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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)