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Monday, September 23, 2013

Ben & Jerry’s Co-Founder Fights Money In Politics

One of the stamps offered by Stamp Stampede says "Not to be used for bribing politicians." (Stamp Stampede)

One of the stamps offered by Stamp Stampede says “Not to be used for bribing politicians.” (Stamp Stampede)

Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream fame wants to get money out of politics.

He’s organized a campaign called the “Stamp Stampede,” stamping dollar bills with phrases like “Not to be used for bribing politicians.”

The project is aimed at spreading awareness about money in politics, and boosting support of a constitutional amendment to counter the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling.

“The amazing thing about stamping a dollar bill is that you change it from just a piece of money to a piece of media. It’s a communication device,” Cohen told Here & Now.

Interview Highlights: Ben Cohen

Why do you think that stamping money will make a difference?

Ben Cohen is pictured in the Here & Now studios, Monday, Sept. 23, 2013. (Jesse Costa/Here & Now)

Ben Cohen is pictured in the Here & Now studios, Monday, Sept. 23, 2013. (Jesse Costa/Here & Now)

“Well this is part of a much larger national movement that involves many nonprofits that are working to overturn Citizen’s United, the Supreme Court decision that essentially opened the floodgates for corporations spending as much money as they want to influence the elections. And so already 16 states have passed resolutions in favor of this amendment, there are about 120 senators and U.S. congressmen that have signed onto an amendment, and we’re helping to build this movement by stamping money with messages like ‘Not to be used for bribing politicians’ and ‘Stamp money out of politics.’”

Is that legal to be stamping money?

“It is totally legal. You know a lot of people grew up to believe that it’s not legal to do this, but if you read law, it actually states that as long as you are not obliterating the dollar bill, as long as it is still obviously money and as long as you are not advertising a commercial business, it’s okay.”

Do you think the message just hasn’t gotten out to people? 

“The message has totally gotten out to people. Eighty percent of Republicans and Democrats want to get money out of politics. They realize that the system is broken, but they don’t know what they can do about it. You know normally, if you feel like you want the government to do something, the only thing you can do is sign a petition. Well, stamping money is like a petition on steroids, because every time you put a stamped dollar bill into circulation, over 800 people see it as it passes hands. If you stamp three dollar bills a day for a year, that creates a million impressions. And that adds up and it’s huge and essentially this becomes ongoing, visual, increasing support for getting this amendment passed.”

Guest

Transcript

BEN COHEN: It's HERE AND NOW, and it's going to be a big week in Washington. A government shutdown looms, there are big foreign policy decisions to be made, and now new calls for gun control following the Navy Yard shootings. And if you don't feel like your voice is being heard in these debates, Ben Cohen says blame our campaign finance laws.

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

He is the founder of Ben & Jerry's ice cream, and he now has a new title, the head stamper at stampstampede.org. He is stamping dollar bills to draw attention to fighting money in politics. He's with us in the studio. Welcome, Ben.

COHEN: Thank you, good to be here.

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Well, as we meet today, we are a week away from a potential government shutdown. There's a lot going on in Washington. How much do you think that has to do with money in politics?

COHEN: I think it has everything to do with money in politics. I think that the fact that our politicians are bought and paid for by corporations and the wealthiest .01 percent is why they're representing the interests of the corporations and the wealthiest Americans at the expense of everybody else.

HOBSON: Well, so tell us what you're trying to do about this. Why do you think that stamping money is going to make a difference?

COHEN: Well, this is part of a much larger national movement that involves many nonprofits that are working to overturn Citizen's United, the Supreme Court decision that essentially opened the floodgates for corporations spending as much money as they want to influence elections.

And so already 16 states have passed resolutions in favor of this amendment, there's about 120 senators and U.S. congressmen that have signed onto an amendment, and we're helping to build this movement by stamping money with messages like not to be used for bribing politicians and stamp money out of politics.

HOBSON: You've got some stamps right here and some money right over there. Are those dollar bills stamped right now?

COHEN: No, I think we can decorate these dollars right here and now.

HOBSON: I'll send a stamp your way. There we go.

COHEN: Thank you very much. This is the not to be used for bribing politicians stamp. I'm stamping on the front and on the back.

HOBSON: Is that legal, by the way, to stamp money?

COHEN: It is totally legal. You know a lot of people grew up to believe that it's not legal to do this, but if you read law, it actually states that as long as you are not obliterating the dollar bill, as long as it's still obviously money and as long as you are not advertising a commercial business, it's OK.

HOBSON: That it's OK, and this - you've just stamped not to be used for bribing politicians. And then it says...

COHEN: Amend the Constitution.

HOBSON: Amend the Constitution. It's sort of on George Washington's face, so it's hard to see that, but amend the Constitution, stampstampede.org, #getmoneyout.

COHEN: That's right. So already we've got 12,000 people around the country that are stamping dollar bills. And the amazing thing about stamping a dollar bill is that you change it from just a piece of money to a piece of media. It's a communications device, and...

HOBSON: Do you think that the message just hasn't gotten out to people that this is part of the problem as you see it?

COHEN: The message has totally gotten out to people. Eighty percent of Republicans and Democrats want to get money out of politics. They realize the system is broken, but they don't know what they can do about it. You know, normally if you feel like you want the government to do something, the only thing you can do is sign a petition.

Well, stamping money is like a petition on steroids because every time you put a stamped dollar bill into circulation, over 800 people see it as it passes hands. And you know, if you stamp three dollar bills a day for a year, that creates a million impressions. And so that adds up, and it's huge, and essentially this becomes ongoing, visual, increasing support for getting this amendment passed.

HOBSON: How long do you think it's going to take to do something about this?

COHEN: You know, I think it's going to be another six to 10 years. You know, we have, as I say, 16 states are already voted in favor. We add about five or six new states a year. And when we've got a majority of the states and then two-thirds and then three-quarters, the pressure on politicians becomes enormous.

HOBSON: We're talking with Ben Cohen, the co-founder of Ben & Jerry's ice cream, who is also now trying to get money out of politics with stampstampede.org, and you're listening to HERE AND NOW.

And Ben Cohen, it is not easy to pass a Constitutional amendment. What do you think are the hurdles here? And of course members of Congress, many of them are not going to be that excited about taking away some of their funding.

COHEN: Certainly this movement is not going to come from inside the Beltway. That's where the problem is. Politicians need to be forced into it, and you know, politicians care about money, and they care about votes. And when you've got all of your constituents saying that we want you to pass this amendment, they kind of don't have much choice.

HOBSON: And of course many people make the argument that this is an issue of free speech. That was what the Supreme Court said, that this is - you can't restrict money because it's a speech issue. How do you respond to that?

COHEN: I respond to it by saying it's absurd. I mean everybody except five Supreme Court justices realizes that corporations are not people, and money is not free speech. I mean if you allow unlimited amounts of money to influence elections, essentially what that does is it drowns out everybody else's voice. And that was not the intent of the country. It's supposed to be one person, one vote, not one dollar one vote.

HOBSON: And what about the idea that a real part of the problem is that members of Congress are now districted, they've been redistricted into these districts where they don't have to answer to anybody except those who already agree with them?

COHEN: That's a huge problem. That's another one.

HOBSON: You think money, you think corporate money coming in is the real issue.

COHEN: Unlimited corporate money and unlimited money from the richest .01 percent of Americans, yeah, because they're essential - I mean they're not giving this money out of the goodness of their hearts. I mean they're giving this money because they want particular legislation passed or not passed, and that's why we don't have a reasonable energy policy in the country, that's why we can't pass environmental laws.

HOBSON: Is the company that bought your company, Unilever, onboard with you on this?

COHEN: You know, they are actually onboard with the idea of getting money out of politics. Ben & Jerry's itself is running its Get the Dough Out Campaign.

HOBSON: Is there going to be a flavor?

(LAUGHTER)

COHEN: Well, you know, the Steve Colbert flavor, Americone Dream, the copy on the package has been changed to talk about getting money out of politics.

HOBSON: Well, Ben Cohen, I can't have you in here and not ask you about your favorite flavor that you have right now.

COHEN: Cherry Garcia.

HOBSON: See, that's mine too, although I'm a fan of the Cherry Garcia fro-yo.

COHEN: Yup. You know, you don't need to move on to fro-yo, but for those of us that are getting on in years, yeah, fro-yo is the direction that we head in.

HOBSON: You can eat a lot more fro-yo for the same amount of calories as you can have just one little bit of the regular.

COHEN: That's exactly right.

HOBSON: Ben Cohen is the co-founder of Ben & Jerry's. You can find out more about his Stamp Stampede Campaign at hereandnow.org. Ben, thanks so much for coming in.

COHEN: Pleasure to be here.

HOBSON: And Sacha, what is your favorite?

PFEIFFER: Oh, it's so hard to choose. I would say either Chunky Monkey or Chocolate Fudge Brownie. They're all so good.

HOBSON: You can go to our website, hereandnow.org, and let us know your favorite flavor or what you think about Ben's idea, hereandnow.org. News is next. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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