Ice Cream Mogul Wants Pentagon on a Diet

Ben of Ben &Jerry's seeks commitments to trim defense budget.


Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream Cofounder Ben Cohen.

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For Ben Cohen, the politically active half of Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream, life's not all about ice cream anymore. Since he and Jerry Greenfield sold their Burlington, Vt., company in 2000 to Unilever, the politically conscious cofounder Cohen has turned his attention entirely to making Americans more aware of what percentage of their tax dollars goes toward funding the Pentagon's budget. His latest efforts include hitting up the early primary states and finding Democratic caucus attendees who will pledge to only vote for a candidate who promises to slice the defense budget and put that money toward social needs programs.

Armed with a variety of toys, including a colorful Frisbee adorned with a pie chart of the federal budget (half of which is marked "Pentagon") and the tastiest business card in town (a coupon for a free pint of his namesake ice cream), Cohen sat down with U.S. News to talk about his "Sensible Priorities" campaign, political activism, and yes, ice cream.

From what I understand, you're trying to persuade the presidential candidates to commit part of the federal budget away from the Pentagon. How are you doing this?

About two years ago we started a grassroots campaign working with "Iowans for Sensible Priorities" and "Priorities New Hampshire" to educate people as to how the federal budget is currently sliced up. We knew from surveys that once people found out about it, people were incredulous and wanted to shift twice as much money as we're talking about.

What percent are you trying to get sliced away from the Pentagon?

It's about 13 percent. That's $60 billion and it's amazing what you can do with $60 billion. It's enough money to rebuild all our schools, provide healthcare for every kid who doesn't have it, provide food self-sufficiency for all 6 million starving kids a year in the world, and reduce our need for oil, increasing energy independence—a lot of stuff.

How did you get people interested?

We knew we had to come up with some unusual ways of getting this information across because if you just put out all those huge mind-boggling numbers, it's pretty dry and people aren't interested. So we developed the logo of the campaign—it's a pie chart. When we showed a Frisbee of the pie chart on The Colbert Report we said we'd send one to anyone who went to our website and 40,000 people went to our website. So we sent out 40,000 of them. The other part of the campaign was doing this Oreo demonstration. We stack up Oreos and each equaled $10 billion. It shows people the relative amounts that are being spent by the federal government on the Pentagon versus education, healthcare, and energy independence.

We hired a team of field organizers with additional organizers in Iowa. The purpose there is to get 8,000 people to pledge they are going to attend the caucus and are only going to vote for a presidential candidate who supports sensible budget priorities. We've kind of blown away that goal—we've got 9,000 now. There's only about 100,000 Democrats that participate in the caucus, so we've got about 10 percent of them.

Have you heard positively from any of the candidates?

We have a scorecard on our website that tracks the various weapon systems that are no longer needed and how the candidate stands on that weapon system. It totals up how much money each particular candidate has talked about reducing based on those weapon systems. Mike Gravel, Dennis Kucinich, and Bill Richardson are doing really well, and Edwards has talked a good game but hasn't made commitments yet. We are expecting and hoping he'll get on board soon.

Have you met with any of the candidates personally?

Yeah, we've met with Barack Obama, Bill Richardson, and John Edwards very early on.

How did that go?

They are delightful people. I think that they all agree that there is a lot of waste in the Pentagon. I think that the only issue was how much they could feasibly cut politically.

How did you personally get involved in this issue?

I've just always been concerned about the issue of poverty. How is it that you can be here in the richest country in the world and still have people who are hungry, people who don't have decent schools, people who don't have healthcare? We tried answering that question by looking at the federal budget and it doesn't take you long before you see why we're not meeting those needs. We put together a core of military advisers and they all said, "Yes, we are spending on the Pentagon as if the Cold War was still going on." It's like using a jack hammer to crush a flea. It doesn't work.