Thursday, November 29, 2007

Ben Cohen Sweetens Up Budget Discussions at College Conference

Manchester, NH -

There is no better time than lunch time to hear a speech from an ice cream magnate, especially when it is accompanied by free Ben & Jerry’s ice cream bars. But what is the deal with hearing that speech at a college political conference bookended by Presidential candidates? The deal is that Ben Cohen is no ordinary dessert baron.

Cohen leads a group called Business Leaders for Sensible Budget Priorities, whose chief goal is to “change US budget priorities to reflect a national commitment to education, healthcare, energy independence, job training and deficit reduction -- at no additional taxpayer expense -- by eliminating funding for unneeded Cold War era weapons systems.”

It also happens that members of this group have been among the most visible interest groups on the campaign trail this year here in New Hampshire. At nearly every candidate’s stop you are likely to run into someone from the priorities gang handing out fliers, pens and cookies illustrating the US budget in a pie graph and driving around vans with the same pied logo painted on the side. So for Cohen, who sold Ben & Jerry’s to Unilever in 1999, this convention was the ideal venue for him to sell his latest venture, prioritizing our national budget.

Speaking to a group of college students, themselves presumably worried about their current grades in Urban Sociology and Stats 451, Cohen began his speech with a tone of great humility. Ahh, college, he fondly remembered. “I Went to Colgate, dropped out. Then went to Skidmore, dropped out. Went to NYU, dropped out. Went to the New School, dropped out.”

Meanwhile, his boyhood friend and now famous partner in crime, Jerry, had applied to thirty medical schools and was rejected across the board.

“We were, kind of, two failures,” said Cohen. “The only thing we really liked doing was eating so we decided on having a food business and ended up picking ice cream.”

He then told the story of taking a correspondence course through Penn State to learn how to make ice cream, and struggling to sell frozen desserts in a less-than-tropical Vermont winter. Slowly but surely, Ben and Jerry’s became an important brand in ice cream culture, and when Ben began to worry about the negative social effects of business on culture and the environment, a local mentor gave him the advice that would shape the rest of his life.

“If there’s something you don’t like about business just do it differently.”

Cohen has lived by those words ever since. Now that he is out of business, he has transferred them over to the world of citizenry. He doesn’t like the way that government is doing business, so he is trying to get them to do it differently. Today, he hoped that the gathering of college students would see it the same way.

Referring to social problems like hunger and disease Cohen said, “I was brought up to believe that those problems have always existed. They will always exist. I’m here to tell you that’s a myth. That’s a bunch of BS.”

So went the call of action from an old, sweet-toothed hippie. But Cohen wasn’t content with a mere warning. Ever a fan of visuals, as evidenced by his colorful pint containers, Ben then turned the presentation into a veritable free-for-all of props not seen since the days of Gallagher.

Anyone can tell you that the United States’ military budget is immense, but Cohen felt it more appropriate to show it with a bar graph made from replicas of oreo cookies. Each cookie represented ten billion dollars, and he stacked them up to compare our military budget (more than thirty) to that of education (4 oreos), world hunger (1.5 oreos), children’s health care (5 oreos), energy independence (.25 oreos), job training (.75 oreos), and reducing the deficit (0 oreos).

This really had the crowd going, as Cohen climbed up on a ladder, much like Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth, to illustrate the height of the military budget.

“I think he was very entertaining and he made some very good points,” said Danielle Brazil, a junior at Salve Regina University. “I loved that he had visuals. I think that’s so important, andI loved the oreo idea. I think that’s funny.”

Cohen continued with his oreo model to suggest how we might cut the military budget by at least six oreos (sixty billion dollars) and transfer funds into more needy projects. After all, Russia, China, Iran, Libya and North Korea combine for a mere 200 billion in military spending.

“I liked how he compared the US Defense spending to Russia and China,” was Salve Regina junior Emila Shosho’s reaction. “I think its important he emphasizes that our defense spending is still higher after we cut it.”

Still not finished with the crowd-pleasing demonstrations, Cohen implored the students to close their eyes for his finale. He dropped one bb into a tin can as the crowd sat hushed while he explained that it represented the nuclear power of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The single bb made a loud ping.

“Now listen,” he said, “to what our current nuclear arsenal sounds like.”

Ben then poured an entire container of lead pellets into the empty tin can, causing a riotous noise into the microphone that resonated through the large, otherwise silent room. After ten seconds of rattling, the bbs finally stopped, and the crowd stood up in a spontaneous standing ovation.

“In business,” Cohen said, “if you don’t shift directions fast enough you go out of business. In government, its not exactly that way. Our country, the last remaining super power on earth needs to measure its strength not on how many people we can kill, but on how many people we can feed, clothe, and care for.”

In Cohen’s mind, with the vast difference in guns and butter, providing delicious ice cream flavors like Chocolate Fudge Brownie, Phish Food and Cherry Garcia just isn’t enough. The students in the room seemed to agree.

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