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Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream and head stamper at the Stamp Stampede talks about the nefarious influence of money in politics on The Michael Medved Show, SRN  with permission to upload and share from the Michael Medved show.

Full Transcript: MEDVED (M): You were co-head of a corporation for some years, weren't ya?

COHEN (C): I was co-head. I might have even been the head of it.

M: Ok, and - Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream.

C: Correct. M: And you did very well.

C: Yeah.

M: And you sold the company.

C: The company got sold.

M: Right. And while you were starting this business and building this business you employed a lot of people.

C: Indeed.

M: You made some money.

C: Correct.

M: Do you ever give money to political candidates?

C: I do.

M: Do you think that it's important to restrict your ability, Ben Cohen, to give money to candidates you might like?

C: Absolutely, I think it's very important that our country which is founded on the principle of one person one vote and the concept of free speech should maintain that concept.

M: Ok, so does that mean that a typical American probably can't afford any money to give to political candidates?

C: That's correct. The reality is that 90% of Americans contribute no money to politicians.

M: I think it's probably even higher than that. I think it's even higher than 90%.

C: Not according to my data, but whatever.

M: But it's high.

C: You're right, you're right. And then there there is 9% that contribute an average of $60 a person. And then there's the richest 1% that contribute an average of $3600 per person. And then there's corporations that contribute -

M: If you believe in one man one vote, right, as you're saying -

C: I absolutely do.

M: - and you believe that it's very important to our democracy that you should be limited in what you can give to politicians that you support -

C: I do.

M: - why, don't you have that situation then that even if you're giving just $60 that you are enjoying more influence than the overwhelming majority who give nothing?

C: Well, the reality is that I don't think a $60 contributor has much influence at all.

M: How much money do you have-

C: A $3600 contributor might have a little, but the major contributors are huge corporations that are giving an average of $5 million.

M: They can't give it to candidates.

C: well, they can give it to PACs, they can give it to parties, and they can give it to – I think the recent McCutcheon decision – well, that was about individuals. I think they can give - all I'm saying is that they give an average of $5 million apiece - the top hundred corporate contributors.

M: You mean to, like, political action committees or, like, causes, I mean, in other words -

C: Well, in general, to things that are influencing elections.

M: You support the Sierra Club, right?

C: Well, I don't give them money, but I think they're doing some good stuff, yeah.

M: You support the League of Conservation Voters?

C: Uh, again, I don't give them money but I think they're doing good stuff.

M: Ok, so should your corporation have been prohibited from giving to the League of Conservation Voters?

C: My corporation and any corporation and any, uh, wealthy person should be prevented from having more say in how -

M: But wait, wait, you were chair - how many people did you employ when you had Ben & Jerry's in Vermont?

C: About 400.

M: Ok. You had a lot more say in a very small state than most Vermonters, didn't you, regardless of whether you gave any money to politicians.

C: Well -

M: You were head of a big company!

C: Well, it's definitely true that, uh, politicians - well, in Vermont you know, it's interesting, you know, most anybody can talk to a politician in Vermont 'cause there's only 600,000 people in the whole state. I definitely agree that business is better able to get the ear of a politician than -

M: If you picked up the phone today - today - you could get any politician in America to return your call, couldn't you?

C: You know, you and me, we might think that, you know, I'm a really big guy, 'cause, you know, I'm the ice cream guy, but, no, [laughs] I don't think I could get any politician, but, you know,

M: I do!

C: I can, I can get some of them and I can get a lot more of them than most anybody else.

M: Ok, so, can we accept the idea that one of the things that you get when you succeed in life and you build a business and make some money, uh, you get to drive a better car, uh, you get to make sure you get better healthcare, because you can pay for anything you want, uh, you get to live in a nicer house, and you will probably be taken more seriously and have more influence on people in your community and in the political process. I don't understand how you are going to get government to stop the Ben Cohens of this world from having more influence from somebody who - oh, let's say somebody who just arrived here from another country, has just become a citizen, and is, uh, working at a low-wage job.

C: I think the issue is what the definition is of free speech. You know, when we're in elementary school the usual definition of free speech is that in America anybody can stand up on a soapbox and say whatever they want. Everybody has an equal right to do that. The problem is that the Supreme Court passed a ruling that said that money is the same thing as free speech, and therefore people who have lots of money can spend it to amplify their voice, and so -

M: Ok, we will-

C: Wait, I w-

M: No, no, no, we were coming to a break for commercial. You understand about that.

C: Alright, break is cool, but, but I get to go next after the commercial.

M: Alright, you will get to -

C: I get to finish my thing.

M: You will get to finish your thought -

C: I would love to finish.

M: -about money being the same thing, absolutely. We're speaking with Ben Cohen. He is here to support, uh, We the People reclaiming our Democracy, which is putting an initiative on the Washington state ballot. We'll be right back with Ben Cohen. [BREAK]

M: 21 minutes after the hour on the Michael Medved Show. There is a movement. It isn't exactly sweeping the country, but it is very active across the country. I, I actually - I'll be very candid with my guest, Ben Cohen. He was the cofounder of Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream. He founded the company in 1978. The company was sold. It was a publicly held company. The company was sold in 2000. He has been an activist for a number of causes. He is now out here in, uh, Seattle supporting an initiative number 1329. And, uh, initiative number 1329 and the summary of the initiative - it says it wants to do 3 things, and I want to give people a sense of this, Ben, and then let you finish your point, as I promised that I would. You say that the rights of people protected by the Constitution of the United States are the rights of human beings only. No horses, cows, chickens, or corporations. It doesn't say that. I'm just adding that. It says all citizens should have equal voice in the political process. Good luck with that. And it says no person or legal entity should gain undue influence over government as a result of financial resources. I guess 'undue' would be a debatable word. And finally, all contributions and expenditures shall be publicly disclosed in a full and timely manner. That would be, in my eyes at least, the least controversial aspect of this initiative campaign. You were making a point where you were saying that you think it is wrong to equate speech and money. And let me just, uh, frame this issue and let you continue. Which is, in a world in which the way that you speak to many people is through advertising - you knew that when you were advertising at Ben & Jerry's - why is it not discriminating against a certain kind of speech if you were permitted, without limitation, to spend to advertise ice cream, but you are not permitted to advertise, say, for conservation or for warning people about global warming, or for a political cause? Why should the government make a distinction preventing you from expressing your opinion about something other than ice cream?

C: Well, you are not being prevented from expressing your opinion. And what we are talking about here is the narrow situation of spending money for elections - a process we have now which John McCain has called legalized bribery. And what we're saying is that large corporations and the very wealthy should not be able to spend hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars to influence elections or to essentially bribe politicians to pass -

M: Well, bribing politicians - there are laws against that. Bribery is against the law.

C: Well, what McCain called legalized bribery -

M: Right, and by the way, I'm a friend and supporter of John McCain so I think he is dead wrong on this issue and always has been.

C: Yeah, well I think he's right.

M: Ok. You think he's right and here is the - here is the essential problem. Is that if the Constitution means anything and the first amendment guarantee of free expression, don't you think it's very very sensitive that constitution of ours, which I know that you revere -

C: I think -

M: It's - it's very very sensitive to the idea of limiting speech in one area. There is no constitutional prohibition to some kind of limitations on pornography. Right, they just arrested 71 people for horrible child pornography in New York. I imagine you'd support that. That's a good limitation. Government has a right to do that. What government does not have the right to do, is jump into a political debate that's going on and saying, 'You can't say that here', or 'you're getting too much of one side of this debate'. Why do you want to trust government to limit the way that we decide who gets to comprise that government?

C: What I want to have is a system of one person, one vote, and I want a system where rich and poor are equal in terms of the political process. And the equiv-

M: How -

C: I want to complete the thought I was making before the break. And that is that what we learned in elementary is that we have freedom of speech and that anybody can stand up on a soapbox and say whatever they want. This particular Supreme Court ruling said that somebody who has a whole lot of money can buy the biggest loud-speaker system you can imagine and say whatever he wants to say, and the effect of that is that everybody else who doesn't have that amount of money is drowned out and their voices can't be heard.

M: Ok, how would you limit it? In other words, let's say you want to say everything you want to say. I'm a big supporter of parks, and uh, for instance, and I'm using this analogy because I think that most people will think that parks are a good thing. When there is an opportunity to, for instance, have an initiative that provides more funding for parks, you want to say to a rich person who wants to give to that, say a Bill Gates, you're not allowed?

C: I'm talking about for the purpose of elections -

M: There's an election! It's going to be on the ballot! We have a parks initiative that's on the ballot!

C: What I'm talking about how much money you can give to a politician, and I'm talking about a system -

M: Ok, that's - that - that's limited today!

C: And that's what I'm talking about.

M: But it's limited today! You don't need -

C: It's limited to what? How many millions of dollars is it limited to?

M: No, it's limited to $5000 per candidate, otherwise you go to jail like Dinesh d'Souza.

C: [Laughs] No. Corporations -

M: Do you think that Danesh de Souza should go to jail -

C: I have no idea -

M: - for 14 months?

C: I have no idea -

M: Do you think that it's a crime in any sense that he gave $20,000 to a friend of his from college to run for office?

C: [Laughs] It's not for me to say whether that's a crime or not. What I'm talking about is a system that John McCain has called legalized bribery. And politicians accept thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of dollars of contributions from the ultra-rich and the corporations and they're not doing it from the goodness of their hearts -

M: Ben -

C: They're doing it because they want particular pieces of legislation passed -

M: Ben -

C: and that's what's taken over our society.

M: You - you're - you're saying that you know the motivations of people like Tom Steyer -

C: I'm saying I know the motivations of corporations...

M: No, but

C: ...and I know that it's about their individual bottom line...

M: Doesn't Ben & Jerry's -

C: ...and they're not thinking about what's good for the general population.

M: Doesn't Ben & Jerry's company - corporation - give money to a number of environmental causes?

C: Uh, Ben & Jerry's has a foundations that's separate from the company and it gives money to a bunch of stuff, but the company itself gives nothing to politicians or to anybody else out of its corporate coffers.

M: Ok, how is - does the foundation get money from the corporate coffers?

C: It does, but the foundation has a totally separate board of directors that has no -

M: Ok, but, but see -

C: The foundation is prevented -

M: I don't question, I don't - the foundation is prevented from what?

C: It is prevented from making donations that have a positive effect on the business of Ben & Jerry's.

M: Ok, but that's the way you've set up your corporation. The point is that I believe that many people, uh, give to politics - most people that give a lot of money to politics, not because they want some kind of special privilege - most people give money to politics because they want to change the course of the country, and there is no right more fundamental. It says in the first amendment we have a right to petition our government for redress of grievances. And it doesn't limit the amount of money you can spend on that.

C: We're talking -

M: We'll be right back after the break with Ben Cohen, talking about money, politics, and free expression.


M: 34 minutes after the hour on the Michael Medved show. I'm enjoying speaking to Ben Cohen, Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream. Ben, how would you prefer to be identified right now, or do you still want, mind being identified with Ben & Jerry's?

C: I'm cofounder of Ben & Jerry's and head stamper of the Stamp Stampede.

M: Oh, the Stamp Stampede is for stamping money out of politics, and let me, let me just explain the story now so everybody knows. This is what you're here to Seattle to do. You're stamping dollar bills and twenty-dollar bills. Is all denominations get stamped by the stamp stamp-o-meter?

C: Ones, fives, tens, twenties, fifties, hundreds!

M: Ok. And the idea is you stamp these bills - now, they're still transactable, right?

C: They are transactable. M: Ok, so what's the purpose of putting your stamp on the money?

C: You know, it's essentially a petition on steroids. You know, normally if a regular person wants to make their views known about a particular political situation they can sign a petition. And the reality is rarely do people ever see the petition. Maybe the target of the petition ends up seeing it once, but when we do it this way stamping money, when you spend a stamped dollar bill about 875 people see it as it gets passed around from person to person. So it's turning money into media. We like to call it monetary jujitsu - using money to get money of politics. M: I'm not sure I entirely follow the logic of the plan, but let us go to some of our callers. 1-800-955-1776. Let's go to Dori in Ventura, California. Dori, you're on the Michael Medved Show with Ben Cohen.

DORI: Hi, gentlemen. Thank you for taking my call. I'd like to ask Mr. Cohen a question that has not been brought up to [unintelligible] this afternoon, which is how does he feel about the unions that take money from their members and spend it the way the head - the union bosses want it to be spent? And they contribute hundreds of millions of dollars every year or every election cycle to get the Democrats reelected, to keep their big fat pensions going while most of us work all of our life to pay for their pensions and most Americans when they retire exist on Social Security benefits, where many union members exist on 90% of their salary.

M: Ok, Dori, let's give him a chance to answer. What about that? Are you, do you, would you see any limitation on what unions can give to elections?

C: I think all corporations and unions - and unions are corporations - should be prevented from, uh, using money to influence elections.

M: Wow. That would be a change and that gives you a certain intellectual consistency that a lot of folks on your side lack.

C: Thank you! Thank you very much. M: I appreciate it. Let's go to James in Vancouver, British Columbia. You're on the Michael Medved Show with Ben Cohen.

JAMES: Ok, right now the law that I - if I'm a billionaire and I want to run for office, um, do you want to also restrict how much I can contribute to my own campaign?

C: Yeah, I would want to do that, because I think that everybody in the country should be equal and have an equal shot of being in elected office.

M: But, you see, Ben, it's not - even if he didn't use money for his own campaign, if you're a millionaire or you're a billionaire you can afford to run for office. You can take time off from your work. If you're working as a plumber, you can't. You can't afford to take time off. This idea that everyone should have an equal chance to run for office - how is, how is that poss-, how is it even vaguely possible?

C: Well, let's try to get it as equal as we can rather than as unequal as we can.

M: So you want to say to this billionaire, to a billionaire out there, that you can spend money on cars, you can spend money on shows in Las Vegas, you can spend money on property, you can spend money on marijuana if you're in the state of Washington, you can spend money on anything you want, but heaven forbid you should spend money to try to advance a public good that you feel passionately about?

C: It's supposed to be government of the people, by the people, for the people, not government of the billionaires, for the billionaires, by the billionaires.

Written by Ben Cohen — May 26, 2014


Robin Praszker:

I don’t think the host really understands the issue. It is not just oh this will prevent good things like parks from happening. It is the fact that if we are voting on parks legislation, whether the legislation is good or bad, it should not cost millions upon billions of dollars to pass or defeat the issue. It isn’t that we do not want to support parks, the process of whether we want to support parks is corrupted by money. The host seems to marginalize that.

May 27 2014 at 01:05 AM

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