Former IMF chief economist Simon Johnson, writing in the Atlantic Monthly (via Open Left):

Top investment bankers and government officials like to lay the blame for the current crisis on the lowering of U.S. interest rates after the dotcom bust or, even better—in a "buck stops somewhere else" sort of way—on the flow of savings out of China. Some on the right like to complain about Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, or even about longer-standing efforts to promote broader homeownership. And, of course, it is axiomatic to everyone that the regulators responsible for "safety and soundness" were fast asleep at the wheel.

But these various policies—lightweight regulation, cheap money, the unwritten Chinese-American economic alliance, the promotion of homeownership—had something in common. Even though some are traditionally associated with Democrats and some with Republicans, they all benefited the financial sector....

From 1973 to 1985, the financial sector never earned more than 16 percent of domestic corporate profits. In 1986, that figure reached 19 percent. In the 1990s, it oscillated between 21 percent and 30 percent, higher than it had ever been in the postwar period. This decade, it reached 41 percent. Pay rose just as dramatically. From 1948 to 1982, average compensation in the financial sector ranged between 99 percent and 108 percent of the average for all domestic private industries. From 1983, it shot upward, reaching 181 percent in 2007.

The great wealth that the financial sector created and concentrated gave bankers enormous political weight—a weight not seen in the U.S. since the era of J.P. Morgan (the man).

You should read the whole thing.

The Blog Bubble

Responding to a reader who suggests that a 95% tax rate on very high incomes would be like legally capping the number of words a blogger is allowed to write, Matt Yglesias says he'd welcome such a thing:

Personally, I would love a legal cap on the number of words a blogger is allowed to produce per day. I’m privileged to have a job that I really enjoy. But at the same time, I would prefer to write somewhat less — this pace is stressful and doesn’t leave me as much time to pursue other projects and interests. But though I would prefer to write somewhat less, I have a stronger second-order preference to produce a blog that’s competitive with other major offerings on the internet. And over the years competition between bloggers has led to escalating word-counts. The resulting situation isn’t terrible, there are lots of people you should cry for before you get to me, but basically we bloggers are engaged in a red queen's race where we all need to keep trying harder and harder just to maintain our positions. A cap would be helpful.

This is the mentality of the bubble.  Or cable news.  Or something.  Whatever it is, though, it's bad.  We already have plenty of news mediums that reward instant, unthinking reaction, and the last thing the world needs is another one.  The blogosphere would  be a better place if everyone took a deep breath and decided that quality was more important than boosting traffic by simply having a post — any post — on every news event of the day.  Slow down and think instead!

And as long as I'm in Andy Rooney mode, will all you kids get off my lawn?  Thanks.

Travel Day Today.... light blogging from me.  In fact, probably no blogging unless I have some time at the airport later this afternoon.  Otherwise, I'll be be back on the job tonight, and regular blogging will resume on Tuesday.

If you are the son or daughter of an illegal immigrant, brought to this country at a young age, you have the opportunity to go to high school, and with some complications, college. But frequently, that's where your pursuit of the American dream ends -- becoming a professional (i.e. using your expertise to contribute to the arts, letters, commerce, or social development of this country) can be immensely difficult. The DREAM Act, which was recently reintroduced in the House, would remedy that. It would give undocumented immigrants who arrived in this country before the age of 16 the opportunity to become American citizens if they have no criminal record and they complete two years of college or serve two years in the military.

The bill has its supporters. And they've got lots of reasons -- moral and economic -- why it ought to pass. But it failed last year in the Senate. One would think that an immigration bill would have conservative support if it only makes citizens out individuals in the undocumented population who (1) have raised themselves up from nothing to the point where they are ready and willing to contribute to society, (2) will not be taking low-wage jobs from everyday working Americans, and (3) who came to this country at such a young age that their illegal status was clearly something that happened to them, not that they chose. And yet, it faces persistent opposition from those who believe it is back-door amnesty. So if you're the type to support legislation, and you are represented by a Blue Dog Democrat or a moderate Republican, consider picking up the phone.

I want to point out that when the current administration gives non-inflammatory updates on the state of Iran's nuclear capability, it earns way less media attention than the previous administration's public fear-mongering. The result is that Americans still nervous about Iran because of Bush, Cheney, et al's repeated but unfounded warnings don't have the information they need to know they can breathe easy. This strikes me as problematic. 

For all of you who don't get the Washington Post over the weekend (which, I'm assuming, is the vast majority of you), here is the beginning of its very important Sunday front-pager, on how useless torture enhanced interrogation techniques were under the Bush Administration.

When CIA officials subjected their first high-value captive, Abu Zubaida, to waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods, they were convinced that they had in their custody an al-Qaeda leader who knew details of operations yet to be unleashed, and they were facing increasing pressure from the White House to get those secrets out of him.

The methods succeeded in breaking him, and the stories he told of al-Qaeda terrorism plots sent CIA officers around the globe chasing leads.

In the end, though, not a single significant plot was foiled as a result of Abu Zubaida's tortured confessions, according to former senior government officials who closely followed the interrogations. Nearly all of the leads attained through the harsh measures quickly evaporated, while most of the useful information from Abu Zubaida -- chiefly names of al-Qaeda members and associates -- was obtained before waterboarding was introduced, they said.

Moreover, within weeks of his capture, U.S. officials had gained evidence that made clear they had misjudged Abu Zubaida. President George W. Bush had publicly described him as "al-Qaeda's chief of operations," and other top officials called him a "trusted associate" of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and a major figure in the planning of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. None of that was accurate, the new evidence showed.

Not much of this is new -- if you've read books like The One-Percent Doctrine and The Dark Side, you know that torture never produced the bounty of information that Dick Cheney still wants you to believe it did, and that Zubaida (most news outlets have spelled it Zubaydah in the past) was a fixer, a functionary, a glorified travel agent. And he was mentally unstable to boot. The idea that he is an example of how the Bush Administration got detainee policy right is one of the great and enduring fictions of the last decade., and this article confirms that.

Update: Andrew has some additional thoughts.

An innovative video from, designed to get whomever eats the wretched and wretchedly expensive stuff to stop. Nearly 100,000 tons of shark fins were brought to market from all over the World Ocean in 2006. Most were destined for the shark-fin-soup capital of the world, Hong Kong. A tasteless bowl of the stuff, often seasoned with chicken broth, nevertheless costs $200 a pop. Recession can't come hard enough or fast enough to this line of business.

The Bank of North Dakota is the only state-owned bank in America—what Republicans might call an idiosyncratic bastion of socialism. It also earned a record profit last year even as its private-sector corollaries lost billions. To be sure, it owes some of its unusual success to North Dakota’s well-insulated economy, which is heavy on agricultural staples and light on housing speculation. But that hasn’t stopped out-of-state politicos from beating a path to chilly Bismarck in search of advice. Could opening state-owned banks across America get us out of the financial crisis? It certainly might help, says Ellen Brown, author of the book, Web of Debt, who writes that the Bank of North Dakota, with its $4 billion under management, has avoided the credit freeze by “creating its own credit, leading the nation in establishing state economic sovereignty.” Mother Jones spoke with the Bank of North Dakota’s president, Eric Hardmeyer.

Mother Jones: How was the bank formed?

Eric Hardmeyer:
It was created 90 years ago, in 1919, as a populist movement swept the northern plains. Basically it was a very angry movement by a large group of the agrarian sector that was upset by decisions that were being made in the eastern markets, the money markets maybe in Minneapolis, New York, deciding who got credit and how to market their goods. So it swept the northern plains. In North Dakota the movement was called the Nonpartisan League, and they actually took control of the legislature and created what was called an industrial program, which created both the Bank of North Dakota as a financing arm and a state-owned mill and elevator to market and buy the grain from the farmer. And we’re both in existence today doing exactly what we were created for 90 years ago. Only we’ve morphed a little bit and found other niches and ways to promote the state of North Dakota.

What makes your bank unique today?

Our funding model, our deposit model is really what is unique as the engine that drives that bank. And that is we are the depository for all state tax collections and fees. And so we have a captive deposit base, we pay a competitive rate to the state treasurer. And I would bet that that would be one of the most difficult things to wrestle away from the private sector—those opportunities to bid on public funds. But that’s only one portion of it. We take those funds and then, really what separates us is that we plow those deposits back into the state of North Dakota in the form of loans. We invest back into the state in economic development type of activities. We grow our state through that mechanism.

Clearly other banks also invest their deposits. Is the difference that you are investing a larger portion of that money into the state’s own economy?

Yeah, absolutely. But we have specifically designed programs to spur certain elements of the economy. Whether it’s agriculture or economic development programs that are deemed necessary in the state or energy, which now seems to be a huge play in the state. And education—we do a lot of student loan financing. So that’s our model. We have a specific mission that was given to us when we were created 90 years ago and it guides us throughout our history.

Are there areas that you invest in that other banks avoid?

We made the first federally-insured student loan in the country back in 1967. So that’s been a big part of what we do. It’s become almost a mission-critical thing. I don’t know if you have been following the student loan industry lately, but it’s been very, very interesting as many have decided to leave. We will not though.

So you are able to invest in certain areas because they provide a public good.

Yeah, or a direction, whether it’s energy or primary sector type of businesses. We have specific loan programs that are designed at very low interest rates to encourage activity along certain lines. Here’s another thing: We’re gearing up for a significant flood in one of the communities here in North Dakota called Fargo. We’ve experienced one of those in another community about 12 years ago which prior to Katrina was the largest single evacuation of any community in the United States. And so the Bank of North Dakota, once the flood had receded and there were business needs, we developed a disaster loan program to assist businesses. So we can move quite quickly to aid with different types of scenarios. Whether it’s encouraging different economies to grow or dealing with a disaster.

What do private banks think of you?

The interesting thing about the bank is we understand that we walk a fine line between competing and partnering with the private sector. We were designed and set up to partner with them and not compete with them. So most of the lending that we do is participatory in nature. It’s originated by a local bank and we come in and participate in the loan and use some of our programs to share risk, buy down the interest rate. We even provide guarantees similar to SBA to encourage certain activity for entrepreneurial startups. Aside from that, we also act as a bankers’ bank or a wholesale bank. So we provide services to banks, whether it’s check clearing, liquidity, or bond accounting safekeeping. There’s probably 20 other bankers' banks across the country. So we act in that capacity as kind of a little mini-fed actually. And so we service 104 banks and provide liquidity to them and clear their checks and also we buy loans from them when they have a need to overline, whether it’s beyond their legal lending limit or they just want to share risk, we’ll do that. We’re a secondary market for residential loans, so we have a portfolio of $500 to $600 million of residential loans that we buy.
MJ: So what’s the advantage of a publicly owned “bankers’ bank” instead of a privately owned one?
EH: Our model is we use our deposit base to help [other banks] with funding their loans, even providing fed funds lines with our excess liquidity—we buy and sell fed funds and act as a clearinghouse for check clearing activity. That would be the benefit or different model. We’re a depository bank and can bring that to bear.
MJ: If other states had a bank like yours, do you think they would have been more insulated from the credit crisis?

I was waiting for the daily White House briefing. It was a lovely near-spring day. Most of the reporters were outside, many preparing to hurl questions at the banking CEOs who were finishing their private lunch with President Barack Obama in the East Wing. It was expected that the soon-to-be departing bankers would stop at the stake-out position in front of the entrance to the West Wing and field queries from the journalists.

And then they came. Mostly tall men. All white, I recall. In very nice suits. Most had silver hair. It was as if Central Casting had been asked for a dozen banking chiefs. After being surrounded by reporters and camera crews--business journalists were in a frenzy--the gaggle of titans made its way to the microphones. They said what you'd expect: that they had had a productive meeting with the president, that we're all in this together (just some of us have more retirement worries than some others), that Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's toxic assets plan is a good first step (these guys are lucky to have anyone giving them any kind of step), that they were not surprised by the public outrage over the AIG bonuses (did they want to seem more out of touch?), that the financial regulatory system does need updating, and that we're all in this together. Oh, did I say that already? That was a talking point that someone had obviously instructed them to use whenever it was necessary to exhale.

I was standing toward the back of the pack of reporters, watching as each question seemed to bounce off the impenetrable wall of spin the bankers had constructed. (Was it woven into the Italian wool of their suits?) There came a momentary pause in the not-so-tough grilling, and I yelled out, "Do you think you owe the American people an apology for helping to cause this economic decline?"

The men at the front of the banker's crowd looked at one another, and then one moved to the mike. It was Kenneth Lewis, the CEO of Bank of America. He noted that there were few financial institutions that had not committed mistakes. "I don't think the public should think we've done everything right," he said. (Not much need to worry about that, sir.)

But what about a simple plea for forgiveness?

"At some point," he said, "we have to stop talking about the past and talk about the present." Apparently that point was right now. He said nothing else about the mistakes of the past. He pointed to "mixed signals" in the economy that had positive implications.

So no apology, no expression of regret, no "my bad." Onward and--we can hope--upward. I suppose that high finance means never having to say you're sorry.

Modern manufacturing methods are spectacularly inefficient in their use of energy and materials. Overall new manufacturing systems are anywhere from 1,000 to 1 million times bigger consumers of energy, per pound of output, than traditional industries. Microchips use orders of magnitude more energy than manhole covers.

This according to a detailed MIT analysis of 20 major manufacturing processes. "The seemingly extravagant use of materials and energy resources by many newer manufacturing processes is alarming and needs to be addressed alongside claims of improved sustainability from products manufactured by these means," says Timothy Gutowski [pdf] of MIT's Department of Mechanical Engineering.

Manufacturers have traditionally been more concerned with price, quality, or cycle time, and not as concerned with energy use. That will change, though, when energy prices rise again and when/if a carbon tax is adopted.

Take solar panels. (Say it isn't so!) Their production uses some of the same manufacturing processes as microchips but on a larger scale. Plus their production is escalating dramatically. The inefficiency of current solar panel manufacturing drastically reduces the technology's lifecycle energy balance.

Translation: the ratio of energy the panel produces over its useful lifespan compared to the energy required to manufacture it sucks.

The good news is that this study published in Environmental Science & Technology is making the first important steps toward understanding which processes are most inefficient and which and need further research to develop less energy-intensive alternatives.

Example: many newer processes involve vapor-phase processing (e.g., material is vaporized in a vacuum chamber to make a coating). Depositing a coating from a liquid solution is better and could be developed to downsize the energy footprint.

The study covered everything from old fashioned industries like a cast-iron foundry all the way up to semiconductors and nanomaterials. It included injection molding, sputtering, carbon nanofiber production and dry etching, along with more traditional machining, milling, drilling and melting. (However, the researchers only looked at processes where electricity was the primary energy source, hence no analysis of pharmaceutical or petroleum industries.)

Plus the figures are inherently conservative since they don't include things like the energy required to make the materials themselves or the energy required to maintain the environment of the plant (air conditioning, filtration).

Gutowski's bottom line: new processes are huge users of materials and energy and have increased our energy and materials consumption by three to six orders of magnitude. The "claims that these technologies are going to save us in some way need closer scrutiny. There's a significant energy cost involved here [and] each of these processes could be improved."

Take heed bright green environmentalists.