Jim Wallis: Why should you, a successful businessperson, be worried about the military budget? Why did this become such a life mission for you?
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Ben Cohen: It was the same spirit that led Ben & Jerry's to work to improve the quality of life in the communities that we're a part of. There are things a business can do to integrate concerns for social justice and people who are being oppressed, but there are also things that only a country can do.
When I was working through Ben & Jerry's, it was clear that even big businesses, even huge foundations that have gobs of money, pale in comparison to how much money the federal government has. To restructure the edifice that creates injustice and poverty, you really need to look at the federal budget. That's where there's enough money to solve all these problems, without raising taxes, just by moving some money around. So that’s how I got to that point.
Wallis: How did you first become aware of how much money we're talking about and what that could mean for everything else?
Cohen: Part of it was getting just the vaguest idea of how much $1 billion is. You hear numbers such as 500 million, a billion, 500 billion, and they're all more than you can ever imagine. As Ben & Jerry's became a $100 million business and then a $300 million business, I began to understand how much that really is. Three times that is still less than $1 billion. It is shocking to me that we now spend $700 billion a year on the Pentagon budget. When I first started working on this issue a decade or so ago, the Pentagon budget was about half that amount.
Wallis: How do you help people visualize a number that large?
Cohen: There are two demonstrations I've done that have been incredibly popular. One is the BB demonstration and the other is the Oreo demonstration. The BB demonstration was shown to me by Sen. Alan Cranston of California. He used it to demonstrate the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. He would drop one BB into a container to represent the 15 kiloton bomb that went off over Hiroshima. Then he would drop in 60 BBs to represent enough nuclear weapons to blow up all of Russia. Then he would say, "And now I want to show the number of BBs that represent the U.S. nuclear arsenal," and he would pour in 10,000 BBs, and the noise just went on forever. It was so clearly illogical and irrational, and so clearly a waste, not just of money, but of our spirits and our soul -- in the same way that Martin Luther King Jr. warned that a nation that continues to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
Spending money on unnecessary weapons is taking away from our schools and hospitals and housing, and taking away the hopes of our children and the genius of our times. It's just amazing to think about the huge expenditures of money on these unneeded weapons and what could be done with that same amount of money, if we used it to actually help people, especially people in poverty.
Wallis: Tell me about the Oreo demonstration.
Cohen: That's a demonstration I developed on my own. It makes it easier to understand the federal budget. One Oreo represents $10 billion. The $700 billion Pentagon budget is just a stack of 70 Oreos -- you can understand 70 Oreos. In comparison to that, the federal government spends just four-and-a-half Oreos on education, just one-half an Oreo on alternative energy, and a fraction of an Oreo on Head Start. If you take just seven Oreos off the Pentagon budget, you could provide health care for all the kids who currently don't have it. You could provide Head Start for all the kids who need it. You could eliminate our need for Mideast oil through energy efficiency. You could change our country into one that cares about people, eliminates poverty, and helps people climb their way out, through education.
Wallis: You mentioned Dr. King's comment about a nation that makes these choices being on the path to spiritual death. Are there spiritual roots to your concern about military spending?
Cohen: It's definitely a spiritual issue, as far as I'm concerned. My life is interconnected with the lives of everybody else. When people are suffering, I’m suffering. The thing that motivates me is the understanding that there is no lack of resources. We do have enough money. I've been inspired by a quote from Teilhard de Chardin, who wrote, "The day will come when, after harnessing space, the winds, the tides, gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And, on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, [humanity] will have discovered fire."
I believe that we can create Martin Luther King's beloved community. And the thing that just drives me crazy is that we have enough money. We're just spending it in the wrong places.
The military budget grew to half of what it is now during the Cold War, based on the idea that the Soviet Union was spending more than we were, so we were in this neck-and-neck arms race. We had a peer competitor; there were two superpowers. We thought that they were out to get us, so we needed to spend as much as the Soviet Union.
Today, there is no peer competitor. There is no other superpower, and we are spending more than five times as much as the next country that's not an ally. And that country is China, our biggest trading partner; we're not about to go to war with China. And yet we continue to spend this ridiculous sum of money for weapons that we plan never to use.
Wallis: How did you bring these issues into the last presidential campaign?
Cohen: We were trying to encourage presidential candidates to take a stand against militarism, to take a stand in favor of shifting money out of the Pentagon budget and into social needs. We did that by educating people in Iowa and New Hampshire about how the federal budget was spent. We didn't really need to do much convincing.
The huge majority of the population is not aware of how the federal budget is split up, and they're not aware of how much other countries spend on their military compared to us. In a recent poll, 16 percent of people thought that less than 20 percent of the budget goes to the Pentagon, and 64 percent of the people thought that military spending was less than half the budget -- it's actually around 58 percent, not even including the costs of past wars or foreign military aid. The Pentagon happens to be the biggest-ticket item in the entire discretionary budget.
Once you give them that information, you don't need to do anything else. They come to the conclusion themselves that we should shift money out of the Pentagon and put it into stuff that people need today, like better schools.
Wallis: You've done incredible work educating people about this issue. You've convinced people of this pretty readily, but you've had a tougher time with the politicians.
Cohen: That's exactly right. Politicians are deathly afraid of being accused of being "weak on defense." They regard that as political suicide. But the reality is that we are muscle-bound on defense. The reality is that it's our excessive military spending that’s creating the deficit that we have. That's what's making our country uncompetitive economically, because so much of government spending goes into building weapons instead of into creating things that people really need.
Wallis: It really isn't about "defense" anymore, is it?
Cohen: No, it's definitely not about defense. I called it the "military budget" or the "Pentagon budget"; it's definitely not the "defense budget." The huge majority of the money that's being spent is not being spent to defend the United States -- it's being spent to prepare to fight wars of aggression against countries that have not done anything to us. The United States has an ocean on each side that prevents countries from coming and attacking us, and we've got two good allies on the north and south. There's no country that has the ability to attack the U.S.
Wallis: How does the fact that we're engaged in two major wars, and now a third, in Muslim nations affect the politics of military spending?
Cohen: When you take into account the size of the military budgets of our opposition in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now in Libya, they're virtually nothing. They’re way under $10 billion a year. If what we're concerned about is terrorists -- they're spending a lot less than $1 billion a year. So these huge Pentagon expenditures of $700 billion and more, it’s like trying to take an aircraft carrier to hunt down one terrorist. It's overkill.
Wallis: Of course, people would say, sure we have the oceans and allies, but we were attacked on 9/11, and that's what we're afraid of now. How do you defend against terrorism?
Cohen: I don't think that's the reason to go to war. I think the terrorists that attacked us were criminals, and they should be hunted down like criminals and brought to justice. But terrorism is a tactic that's been used for centuries. Other countries have dealt with terrorist attacks, but no other country that I know of has gone to war over it.
Wallis: The Pentagon-related think tank The Rand Corporation put together a pie chart with statistics on how, historically, terrorism has been defeated. One big chunk, 40 percent, involved police tactics, intelligence, preventing things from happening. Another 43 percent involved reaching a political settlement, such as in Northern Ireland. In 10 percent of cases, terrorists win. And only 7 percent of the time has terrorism been defeated by military solutions. So why are we investing all our money in the 7 percent solution? What's driving all this, if it isn't our legitimate defense needs?
Cohen: No, it's definitely not our legitimate defense needs. It comes down to the military-industrial-congressional complex. You’ve got the Pentagon that is run by people whose careers depend upon getting a certain weapon system built, and they are always lobbying Congress to fund these weapon systems. The standard operating procedure is to do what's called "political engineering." Political engineering means to spread out the production of a weapons system across as many congressional districts as possible, so if there's a threat of cutting that weapon system, the majority of members of Congress hear howls of resistance from the people in their districts that have jobs making those weapons. And then you've got the weapons manufacturers themselves that are lobbying Congress to provide more funding, and providing campaign contributions to pressure them, in a form of legalized bribery, to keep the money rolling in from Congress.
Wallis: You told me recently that you thought that we now have the second biggest opportunity ever to really challenge military spending. The first was the end of the Cold War, with the "peace dividend" that never really happened. In fact, we've doubled the Pentagon budget since the end of the Cold War. But you think now might be an opportune time.
Cohen: Absolutely, because of the deficit. Because people are starting to understand that we can't continue to run up all these unpaid bills. When you start looking at where the government spends the money, and you start trying to find places to cut to bring the deficit under control, you realize that over half of all discretionary government spending is the Pentagon. If you're going to start bringing the budget under control, you can't just be fiddling around the margins; you've got to deal with the really big-ticket items. The bipartisan deficit commission came up with $100 billion a year worth of obsolete, unneeded Cold War-era weapons systems that do not need to be built.
The whole time I was running the campaign to cut Pentagon spending, we were desperately trying to make the campaign bipartisan, but we couldn't find any Republicans that would get on board. Now, the campaign to cut Pentagon spending is being led by Republicans. A lot of the people that got elected as part of the tea party have been fighting to cut Pentagon spending. It's logical. You can’t avoid cutting the Pentagon when you take a look at how the federal government spends its money. So you've got tea partiers and libertarians speaking out in a very loud voice about how the Pentagon should be cut.
Wallis: Where are you finding support for your efforts?
Cohen: I think that religious people are likely supporters. They're the people that make so much sense to be on this bandwagon because this is what the Bible and Jesus is all about.
Wallis: We do have these scriptures about beating our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks.
Cohen: It's unbelievable that politicians give all this lip service about how religious they are, but when it comes to putting their money where their mouth is, they don't do it. People talk about the needs of children and education and hunger and poverty, but there's very little money that they ever come up with. On the other side, there's very little talk about the Pentagon budget. It's not really a subject of conversation. And yet that's where all the money is going.