Here's an idea for a potentially disastrous event: invite young Industry hotshots to your home on one of the coldest nights of the year to discuss the federal budget.
But Dan and Jenna Adler did exactly that last week. And partly because the Adlers are well-connected and well-regarded Creative Artists Agency agents, and because one co-host was high-profile columnist Arianna Huffington, and because the main guest speaker was Ben Cohen -- co-founder of Ben and Jerry's ice cream -- the event was astonishingly successful: packed, intense, full of buzz.
Cohen left the world of premium pints last year after selling his semieponymous company to Unilever. He is now promoting a different product, something he calls a "Contract With The Planet."
The contract aims to make America a more globally responsible citizen. It wants to do all sorts of good things --improve education, feed the hungry, decrease our dependency on oil -- with one great hook: it is, as they say, "budget neutral."
What Cohen wants us to do is urge our government to take 11.6 percent of the proposed 2002 defense budget -- that's $40 billion -- to invest in things like Head Start, health care and energy self-sufficiency. He calls the strategy Move Our Money.
Cohen, the epitome of the entrepreneurial Baby Boomer, is doing what many children of the '60s dreamed they would: make gazillions, then change the world. His campaign uses brilliant marketing to reach a younger generation (contractwiththeplanet.org, funky traveling parades, cool T-shirts, etc.). But it also gathers the gravitas provided by support from current and former CEOs (from Goldman Sachs, Eastman Kodak and Visa, among others) and former military brass to lure in older generations.
Retired Adm. Jack Shanahan took the floor after Cohen ran off to dish his favorite brand of ice cream for the guests (even at 40 degrees outside, there was a line, because having Ben Cohen scoop your ice cream is like having Bill Gates reboot your hard drive). Shanahan and former CIA director Adm. Stansfield Turner are behind Cohen. Shanahan ran through the numbers: At $343 billion, the U.S. military budget request for 2002 is more than six times that of Russia, the second- largest spender. It is more than 23 times as large as the combined spending of the "Axis of Evil" (Iran, Iraq and North Korea) plus Cuba, Libya, Sudan and Syria. It is, Shanahan said, a budget that protects us against Cold War-era threats that no longer exist, while leaving us vulnerable to guys with box cutters.
Several days after Cohen and Shanahan spoke, President George W. Bush unveiled his $2.13 trillion budget proposal. It includes a proposed $48 billion increase in next year's defense budget, a 12 percent real increase over this year, and a 14 percent increase above the Cold War annual average.
I didn't come across a soul at the Cohen event who begrudged the Defense Department money for developing new weapons in the war on terror. "You know those missiles that pinpoint the terrorists' caves and blow them out of the ground?" one dyed-in-the-organic-cotton liberal told me. "I want to buy more of those. Let's make some that pinpoint their beds."
The budget debate, like many political debates in America, has jumped its old left-right track. You don't have to be a Republican to want to give the Pentagon whatever it needs to ensure America's security. The debate isn't guns versus butter, but how to get the right guns and better butter. The Center for Defense Initiatives (www.cdi.org), a think tank run by former military brass, lists 15 examples of Pentagon programs that could be ended or reshaped that would save a minimum of $147 billion over the next 10 years. That kind of change buys a lot of sky marshals.
Cohen had dropped by The Journal offices several months before Sept. 11 to talk about his "Contract With the Planet," and it was revealing to hear how his pitch had changed since. Like Bush, he now couched his presentation in terms of national security. Except for Cohen, security comes from, among other things, cutting our nuclear stockpile from 6,000 warheads to 1,000 (still enough to blow up the world several times over) and spending the money saved on education.
Raised in Long Island and bar mitzvahed there, Cohen describes himself as an unaffiliated Jew -- "Jew-ish," he told me. But he pushes hard on the ethical and spiritual component of his campaign, and he's attracted religious groups to the cause, forming "Religious Leaders for Sensible Priorities."
And, judging by the turnout at the Adlers, many young, Industry-esque Jews will be signing on to what Cohen calls "Entertainment Leaders for Sensible Priorities." The idea of targeting society's cultural elite, its educated movers and shakers, and then having them set the agenda for the rest of the country might just work.
After all, that's how Ben and Jerry's became famous.