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Ben Cohen’s Newest Flavor Is Metal Bucket and BBs

At a symposium on campaign finance, the ice cream mogul gave a vivid demonstration of the inequality of money in politics.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

I hosted a symposium late last month on money in politics and corporate power at the Stetson University College of Law. The event took place only days after FBI Director James Comey publicly confirmed the Bureau was investigating possible Russian government interference in the 2016 election and possible ties between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.  The news made for lively discussion.

Among the speakers was Gretchen Goldman, Ph.D., the research director of the Center for Science & Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Her specialty is the role of science in public policy.  She has published research papers on Congress’ assault on the use of credible science in government regulation.  Her presentation focused on the problem maintaining of scientific integrity given the policy priorities of the Trump administration. For example, many government agencies are now led by business executives who are largely hostile to the very missions of the departments they run.  (For a recap of the symposium, look for the Twitter hashtag #stetsondemocracy). 

Goldman warned that the government could suffer a brain drain of top scientists if political agendas are substituted for scientific ones during the rulemaking process. Goldman also sounded the alarm about the little-known Congressional Review Act (CRA), which gives Congress and the President the power to overturn agency rules. Aggressive use of the CRA, for example, could allow Trump and the Congress to gut many of the environmental regulations of the Obama administration.  Goldman also noted that agencies could make it more difficult for qualified scientists to serve on federal government scientific review panels, which, among other things, approve research grants or evaluate substances for regulation. Goldman’s presentation reminded me of Daniel Patrick Moyihan’s famous quip that “You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.”

The keynote address was by Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s fame.  His personality is large and generous. When I tried to shake his hand, he gave me a bear hug. And he brought enough Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to feed the 200 attendees, complete with tie-dyed drop cloths.

Cohen’s presentation reminded me how much the concern about money in politics has spread outside the academy in the seven years since Citizens United v. FEC. Debates about campaign finance used to be jargon-laden snooze fests. Discussions often went like this: “Would Wisconsin Right to Life IIs functional equivalent of express advocacy test endanger the underlying definition of electioneering communications….?” Anyone who wasn’t a specialist wouldn’t have a clue what the expert was saying.

But Citizens United, which allows corporations to spend unlimited funds on political ads, broadened the conversation.  Experts who cared about democracy were forced to communicate in plain English.

True to form, Cohen showed he was outstanding marketer. He started with a metal bucket and hundreds of BBs (yes, the round pellets used as ammunition in BB guns). He said each BB represented $600. First, Cohen showed how many BBs would be dropped into the bucket based on the spending of average Americans in elections. Since 90 percent of Americans spend no money, there was only silence. Next Cohen showed the amount of money the top 100 corporations spend. He made quite a racket as he emptied two bottles of BBs into the bucket.  Rarely has the inequity in campaign finance been demonstrated so effectively – and all by using sound.  

Cohen knew he was speaking in DeLand, Fla. (which is about 40 miles north of Orlando).He told the audience there was action to be taken in the Sunshine State. He noted there is a drive to have a measure on the 2018 Florida ballot calling for a Constitutional amendment to repeal Citizens United. Another proposed ballot initiative would restore voting rights to ex-offenders. Florida is one of only three states that bans ex-felons for voting for life.  And last year an ordinance was introduced in the St. Petersburg City Council to ban Super PACs in local races.  Cohen used the acronym “MOVI,” a favorite among reformers, that stands for “money out, voters in. “  

What Goldman and Cohen (who kept trying to get me to call him Ben) showed me was that the stakes are indeed high when money tilts policy. Yet, ordinary citizens can act. It can be as simple as letting your Congressperson know that you support scientific policymaking, or signing a petition to ensure that democracy reform measures appear on the ballot.


(Image: Robert Marschelewski)