was nothing, zip. Now you go to the bookstore and there are shelves of it. It's really quite amazing. There's lots of small business starting with that mission to begin with. There's lots of business that are adopting one or more aspects of socially responsible business. And even some larger corporations are starting to.

Now that Unilever owns Ben & Jerry's, do you think that they are carrying on your mission?

Unilever isn't exactly known as a socially responsible operation, but I think the person who's currently running Ben & Jerry's believes in the social mission of the company, and he's trying to integrate that more into the consciousness of what the corporation does. But it is owned by Unilever, and that's where the profits are going.

What's your life like now?

I'm working full-time for the Priorities! Campaign, which is made up of Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities and True Majority. BLSP is for businesspeople of any stripe or size, which is about 750 members, and then True Majority is the grassroots component, which is about 500,000 members now.

We just introduced the Common Sense Budget Act, which is legislation in Congress that calls for shifting about $60 billion a year to education, health care, energy independence, deficit reductions, and by taking it out of the Pentagon budget, it's at no additional taxpayer expense. It's a number that came out of an analysis by Larry Korb, former secretary of defense under Reagan, who identified essentially $60 billion worth of Cold War weapons systems that the U.S. still making, even though the Soviet Union is no longer around. The country continues to spend more than the rest of the world combined on the military, and it's absurd.

We are focusing our campaign on Iowa and New Hampshire; the goal is to get this to be a top-of-mind issue in those states. We do this year in and year out; every two years there's a congressional election, which makes it a little more interesting, and every four years there's a presidential election. The idea is when the presidential candidates come in and do their polling and ask people what's important to them, then people will say they care about the budget.

We campaigned in Iowa and New Hampshire in 1999 before the 2000 primaries and got quite a bit of media coverage. We parachuted in six months before, but now we're going to be there day after day, year after year, for the next six years.

You have local grassroots organizers on the ground there, rather than importing people in from other areas.

Aaron Rubin -- Oreo Demonstration
Aaron Rubin demonstrates the Oreo Budget
Yes, and we also have, for example, a giant version of the Oreo animation on a flatbed trailer, with a 12-foot-high stack of oversized Oreos, and it goes all around the towns in Iowa and New Hampshire. The guy running the truck does the whole demonstration, climbing up a ladder and taking six Oreos off the top, and move them to the other areas.

What's the status of the Common Sense Budget Act now?

It's got 28 co-sponsors, mostly members of the Progressive Caucus. Our plan is to start working with Women's Actions for New Directions (WAND) to hire an organizer that's going to be working with both organizations, conducting campaigns in specific localities nationwide where there's a confluence of True Majority members, Business Leader members, women legislators that are members of WAND's organization. They'll be working to pass local legislation in favor of the Common Sense Budget Act and to pressure local congresspeople to support the act. We'll also be doing that in Iowa and New Hampshire.

What makes you passionate? What inspires your work?

Poverty.

John Kenneth Galbraith recently died. His obituaries mentioned all the work he did with Lyndon Baines Johnson and the Great Society. He wrote some of those Great Society speeches, and I actually downloaded them all. (Listen HERE to the University of Michigan speech from May 22, 1964.) It was incredibly inspiring to hear the words that came out of a president of the United States. He was talking about using the power, and the strength, and the greatness of America to end poverty. And that was the big focus. It's pretty rare these days to hear an inspirational political speech.

The other really interesting thing about it was that he was doing it during the Vietnam War. There were some people that were saying, "How can you possibly fight a war and fight poverty at the same time?" He was doing it, and the difference now is that we're fighting a war and giving tax cuts at the same time. It's a disaster.

Any predictions for 2006 and 2008?

I think we're going to take back one of the houses of Congress, and if the Democrats can come up with a positive and people understand what they stand for instead of just being opposed to everything, I think they'll get elected.

How do you get them to understand that, though?

Yeah, that's the big question, isn't it? The problem is that they think that anybody telling them to do that is already one of the converted. The Democrats think they don't need to worry about those people, and they don't need to do anything for them. It's their continued, failed policy of thinking that they can get the people in the center by moving to the center. They see the Republicans are moving to the right, and they think, "We need to move close to the right, and that's how you get the people." They don't understand that you need to talk passionately about things you believe in, and that's what gets people in the middle.
Deanna Zandt is a contributing editor at AlterNet.