On some lucky days, Occupy Wall Street protestors at Zuccotti park get free ice cream. The man who’s serving them isn’t just a kind-hearted ice cream man, though, his name is on the package. For the last month, Ben Cohen, the eponymous Ben of Ben & Jerry’s, has been bringing ice cream—and advice—to the protesters.
Beyond satisfying a sweet tooth, Cohen and Jerry Greenfield represent to some people the American ideal that businessmen can make money and also make the world better. Though they gave up control of the company after the sale to Unilever in 2000, they remain the public faces and moral identity of the corporation.
Co.Exist spoke with Cohen, on how his political and philosophical views jibe with the new movement.
CoExist: How did you get started with Occupy Wall Street?
Ben Cohen: Jerry and I had to be in New York for something else. We went down there about a month ago. … We’ve both been very inspired by Occupy Wall Street. We’ve devoted a bunch of time to that.
We’ve worked on some issues around corporate personhood [the legal recognition that corporations have the same rights as people] and trying to overturn that Supreme Court decision [the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling that corporations and unions can spend unlimited funds on political commercials]. We’ve done some work around money in politics.
Do you see Occupy Wall Street as fitting into or continuing the kind of work you’ve been doing.
Absolutely. The biggest concern I’ve had is the increasing gap between rich and poor in our country and the number of people … that are living in poverty. And I think that some of the root causes of that are that the corporations have too much power and our elections and the legislative process is kinda bought and paid for by corporations and very wealthy people. I think the major problem is that those powerful elements of society are working only in their own narrow self-interest.
And I think there is another way. I think Ben & Jerry’s demonstrated that corporations can serve the needs of society and make a profit at the same time
One criticism of the movement from more-conservative people is that if you want to do well financially, just work hard. … You came from a regular background, and you were able to build a successful business. … Given that, what do you say to the criticism of the other occupants not working hard enough?
I think that’s kind of absurd. Jerry and I were white, middle-class guys who had great public education. And I think there’s a huge number of people in our society that don’t get decent education because the public schools, especially in our cities, are in really bad shape.
People are in really tough living conditions. A family of four living on twenty thousand a year is pretty tough…. The unemployment rate is up, despite the fact that corporations are making record profits. When Jerry and I first started Ben & Jerry’s, I think that the spread between CEO pay and workers was like 40 to 1, and now it’s like 400 to 1.
I think that American workers have been incredibly productive. The problem is that all the extra money that’s been generated from their high productivity has gone to Wall Street and upper-level executives and hasn’t been shared with the workers.
You mentioned electoral reform, campaign financing reform, and education. Are there other issues that are top priorities for you?
I think that a major reason for the deficit problem that we find ourselves in has been that, since the end of the Cold War, our country has been spending far in excess on the military than is required based on the threats. Our military posture is still positioned to fight the Soviet Union, and they’re not there anymore. We’ve been spending nominally $700 billion a year on the military, but that doesn’t include all the other costs associated with the military. When you put it all together it’s far closer to a trillion dollars a year. And that’s a bunch of wasted money based on an obsolete worldview.
What do you see coming out of, or possibly coming out of, the occupation movement in terms of results or demands or a platform?
I think that the occupation movement is young, and it’s in the process of coalescing. And right now it’s been focusing on the inequality in our society in terms of rich and poor. And it’s been very successful in terms of bringing that issue to the forefront of the national debate.
I think that there’s a whole lot of problems with our society. But I think that there’s two overarching issues that the huge majority of Occupy Wall Street believers agree with. And that is that we need to get money out of politics and we need to overturn the idea that corporations are people. So I’m hoping that those two issues—or at least one of them—will be dealt with and solved as a result of this movement.
Have you been working with other organizations on these concerns?
I was running an organization [Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities] that was focused on shifting national budget priorities away from Cold War-era military expenses to education and health care and renewable energy and humanitarian aid. I ran that organization for about 10 years.
There’s millions of children dying around he world each year from hunger and preventable diseases. The amazing reality is that for 15 billion dollars a year, which is chicken feed next to a 700 billion-dollar Pentagon budget, we can take care of those kids.
It was President Bush who said that poverty is the breeding ground of terrorism. I think if we started to address issues of poverty and disease and hunger around the world, I think we’d actually be a lot safer.
When you and Jerry first came down to see Occupy Wall Street, what the was first thing you thought of in terms of how you could contribute?
The first thing we thought of was: We could scoop ice cream. And we’ve done that. We’ve been down there probably three times for a couple of days each. And now I’m starting to work with some of the folks at Occupy Wall Street on future plans and
how to deal with ecological issues a business support group.
I’ve been talking with the food group about if I could provide them with some sort of vehicle to transport food around, because they’d like to feed people out in the community in addition to feeding people at Zuccotti Park.
Is there anything else about the work you’ve been doing or your values or opinions that you think readers should know about?
I’ve been working to try to make our country a more equitable place, a place that is fairer. And I think that the Occupy movement is the best shot we’ve had in my lifetime to make that happen. The change is not going to come from the top. It’s only going to come from a grassroots movement.
And I think that what’s needed is to find a way for all the people that support the movement—that are never going be at an actual Occupy site or are never going to be at a parade or march—to join in a meaningful way…. There’s loads of people who agree with it and want to join it. But right now there’s not a good way for them to do that.
Any ideas about what one of those good ways could be?
I’m working on that. I’m trying to figure that out.