If you see a dollar bill stamped in red with the words, “Not to be used for bribing politicians,” there’s a chance it was marked by a famous ice cream maker while he was visiting Arkansas.
Ben Cohen, the “Ben” of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, stamped bills at Little Rock’s River Market Oct. 22 to promote StampStampede, which aims to build popular support to amend the Constitution to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. That’s the ruling that corporations are people who can spend unlimited amounts to support or oppose candidates.
As Cohen stood outside the River Market, volunteers with the group Regnat Populus, which grew out of the Occupy Little Rock movement, flagged passersby with an offer: Meet Ben, get your dollar bill stamped, and get free ice cream.
According to StampStampede’s website, almost 11,000 stamps with anti-Citizens United messages have been sold. Each bill supposedly passes through 875 sets of hands, so if you haven’t seen one of these messages, you probably will. And yes, stamping dollar bills with a political statement is legal.
Regnat Populus is backing two measures that will or could be on your ballot next November. One, referred to voters by the Legislature, would prohibit Arkansas corporations from contributing to candidates. It does a lot of other things — some helpful, others maybe not. The other is a voter-led initiative that would cause corporations to lose their limited liability status in Arkansas if they contribute to any political cause.
I’m torn on all this, by the way. The current campaign finance system is a sanitized form of bribery. Much of the federal government’s debt and dysfunction stems from elected officials’ need to satisfy their donors. On the other hand, I also buy the Supreme Court’s argument that financial support for a candidate is a form of political speech.
Actually, the most interesting part of Cohen’s visit was his earlier speech at the Clinton School of Public Service.
As his company grew from a struggling two-man operation into one of the country’s recognizable brands, he and partner Jerry Greenfield decided a business isn’t just a product- or service-producing activity but “a combination of organized human energy plus money, which equals power.”
They decided a business’s success should be measured not just by profits but also by what it contributes to the common good. That meant creating profitable business practices that also aligned with the founders’ values. The company pledged 7.5 percent of pretax profits to charity. It bought brownies for one ice cream flavor from a New York City organization that employs ex-convicts and ex-drug addicts, and for another flavor it bought coffee beans from a Mexican cooperative that paid workers well.
“What Jerry and I began to realize is that there’s a spiritual aspect to business just as there is to the lives of individuals,” he said. “As you give, you receive. As you help others, you’re helped in return. As your business supports your community, the community supports your business.”
Those concepts were first met with derision even though they are taught in the Bible, but now they are becoming more accepted, he said. It turned out they are good for business, too.
“When you connect with your consumers based on shared values, that’s the strongest bond that you can ever build,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if the competition is on sale. People buy our ice cream because they connect with it.”
Cohen and Greenfield often are associated with liberal causes, but the big idea, that corporate values should not be divorced from spiritual ones, should be universal. Corporations aren’t people, but they are composed of them, and most people believe that making money and making a positive difference are both good things. As Cohen said, they can be done at the same time.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.