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Ice cream guy takes on defense budget

Co-founder of Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream Ben Cohen at a press conference for the company's Lick Global Warming campaign in May 2005..

KAI RYSSDAL: Ben Cohen. You probably remember him as the first half of Ben & Jerry's. Think Chunky Monkey or Phish Food. But he's not really involved with the company anymore. It was bought out by Unilever back in 2000. Nowadays, Ben has a different gig. A very different gig. He runs a non-profit called Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities. Instead of peddling ice cream, Ben Cohen's trying to cut the defense budget. He came by the studio the other day with a few pints of ice cream and explained why:

BEN COHEN: Well, you know, the idea is actually to look at the federal budget in much the same way that we'd look at the budgets of our businesses. You know, you see what the needs are, you see where the money's going. I mean, the amazing thing is, is that once you take a look at what we're actually spending our money on, it becomes really clear that we're continuing to spend our money on Cold War-era weapons systems. And that doesn't do us one bit of good in terms of protecting us from terrorists. I mean, we spend $20 billion every year maintaining our nuclear arsenal.

I've got an interesting audio demonstration here that'll give you an idea as to what's going on with those weapons systems.

RYSSDAL: Sure. . . Let's tell folks what we have here. We have a triangular, sort of metal container and a bag full of BBs.

COHEN: Right. And here we go . . . Here's one BB. That represents the equivalent of 15 bombs the size of what blew up Hiroshima.

RYSSDAL: Alright.

COHEN: Now here's six BBs. . . . And that would be enough nuclear weapons to blow up all of Russia.

And now, what I'm gonna do is I'm gonna pour in the amount of BBs that represents our total nuclear arsenal. [pours BBs]

RYSSDAL: That's a lot of BBs.

COHEN: Ten thousand BBs. It represents the equivalent of 150,000 Hiroshima-size bombs. That's crazy. I mean, there's absolutely no justification for that. You know, our board of military advisors says we can cut the amount of money we're spending on nuclear weapons in half and still have more than enough deterent force to deter any nuclear nation and save $10 billion a year.

And what our campaign is doing is educating people about how the federal budget pie is split up.

RYSSDAL: Tell me about the people who make up this business leader part of your group here. I mean, who are we talking about here?

COHEN: Well, one of them is Warren Langley, the former head of the Pacific Stock Exchange. Another would be Robert Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television. There's also Ted Turner and Paul Newman.

RYSSDAL: I hope you won't be offended when I say that it seems a strange match — you and Ted Turner getting together on an issue.

COHEN: I'm not offended in the least. I actually, you know, get together with the people at the Cato Foundation. That's an even stranger match. They happen to think that the US military budget should be cut even more than we're talking about. When the issue was NATO expansion, I worked together with Phyllis Schlafly.

RYSSDAL: Let me get this back to the ice cream before I let you go.

COHEN: Yeah! Let's dig in, man!

RYSSDAL: Let's dig in! And I'll have a little bit . . .

COHEN: Yeah, it's melting! Oh, geez, it just dripped all over my pants.

RYSSDAL: It's radio, not television.

COHEN: [hits microphone] Oh, this is terrible! The mic fell off the mic stand. My pants are full of half-baked . . .

RYSSDAL: Doesn't get any better than that on radio . . .

Here's a serious thing, though: This is basically a luxury. A luxury that perhaps we don't necessarily need but we want. Maybe some of these things that you want to move out of the defense budget are luxuries that we want because it makes us feel better.

COHEN: No. The people don't want it. The people who it makes feel better are the people in the Pentagon. And it certainly makes the defense contractors feel better. And, you know, when the defense contractors feel better there's a lot of money flowing around Washington and then the politicians feel better.

But we've got survey after survey that asks the public, How do you want your money split up. And it's certainly not the way Congress is doing it.

RYSSDAL: Ben Cohen. You know his ice cream. He's now the co-founder and president of Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities. Ben, thanks for coming by the studios.

COHEN: Hey, good being with you, Kai.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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