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.

In the latest sign that the economy is even more screwed than we thought: The city of Louisville, Kentucky has struck a deal allowing the fast-food chain Kentucky Fried Chicken to fill in the city's potholes—in exchange for stamping the pavement as "Re-freshed by KFC."

KFC explains that the company's foray into highway repair is a tie-in to its new "fresh" campaign, which focuses on food quality. Well, nice to know that it isn't part of the "take advantage of the county's economic collapse" or "appropriation of municipal public works" campaigns. According to Ad Age:

Guest blogger Mark Follman writes frequently about current affairs and culture at markfollman.com.

The debate about whether to legalize marijuana in the United States has never been a mainstream one. So it's been fascinating to watch how much attention the concept has gotten lately, however viable it may or may not be.

Preoccupation with the violent drug war is one factor; marijuana is the largest source of revenue for the Mexican cartels' multibillion dollar business north of the border. Commodify the major cash crop through legalization, the idea goes, and its cost will plummet, putting a serious dent in the bad guys' bank accounts.

But the larger issue lighting up the idea seems to be the battered American economy.

The culture of Wall Street has always been an oblique, half-hidden world, unlike any other, which not even writers and filmmakers have ever managed to depict with much authenticity. But the financial meltdown is creating cracks in the facade, allowing bits of that culture to ooze out—the shallowness, greed, arrogance, and most of all superficiality of the money men. Why did we ever fall for these guys, either as guardians of our life savings, or as icons of American life? Now that we’re getting some new insights into what lies beneath the gray flannel suits, it is not a pretty sight.

Just when you thought they couldn’t behave any worse, the now-reviled financial industry executives have taken to depicting themselves as the true victims of the recession. As they come face to face with public rage, few seem to feel the least bit ashamed or contrite about their role in wrecking the world economy, or for their undeserved wealth. Instead, their responses are ranging from peevish to paranoid.

On Tuesday, at a conference on the “Future of Finance” hosted by my old employers, the Wall Street Journal, “Finance executives expressed anger and betrayal at Washington’s latest anti-Wall Street rhetoric,” the Journal reported. Glenn Hutchins of the private equity firm Silver Lake complained (in a triumph of mixed metaphors): “To point the finger at one group means, No. 1, you’re not understanding the problem, two, you’re stretching our social fabric thinly, and you’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” Former SEC chair Arthur Levitt decried the “‘us’ and ‘they’” mentality dividing Main Street from Wall Street. “We’re now shifting to the left pretty far in terms of business-bashing,” he said, “and it has reached extremes of incivility that are intolerable.”

This morning, after President Barack Obama unveiled his new Afghanistan policy, three senior administration officials held an on-the-record (but no cameras) briefing for White House reporters. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Bruce Riedel, chair of the Afghanistan policy review, and Michèle Flournoy, undersecretary of defense for policy, hammered home the points that Obama had made: that this policy has a concise and clear goal (protecting Americans from al Qaeda by making sure this terrorist band does not have any safe havens in Afghanistan or Pakistan), that it has a regional focus (Afghanistan and Pakistan), and that it has a strong civilian component (i.e., sending not just more troops, but more advisers to work on development and related matters). They did not talk timelines, deadlines, costs, or exit strategies. They did repeatedly refer to benchmarks and flexibility.

I asked if this review had addressed Obama's previous complaint that the national government in Afghanistan is "detached" from the rest of the country and whether any of the development envisioned by the review could be accomplished given the widespread and profound corruption in Afghanistan. Holbrooke fielded this one:

I would just point you to the fact that no American chief executive has spoken about corruption this way ever before in open. Isn't that a fair statement, Bruce? And on the way out, a former Assistant Secretary of State, who many of you know, but I better not give his name, since he isn't...said to me, I've been waiting six years to hear a speech like that, and the emphasis on corruption is essential. You've all been reporting it for years. We view it as a cancer eating away at the country and it has to be dealt with. And obviously we're not going to lay out how we're going to deal with it. To some extent, we don't know yet. There's so much dispute about it. Senators have talked about it, including senators who are now President, Vice President and Secretary of State. And they bring what they said as senators to this issue.

And speaking for myself, I've written about it a lot. I don't take back anything I ever wrote as a private citizen. Now we've been offered the extraordinary challenge of trying to deal with this problem. And we're here to say, it is at the highest levels. Why? This isn't baksheesh. We've got to make a distinction between ordinary problems that happen in every society. This is massive efforts that undermine the government. President Karzai himself has said this, and we need to work on this. It's a huge recruiting draw—excuse me, huge recruiting opportunity for the Taliban. It's one of their major things they exploit. But I can't lay out to you how exactly we're going to do this. We're just starting out. And by the way, we're in the middle of an election campaign in Afghanistan, which complicates everything enormously.

So here Holbrooke was acknowledging the significance of the corruption issue, somewhat eloquently and candidly, yet he could not say how it might be addressed. As for Karzai's government being "detached," he didn't go there.

Holbrooke is a wonderfully engaging character—an old-school power player. He schmoozes reporters, coming across as intelligent, crafty, and concerned. He is a charmer who knows his stuff. He won't no-comment a tough question; he will compliment the reporter on posing an insightful query, show he fully understands the issue at hand (which he does), and then explain he can't answer it—in a manner that can be convincing, not annoying.

But at the end of the briefing, Holbrooke did speak somewhat candidly about a vexing part of the Afghanistan problem: drugs. What to do about the opium flowing out of Afghanistan has always been a knotty element of US policy regarding Afghanistan. How much of a priority should it be? (Simply put, if you attack the the opium trade, warlords and locals get pissed off and join or support the other side.) Asked about the priority of drug fighting in the Afghanistan review, Holbrooke, as he was leaving the briefing, said "We're going to have to rethink the drug problem." That was interesting. He went on: "a complete rethink." He noted that the policymakers who had worked on the Afghanistan review "didn't come to a firm, final conclusion" on the opium question. "It's just so damn complicated," Holbrooke explained. Did that mean that the opium eradication efforts in Afghanistan should be canned? "You can't eliminate the whole eradication program," he exclaimed. But that remark did make it seem that he backed an easing up of some sort. "You have to put more emphasis on the agricultural sector," he added.

For years, officials of the US government and other government have pondered what to do about the poppy fields of Afghanistan. Holbrooke indicated he favors a significant shift in this front of the war on drugs. But what specific policy does he fancy? He offered no clues, and then began talking to several reporters in French. Whatever he was saying, it sounded quite good.

Today is rolling around in the sun day.  On the left, Domino is rolling around in the wood-chippy dirt where the Jacaranda used to be, getting herself filthy beyond belief in the process.  But she sure enjoyed herself.  On the right, Inkblot prefers the cleaner approach of rolling around on the patio instead.  Either way, it's highly recommended therapy.  Weather permitting, you should try rolling around in the spring air yourself this weekend.  It can't hurt, and it might help.

Too Big To Fail

Last night I made the argument that focusing on crude firm size wasn't the right way to look at our current banking crisis.  It's the overall industry size that's important, not the size of individual banks.

But if you disagree, James Kwak makes about the best case for the prosecution that I've seen yet, suggesting that a financial industry with lots of midsize companies would work just fine:

What would such a world look like? There would be a lot of small- and medium-sized banks that collected deposits and lent money to households and businesses. There would be brokerage and asset management firms that you used to invest your savings. There would be hedge funds and private equity firms that rich people and other institutional investors used to invest their money. There would be investment banks that helped companies issue equity and debt securities. There would be boutique firms that did research and other boutiques that M&A advising. For any financial service anyone wanted, there would be a company that provided that service; it just wouldn’t necessarily provide every other service, and it wouldn’t have $2 trillion in assets. It would look something like the 1970s.

What’s wrong with this picture? Some people would argue that it would limit financial innovation....Some would argue that costs would be higher, because smaller firms would be less able to capture economies of scale and scope....To some people, the idea of size caps will seem anti-capitalist (or even un-American)....

Kwak addresses all of these issues fairly persuasively.  But to me it still has the flavor of a solution that's clear, simple, and wrong.  After all, Bear Stearns was a quarter the size of Citigroup, and it was considered too big to fail.  So just what would the limit be on bank size?  $500 billion in assets?  $200 billion? Can a country the size of the United States even have nationwide banks with limits like that?  And what happens the next time around, when all these smallish banks overleverage themselves and collapse en masse?  Are we any better off than we are with a few big banks failing?

The whole post is worth reading, but I have a feeling that nostalgia for the 70s just isn't going to work.  Big companies are here to stay, and I suspect that any regulation stringent enough to keep banks small enough to fail won't be sustainable.  And unless we reign in overleverage and massive waves of credit expansion, it won't do any good anyway.  The same thing will happen again, just in a slightly different way.

Zero-Based Budgeting

I didn't post about this when it happened, but yesterday the Republican brain trust in the House decided to show their seriousness about cutting the deficit by publishing a "budget" that contained no actual numbers.  The press mostly thought it was pretty comical, and today Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan tried to pretend that they had nothing to do with this project and were only bullied into supporting it.  Matt Yglesias isn't buying:

Reps Ryan and Cantor saw that the press was reacting poorly to the Boehner/Pence flim-flam “budget” and decided to throw their colleagues under the bus. And, frankly, I’m not surprised that Ryan and Cantor were surprised. I was surprised, too. I’ve never really seen political reporters get outraged before about the fact that a policy document makes no sense in the past. It was a curious outbreak of substance among the press corps that I don’t think was particularly foreseeable.

I guess that's a fair point: it is a little unusual for the press to call BS for what it is.  At the same time, it's also worth noting just how invisible this whole exercise was.  It got lots of mockery in the blogosphere, and it also showed up on political shows like Maddow and Olbermann, but aside from that it wasn't so much ridiculed as ignored.  If you get your news from the New York Times or NPR or Katie Couric, you'd barely even know this had happened, let alone that everyone thought it was ridiculous.

Chinese-made drywall releases a rotten egg smell and might be corroding household wiring and causing health problems. It was installed throughout the Gulf Coast region in the wake of Hurricane Katrina as U.S.-made drywall became scare in the midst of the housing boom. One hundred and fifty homeowners have complained about drywall odors to the Florida Health Department; the large homebuilder, Lennar Corp., has been forced to rip out walls and is suing Chinese drywall companies; and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is investigating whether the drywall is posing a potential safety hazard. The Wall Street Journal, the only national paper that has covered the issue extensively, wonders if Chinese drywall is the "new mold." It's certainly the new toy or dog food, other Chinese product lines that have proven potentially dangerous and led to recalls. The drywall scare will compound the housing crisis by further burdening struggling builders and homeowners. And it points to the hollowness of the housing boom in the context of the global economy. Even our homes weren't made at home, and the housing boom has imported toxic assets to Main Street in more ways than one.