June 13, 2003


FOR OUR NEWEST FLAVOR, BRISKY FISKY: Well, not so brisky-- I promised to post the text of Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's speech at Ithaca College a while ago. Nevertheless, here it is. The text is my own transcription from a recording; I've preserved some of the ums and uhs out of a mixture of irreverence and laziness. (Jerry Greenfield also spoke, but his remarks were both shorter and less controversial-- he described how they came to be businessmen, made a few jokes, and introduced Ben.)

Hi ya'll... nice to be here with you. Uh, I'm told that at occassions such as this it's, uh, behooving upon me to spout some advice so uh, you know I thought about that and, uh, the advice they used to give in the olden days was, uh, gather ye rosebuds while ye may. And then, uh, a few years ago the popular advice at graduation ceremonies was "wear sunscreen." And so, today, the advice I'd like to give is, eat lots of ice cream now, because in 30 years you'll be lactose intolerant. [laughter]
I'm trying to avoid cheap shots. Moving on:
But I also recieved some advice about speaking at commencement ceremonies. And the people I talked to said, don't get involved in anything too deep, uh a lot of the audience has been out celebrating kind of late the night before, and their powers of concentration are not shall we say, at their most high.
Here, many of the students cheered.
Well, I'm going to throw all that advice out the window.
And the cheering stopped very abruptly at that.
My remarks today are kinda like a good short story. I'm gonna lay out a few seemingly unrelated comments at the begining, and then I'm going to artfully weave them together at the end. [scattered laughter]

You know, much of what we did at Ben & Jerry's was influence by the philosophy of the work of Martin Luther King.

You make your own joke.
Toward the end of his tragically short life, Dr. King began to draw the connections between racism, poverty, and militarism. He said, "a nation that continues, year after year, to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."
There were some cheers here. This is Ithaca, after all.
Well, it seems like that's exactly what's been going on today in America. Since the days of the Cold War, our country has been spending half of its discretionary budget-- that's the amount of money that Congress has available to allocate each year-- on the Pentagon. And the amount spent on health care, education, and housing pale by comparison.
Take a look at the Federal Budget, and you'll note that Defense spending adds up to $376 billion in FY2003. Health care, which in Ice Cream Man Land is dwarfed by Defense spending, falls on the non-descretionary side of the budget, and in FY2003 comes out to $241 billion for Medicare and $167 billion for Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program. That adds up to $408 billion, which, as the really smart readers have already noted, is more than $376 billion. (Ben might have been talking only about discretionary health care spending, but that would be idiotic-- it's like saying none of the discretionary budget is spent on Social Security.)

As for education, It's silly to compare Federal education dollars to Federal defense dollars; most education spending doesn't come from Washington. Count all education spending at the state and local level, and the picture is rather different. I'm not sure what the point about housing is-- there aren't enough poor people? Or their homes aren't nice enough, and HUD should therefore have its budget increased tenfold?

There was questionable justification for this during the Cold War,
Read that again. Yup, that's what he said-- there was "questionable justification" for having nuclear weapons during the Cold War. I have the tape!
but now that the U.S. is the world's only remaining military super power, there is no rational justification for spending over a billion dollars a day, much of it to buy weapons that are still being produced to fight an enemy that no longer exists.

Yup, no enemies anywhere! And even if America did have any enemies, how could they possibly get nuclear weapons?
Which brings me to two of the most important concepts that I learned during my career as an ice cream mogul. First, is the concept of institutional lag. You know, institutional lag is the idea that in a large orginazation-- in a large college, in a large business, in a large government agency, the task of management is to try to get everybody to work in the same direction. And you know, it's really hard. There's a lot of people, you've gotta line everybody up, you gotta help people learn to work with other people, you've gotta set up departments, you've gotta have departments which relate to other departments, you gotta have your forms, et cetera et cetera-- but eventually, you get people to do it. And, uh, the problem comes up when something changes in the external environment, and instead of going that direction, you have to go 180 degrees in the other direction, and it's really hard to get people to change. There's this natural resistence to change, and uh, people got used to how they were working, they got used to the people they were working with, you gotta reorganize departments, they don't want to reorganize departments, they got used to the forms, they don't want to do the new forms, it takes a long time to finally get that organization to respond to that new reality. And the time between when that organization needed to change, and the time when it actually does change is institutional lag.

You know, I'm not that much of bureaucracy myself-- I mean me, just one person. But, uh, I was in the shower the other day and uh, you know, I got the water adjusted right, I got a good temperature, I got good pressure, um, uh, you know, getting myself all wet, lathering up, shampooing, things are going really well, and then, uh, I step out of the shower, I take a look at the mirror, and I realize that I'm still spending 80% of my shampoo time on the top of my head, and its not needed there anymore. [laughter.] This is institutional lag. [laughter]

The second big, important concept I learned in business is the concept of opportunity cost. Opportunity cost is the idea that when you make one particular decision, it excludes, it means that by making that decision you exclude doing a bunch of other stuff. And that's the cost of making that decision; that other opportunity that you're not able to pursue. And so, if you decide to go in one direction, you can't go in the other one, if you decide to do one thing, you can't do another, if you decide to spend money on one thing, you can't spend it on something else. And those other things that you can't do are your opportunity costs of the decision that you make.

Well, so you got-- you're keeping track of all this stuff, right? So, uh, now I've got a low-tech audio demonstration that should synthesize some of the ideas that I've been talking to you about. Hang on...

Here, he got out a metal box and a container of BBs.
Uh, what I'd like to do here is give you a demonstration of some of what our government is currently doing. You know the U.S. currently spends about thirty billion dollars a year on our nuclear arsenal. And, uh, it was developed during the Cold War to, you know, fight the Soviet Union. Well, I'd like to demonstrate to you exactly what we get for that money. What I'm gonna do is I'm gonna toss some BBs in this can. And, uh, if you can close your eyes, you'll help to, it'll help you to visualize it a little better.

I'm gonna toss in one BB. [drops a BB] That represents the equivalent of 15 Hiroshima-size bombs. Now I'm gonna toss in six BBs. [drops BBs] That is enough nuclear weapons to blow up all of Russia.

Little Boy, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, had 13-kiloton yield. If one BB= "15 Hiroshima-size bombs," that translates 195 kilotons each. Six BBs would be 1.17 megatons-- slightly smaller than the maximum yield of the B-83 bomb, the largest in the US Stockpile, or about 7 Minuteman III ICBMs with a moderate-sized W62 warhead. These are powerful weapons, but "blow up all of Russia" they can't. (My figures, by the way, come from the Natural Resources Defense Fund, which is ideologically on Ben's side. If they're wrong, I'd love to hear about it-- the email's to the left.)
And now I'm gonna pour in the amount of BBs that represents our entire nuclear arsenal. [pours in a lot of BBs] [scattered applause] That was ten thousand BBs, the equivalent of a hundred fifty thousand Hiroshima-sized bombs. That is enough to blow up the entire world ten times over.
To arrive at this figure-- which would be a 1,950,000 kiloton stock-- Ben must be counting the inactive nuclear stockpile, which together with the active stockpile comes out to roughly 10,000 weapons of various payloads. Under the latest treaty signed by Presidents Bush and Putin, the active stockpile will be reduced from 6,000 to between 1,700 and 2,200 nuclear weapons.

My television doesn't work right now. Until it is repaired or replaced, it can't be used. By Ben's logic, I currently have enough television technology to watch everything on cable. Ten times over!

Uh, so you know a lot people feel like we don't really need to spend money on that anymore.
Some suggest we could save money on maintenance by actually testing our nuclear weapons. It's easy to guess how this would sit with Ben-- in a 1999 article for Sojourner, which sounded similar themes to this speech, he called all nukes "immoral weapons."
That we're continuing to maintain that stockpile despite the fact that the Cold War is over, the whole reason for it is no longer exists, is another example of institutional lag.

Well, you might, say, well, what's a little money wasted? Uh, you know, it's not doing any harm, it's employing people; and that money is not available to do other things is the opportunity cost. And its just the tip of the iceberg.

Maintaining the nuclear stockpile costs a few billion dollars a year; groups like the Council for a Livable World are able to fudge the numbers by including everything remotely "nuclear," including submarine propulsion reactors, waste clean-up, and developing new weapons, but even they can only come up with $35 billion (this time in the FY1998 budget). This begs the question-- if it's "just the tip of the iceberg," why dwell on nukes? As the following paragraphs make clear, Ben wants to starve the Pentagon as a whole. He probably just wanted to get that BB demonstration in there.
So as I said, we're currently spending about a billion dollars a day on the Pentagon budget. For two days' worth of the Pentagon budget, we could fully fund Head Start and provide Head Start for the one-third of all eligible kids that can't get into the program. [scattered applause] For six days of the Pentagon budget, we could provide healthcare for all uninsured kids in the United States. [scattered applause] For 12 days of the budget, we could rebuild all of our crumbling schools in our country over a period of 10 years. [scattered applause] For 10 days, we could eliminate the need for Middle East oil. And for 12 days of the Pentagon budget, we could feed all of the 15,000 kids around the world that are dying of starvation and preventable disease each day. [applause]
This is getting tiring, but if anyone wants to check this stuff out, go for it. Let's imagine, for a minute, that this is true: $48 billion dollars (each of those "one day of the Pentagon budget" figures apparently referred to a billion dollars) could do all that. Well, browse through that budget .pdf for a minute. If DoD is the only place you can find $48 billion, you're not looking.
So next time you hear some politician throwing out some empty slogans like, "leave no child behind" or "I wanna be the education president," don't applaud. Stand up and say, "Show me the money, uh-huh, show me the money," [scattered laughter] 'cause if he's not saying how he's gonna pay for it, it's not happening.

And don't think that's the way it's always been. In my lifetime, there's never been, things have never been as bad as they are today in our country.

Contemplate this for a moment. Ben Cohen was born in 1951. He's lived through lynchings, race riots, assassinations, a decades-long nuclear stand-off, a 10-year war in Vietnam, stagflation, and the parachute-pants fad. But it's never gotten worse than now. Why's that? The threat of radical Islam, perhaps? Of course not.
It used to be that the leaders of the oil and defense industries had undue influence on our government. But today, they are the government.
Speaking of the threat of radical Islam, he hasn't, has he? And he's been talking about defense spending for a long time now. Finally he gets to it:
The fact that 50% of Americans believe that Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11 when clearly, according to the CIA, that was not the case, is an example of how the government is manipulating the media. [scattered applause]
There's been significant disagreement within the intelligence community over the Iraq-al Qaeda connection. It's pretty well established that there was some connection, though just how loose it was is still an open question. But apart from the question of Ben's distortion, isn't his logic a little weird? Suppose the CIA-- which, needless to say, is part of the government-- actually had unequivically said there was no Saddam-al Qaeda connection. In Ben's world, people who didn't believe them would have thus been the victim of "the government" "manipulat[ing] the media." "The government" sure is a cagey beast, isn't it?
Flaunting the UN and engaging in an illeagal pre-emptive attack on Iraq was an abominable waste of life, money, and national stature. [cheers and booes] It is just part of the doctrine that calls for the United States to dominate the world through military might, and to unilaterally intervene in any country it chooses to. [boos and cheers]
In addition to the boos, several people walked out. Get ready for a torrent of unsupported lefty boilerplate:
At home, the government seems intent on destroying our right to property, our right to privacy, free speech, and dissent, and a safe and sustainable environment. The tax cuts for corporations and the richest 10% of Americans that this government has promoted could have solved the state budget funding crisis, the school budget funding crisis, and met all of the social needs I talked about earlier.

Our country already has the widest spread between rich and poor of any industrialized nation in the world, and these tax cuts just make it worse. So even if you've never voted before, if you've never helped get people registered, if you've never been political, now's the time to start. We've got to stand up and do our patriotic duty as Americans and say no, this is not the way our country was meant to be. No, I will not allow this to be done in my name and with my money.

Elie Wiesel, the concentration camp survivor, said the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference.

Interesting choice of quotes. Based on Wiesel's support for the Iraq war, I'd say it's pretty clear that not wanting Saddam Hussein out of power is the epitome of the "indifference" Wiesel was referring to.
So now, by the power vested in me as commencement speaker,
Yes, this was a commencement speach, not Dennis Kucinich on the stump. Had you forgottten?
I'd like to offer a friendly challenge to Ithaca college and its graduates to help Dr. King complete his work by turning your attention to the issues of poverty and militarism. Because our country, the last remaining super-power on Earth, needs to learn to measure its strength not in terms of how many people it can kill, but in terms of how many people we can feed, clothe, house and care for.
There was a standing ovation from some quarters, others sat firmly in their seats. Nice way to bring people together in celebration of a milestone, eh?

Posted by John Tabin at June 13, 2003 02:07 AM