Let Them Eat Tanks: My Interview with Ben and Jerry's Co-Founder, Ben Cohen

By Jim Wallis 05-18-2011

soj1106I had the opportunity to interview Ben and Jerry's co-founder Ben Cohen about ice cream, Oreos -- and how the bloated military budget is destroying our economy and making us all less secure. The full interview can be found in the current issue of Sojourners magazine on military spending, but here is a brief excerpt:

Jim Wallis: Why should you, a successful businessperson, be worried about the military budget? Why did this become such a life mission for you?

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.

+Read the rest of this interview in the July 2011 issue of Sojourners magazine.


Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: A Guide for Economic and Moral Recovery, and CEO of Sojourners. He blogs at www.godspolitics.com. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

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