Ben Cohen on Occupy, independent business networks, and defacing currency to save our Democracy

I had the opportunity yesterday, at the BALLE conference, to hear ice cream magnate Ben Cohen, of Ben and Jerry’s fame, talking about the point of intersection where the local business movement, Occupy Wall Street and the campaign to “get the money out of politics” converge. Here’s video of his presentation, during which he unveils his plan to send a Rube Goldberg-like contraption on a tour around the country, defacing American currency, in hopes of spreading the Move to Amend gospel. (He says that he’s had his legal team look into it, and it’s completely legal to stamp messages onto dollar bills.)

The conversation which followed Ben’s presentation jumped all over the place, as people in the audience, which numbered about 75, discussed everything from personal stories about having gone to prep school with Mitt Romney, to police violence against people of color in Oakland. The most interesting thing, for me, was the discussion on whether or not the local business movement should align itself with the people in the streets, fighting against the forces of corporate America. There was talk of BALLE member businesses putting “We support the 99%” decals on their doors. Some in the audience thought that it would be a great idea to declare solidarity with the movement. Others thought that it might negatively impact the burgeoning localist movement. One woman, while clearly sympathetic to the Occupy movement, suggested that small business owners are making significant progress in the fight against corporate America, and doesn’t want to jeopardize that. As long as we’re all moving in that direction, she argued, we don’t have to be overt in our intentions.

Regardless of whether or not BALLE members decide to act on Cohen’s suggestion, and use their stores as distribution centers for the roll-out of marked bills, it occurs to me that there may be opportunities to leverage the BALLE membership, which now includes some 22,000 independently-owned, place-based, values-minded businesses across North America. I’m not sure what it would look like, but I’ve got to think that there are opportunities not only to lobby Congress, but to get messages out quickly, through the network, to millions of customers. My thoughts on this are still forming, but it seems as though, now that the infrastructure is built, it might be worth exploring the possibilities. For instance, assuming the Supreme Court strikes down the Affordable Care Act later this summer, wouldn’t it be cool if all of the people working at BALLE member businesses wore “Put Single-Payer Health Care Back on the Table… And Start an Entrepreneurial Revolution” t-shirts? (I’m convinced that, if we had national health care, and people were no longer terrified of being uninsured, that tens of thousands of people would leave their jobs working for big firms, and start businesses of their own.) It’s not an overtly political message, but I think that it could have a pretty big impact. And that’s just one example. I’m sure there are dozens more.

More on the BALLE conference tomorrow.

Oh, and Cohen gave us all ice cream after he spoke… He must travel tons of the stuff.

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  1. Posted May 20, 2012 at 2:42 am | Permalink

    “I’m convinced that, if we had national health care, and people were no longer terrified of being uninsured, that tens of thousands of people would leave their jobs working for big firms and start companies of their own.”

    This is entirely true. The lack of affordable and available health care is a massive impediment to innovation in our economy.

    It’s really sad, but I don’t see things changing at all any time soon.

  2. SparkleMotion
    Posted May 20, 2012 at 7:20 am | Permalink

    I’m encouraged by the fact that since faith and trust in corporate America is at an all time low, young people are in fact being more entrepreneurial in that they are going at it alone or with a small group rather than hoping to be sucked up into a large company’s vacuum. All the bad qualities of large corporations are leading directly to what they fear most – decentralized power. It’s not going to be a quick process for our instant gratification nation, but it’s happening and as the younger people come into their own it will become more apparent. There will always be large corporations due to the fact that some industries require you to be huge (energy, large scale manufacturing, mining, etc) and with that will come the unsightly territory that we’re familiar with today. However, in the future where there are hundreds of thousands of 20-30 person companies competing directly with the giants (mostly thanks to technology advancements) at every corner, their influence will be limited.
    Also, if you really want to stop political corruption, TERM LIMITS.

  3. Edward
    Posted May 20, 2012 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    He’s entirely right about money in politics being at the root of everything. We need to stay focused on that fact, and we need to go after Citizens United and campaign finance reform with everything that we’ve got.

    As for terms limits, I get where you’re coming from, but I think it’s a distraction. If we have good people in office, we should keep them there. The more significant problem, in my opinion, is the revolving door between Congress and K Street. We need to keep politicians from leaving office and cashing in with lobbying firms.

  4. Posted May 20, 2012 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    I agree with you and Peter Larson re: health care. In fact, I believe that is one of the reasons that it is destined to fail. People stay in crappy jobs (and crappy marriages) for health care, all the time. A friend of mine hadn’t had health care in about 10 years and he got a job for crappy pay but with UM-style benefits; my man was delighted beyond words.

    Now that I think about it, this is a great way to keep us all in line…make decent health care completely and utterly unaffordable (i.e. a 10 minute doctor visit, just to hear the doctor say that I need an antibiotic, should not cost hundreds of $$) and then chain us all to the few employers who offer decent care.

  5. Posted May 20, 2012 at 1:49 pm | Permalink


    That is exactly why the United States resists universal care.

    God forbid that people might get a good idea and take a chance on starting a business.

    Ever been to Sweden? There’s a mom and pop store and a great idea on every corner.

  6. maryd
    Posted May 20, 2012 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

    So right Patti and Peter…watching friends lose homes and everything over health care costs sucks! And then listen to all the bullshit about how all the universal care plans suck in Canada and Europe. I do not see anyone lining up for medical tourism to the US.

  7. Arf
    Posted May 20, 2012 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

    It’s kind of weird that Ben is a hero of the small local business movement when his Ben and Jerry’s chains have driven mom and pop stores out of business. All chains, I guess, are not created equal.

  8. Mark H.
    Posted May 20, 2012 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

    Term limits are not a solution. Look at the Michigan legislature — term limits there kick in about the time an elected official learns in detail about problems and forms relationships with other legislators that might be the basis of finding solutions to problems. So instead most real influence in the state house resides with the staff appointed by the parties and with the governor. Not so democratic a result, and surely not a decrease in corruption.

  9. LisaD
    Posted May 21, 2012 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

    Good idea in theory but I don’t think it would work. Most businesses that join BALLE networks are great locally owned businesses, but they may not be liberal/support Occupy/support single payer. Being good stewards of the community (and the environment) is actually an idea that transcends political identification – at least that’s been my experience. I have more trouble conveying the idea to neo-liberals than I do conservatives.

    I know it’s been a challenge for many many networks to convey the broader message of BALLE. Businesses get the buy local aspect but not always the other parts, and given the many things occupying the brain space of overworked business owners, find a way to reach businesses to engage them is tough.

  10. Mr. X
    Posted May 22, 2012 at 9:46 am | Permalink


    Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t see single payer health care being a political issue as far as non-tech entrepreneurs are concerned. People doing retail and food-related entrepreneurship, I’m thinking, would be thrilled not to have to worry about insuring their people, regardless of whether the voted for Obama or McCain. At the very least, I think that it would be worth polling the members of BALLE and seeing where they stand on some of these issues.

  11. Meta
    Posted September 25, 2012 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    Ben Cohen was on Current TV with Elliot Spitzer talking about this project yesterday. Things are moving forward.

  12. Meta
    Posted January 7, 2013 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    Politico has something about this campaign of Ben Cohen’s today.

  13. Mr. X
    Posted June 25, 2013 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    In case people are interested, Ben Cohen is doing an AMA on Reddit, talking about everything from ice cream flavors to this money stamping project.

2 Trackbacks

  1. […] pour money directly into campaign ads…As I just mentioned the other day, in the thread about Ben Cohen’s plan to help us deface our dollar bills, in hopes of spreading the Move to Amend gospel, while there are a great many things wrong in the […]

  2. […] I was invited to join SVN by Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s. Ben discovered me, and connected me to like minded business people. It was […]

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