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Ben Cohen's BBs and Oreos

"Let Them Eat Tanks," Sojourners, June 2011 issue

Interview with Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream, by Jim Wallis of Sojourners

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.