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Guns and Butter: Can the Ben & Jerry’s Founders Change Federal Spending Priorities? PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Feature Stories
Wednesday, 17 October 2007 10:25

Reader issue #655 If Ben & Jerry's were to debut a flavor to commemorate the current campaign of its founders, it wouldn't be called Guns Or Butter - that classic economics decision between defense spending and domestic programs.

But it might be called Guns & Butter, in honor of their claim that there doesn't need to be a choice between the two. Strong defense doesn't need to come at the expense of things such as health care, schools, deficit-reduction, or the development of alternative energy, they claim. You can have your guns (weapon-shaped chocolate bits?) in your base of butter (-pecan ice cream).

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, founders of the Vermont-based ice-cream company, will be visiting the St. Ambrose University campus on Thursday, October 18, to give away ice cream, speak, and sign up voters for the Caucus for Priorities. The goal is to get 10,000 Iowa voters - that number is revised upward from an earlier goal of 8,000 - to pledge to choose a presidential candidate in the Iowa caucus who has committed to shifting money from defense spending to domestic priorities.

Ten thousand voters, Cohen said last week, "represent about 10 percent" of the people who participate in the Iowa caucus. "That's what's made us so relevant in this campaign."

It remains to be seen whether the Caucus for Priorities will help decide the next president. But the initiative is worth looking at as an attempt to shape the race instead of merely reacting to it.

 

The Terrorists Don't Have an Air Force

One striking element of the presidential campaign in Iowa so far is how interest groups are trying to mold the agenda.

Divided We Fail, a joint effort of strange bedfellows AARP, Service Employees International Union, and Business Roundtable, is trying to use those organizations' diverse, combined constituencies to force candidates to focus on health-care and retirement issues. (See "Senior Citizens, Big Business, and a Labor Union Walk Into a Presidential Campaign ... ," River Cities' Reader Issue 627, April 4-10, 2007.)

Caucus for Priorities is different. First of all, it's smaller with its target of 10,000 voters. Second, it's more directed. It not only identifies a priority area - which is the full extent of Divided We Fail - but tells candidates what it wants them to do.

Furthermore, it's relatively specific about a course of action for the people who sign the pledge: "I pledge to attend my Iowa precinct caucus on January 14, 2008. I will only caucus for a candidate who supports a significant shift in federal budget priorities away from nuclear and other obsolete Cold War weapons toward unmet social needs, including education, health care, and energy independence."

The pledge is critical, Cohen said. It means that presidential candidates know the criteria that 9,600 signers (so far) claim they'll use during the Iowa caucus. "If you don't have that ... it's just a lot of talk," Cohen said. "That's what's going to change the course of the presidential caucus."

The Caucus for Priorities (http://caucus4priorities.org) is an offshoot of Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities and Iowans for Sensible Priorities. All advocate cutting $60 billion from the Pentagon budget toward domestic initiatives such as health care, schools, and alternative fuels.

Cohen, who is president of Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities and founded the organization in 1998, certainly has a hippie vibe, with Ben & Jerry's ice-cream flavors including Cherry Garcia, Phish Food, and Half Baked.

But Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities is shrewd, first with its name. This isn't a bunch of long-haired pot-heads but a group of people who know their way around business. (The list of board members can be found at http://www.sensiblepriorities.org/board.php.)

The organization's methodology is also smart. It has a military advisory board of nine, from a former director of the CIA to Lawrence Korb, who served as assistant secretary of defense under President Ronald Reagan.

Korb has written a report (http://www.sensiblepriorities.org/pdf/Korb_2007.pdf) that claims America can cut its discretionary defense spending without hurting national defense. It begins: "Without diminishing America's ability to conduct the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, America can save at least $60 billion mostly by eliminating weapons systems designed to deal with threats from a bygone era - weapons and programs that are not useful in defending our country from extremists or the other threats we now face."

Pie not ice cream Guns and butter.

"The U.S. is continuing to build weapons," Cohen said, "that were designed during the Cold War to defeat the Soviet Union but have no use in today's threat environment, have no use in terms of protecting us from terrorism.

"The terrorists, they don't have an air force," he added. "We don't need fighter jets to fight them. I'm not saying that we should get rid of our fighter jets. We currently have the best fighter jets in the world. But the current plan is to replace those fighter jets with an upgraded version that costs six times as much. That's just crazy, and people understand it."

The organization has also developed a pie chart showing the discretionary federal budget dominated by a glutton's slice - roughly half the pie - for the Pentagon. The visual argument that cutting 15 percent - the aforementioned $60 billion - of the Pentagon's half of the budget would still leave defense spending as the primary federal budget priority.

The Korb report breaks down major savings in four general areas:

• "About $25 billion would be saved by reducing the nuclear arsenal from10,000 warheads to no more than 1,000, more than enough to maintain nuclear deterrence, and by keeping National Missile Defense in a research mode and preventing the weaponization of space.

• "About $23 billion would be saved by scaling back or stopping the research, development, and construction of weapons that are useless to combat modern threats. Many of these weapons, like the F/A-22 fighter jet and the DDG-1000 Destroyer, were designed to fight threats from a bygone era.

• "Another $5 billion would be saved by eliminating forces, including two active Air Force wings and one carrier group, which are not needed in the current geopolitical environment.

• "And about $7 billion would be saved if the giant Pentagon bureaucracy simply functioned in a more efficient manner and eliminated many of the nearly 3,000 earmarks in the defense budget."

 

An Open Secret

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield The first aim of the Caucus for Priorities campaign is to educate the public, Cohen said.

"We've been campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire to get people to understand how the government is spending our money," Cohen said. "Once people understand that 50 percent of the discretionary budget is going to the Pentagon, and things like education, and health care, and the environment, and energy independence get all these little slivers, they want to shift some money out of the Pentagon into meeting those needs."

But if it's so sensible, why is it so difficult to change?

"No matter who you talk to in Washington, it's pretty much an open secret that we're spending money on weapons in the Pentagon that are not needed," Cohen said. "For political reasons, nobody's willing to say it, because all the politicians are afraid of being called weak on defense. ...

"The hardest thing that we're up against is the conventional wisdom in Washington that the people of the United States equate military strength with the amount of money that we spend on the Pentagon," he continued. "If anybody talks about spending less, then they think that person is going to be weak on defense.

"That's the reason why we ran our campaign in Iowa and New Hampshire, to demonstrate to the presidential candidates that Americans are smarter than that, and most Americans realize that the threats that face us today are light years away, just totally different from the threats that faced us during the Cold War. The conflicts of tomorrow are about terrorists and non-state actors, and it's not going to be these huge massed armies. And yet, that's really what the Pentagon is putting its money into is these huge, $100-billion, high-tech weapons systems, when we've got our schools crumbling and falling apart, and there's no other military potential adversary out there that's got anything ... that would require those expenditures."

The Korb report claims that even with its recommended cuts, the U.S. would still be capable of fighting a war against a conventional state foe.

Making those points to politicians is where those caucus pledges come in, along with an effort the Caucus for Priorities Web site calls "bird dogging": trying to pin candidates down on their positions, with the added benefit of impressing upon them that people care about this issue.

"There's probably a majority of presidential candidates that have come on board with being willing to cut one or more of these Cold War weapons systems," Cohen said.

That's true, although as you might imagine the Democrats are far more enthusiastic than the Republicans.

Based on its own current scorecard (http://www.caucus4priorities.org/scorecard.php), Democratic candidates favor cuts in weapons programs ranging from $8 billion a year (Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama) to $60 billion (Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel). The listed Republican candidates are all at zero.

It doesn't bode well that the two Democratic front-runners in most national polls score the lowest on the Caucus for Priorities Web scorecard for their party. John Edwards, who is third among declared Democratic candidates in most polls, is on-record favoring $22 billion in Pentagon cuts, according to the scorecard.

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield The Caucus for Priorities has also sent presidential candidates a questionnaire that's due by the end of October. Caucus for Priorities will then endorse one candidate from each party.

"Our understanding is that most of them are going to complete the survey," Cohen said. "What we've said is that we're going to see which candidate comes closest to that number [$60 billion], and that's how we're going to decide who to endorse," Cohen said.

It's not quite that simple.

Would Cohen endorse Kucinich or Gravel, two long-shot candidates? Cohen wouldn't say, but he did say that a candidate's electability is "also a criterion."

How will the organization determine whether a candidate is electable? Cohen was vague: "I don't know how objective it is, but it's definitely a criterion, it's definitely a factor. ... Electability is a very significant factor."

And how many candidates so far meet the requirements of the pledge? "That's kind of open," Cohen said. "It really depends on the answers to the questionnaire."

Asked about whether the outcomes of the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary are a measure of the campaign's success, Cohen said that an endorsed candidate winning "would be a major success."

He also claimed that the campaign has been effective in putting the issue on the table. "We've already succeeded to a large extent, because now the issue of Pentagon waste is part of the presidential discourse and debates, and finally we've broken that taboo," he said. "The icing on the cake would be if the candidate that we support wins or comes in second place in Iowa and New Hampshire."

That sounds suspiciously like spin meant to diminish expectations. If the goal of Caucus for Priorities is to raise the issue of defense spending, then it's no different from Divided We Fail.

Where Caucus for Priorities claims to be different is that its philosophy is supposed to translate into direct action: votes for candidates.

 

Talk Is Cheap

Ben Cohen Cohen said several times in our interview that presidential candidates talk up a domestic agenda, and the Caucus for Priorities questionnaire is an opportunity to show that commitment.

The survey asks a dozen questions, including "How would you reform the Pentagon budget to reduce waste, earmarks, and inefficiency by at least $7 billion?" and "Will you reduce our nuclear arsenal to no more than 1,000 warheads? If not, what is the acceptable nuclear posture for the United States?"

"All the talk is about our kids and education and health care and now energy independence, and yet all the money ends up going to the Pentagon," he said. "It's about ‘show me the money.' Talk is cheap. And there is a finite amount of money to go around. And so you've got to make some decisions about some priorities."

That same point should make voters skeptical about anything the candidates promise on the questionnaire. The key will be translating campaign promises and positions into a shift in federal spending.

Cohen said that even though Congress passes a budget, the president wields most of the power - which is why his organizations are focusing on the race for the White House rather than for Congress.

Jerry Greenfield "The reality is that the president submits the budget each year," Cohen said. "And there's all this heat and light about Congress passing the budget, and Congress arguing about this or that. But the reality every year ... is that all Congress does is fiddle at the edges. And maybe they change 5 to 10 percent of what the president has submitted. Essentially, the budget that the president submits gets passed with a few minor changes."

But he admitted that positions and promises are just words. "It's all just blowing smoke until they put their money where their mouth is," he said.

Yet Cohen said that 600,000 people from around the country already support the principles he's articulated, and that they will help put pressure on whomever's elected to keep his or her promises. There is, of course, no easy way for voters to enforce campaign promises, but Cohen said they're going to try.

"There's a whole lot more than that that are ready to hold the candidates' feet to the fire, and hold the president's feet to the fire."

 

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield will speak at St. Ambrose University at noon on Thursday, October 18, in the ballroom of the Rogalski Center, at the corner of Ripley and Lombard streets. The event is free and open to the public.


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