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Day 1 of the Milken Institute Global Conference

Energy is about an all-of-the-above “portfolio.” Two sessions featured energy executives arguing that energy debates are incorrectly framed when discussed as one energy source against another. Southern Co. CEO Tom Fanning noted how his company is invested in natural gas, building a U.S. nuclear plant, investing in renewables, cleaner coal and more — clean, safe, reliable, affordable energy from all sources is how the world will win the future. GE Africa CEO Jay Ireland and others discussed in a separate session how the situation is much the same in Africa. He called it having a “portfolio” of costs and of energy sources, while others, notably USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah, emphasized the importance of mixing on-grid and off-grid, small and large power projects.

Central banks still run the show: The past, present and future actions of the world’s central banks drew scrutiny during a panel about prospects for the global economy. Alan Howard, co-founder of Brevan Howard, said the increased regulatory powers of the European Central Bank will be a game-changer as will the size and targeting of the quantitative easing he expects the ECB to manage. Alexander Friedman, Global Chief Investment Officer at UBS, said the untold story of last five years is how the policies of the Federal Reserve have contributed to income inequality politicians and others have taken to lamenting.

Housing finance reform might be on the right track, or not: In an era when Republicans and Democrats can’t seem to agree on much of anything, bi-partisan efforts on Capitol Hill to reform housing finance drew mixed reviews from Milken panelists. James Lockhart, the former director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, was mostly supportive of the efforts, but said some of the regulatory aspects of bills like Johnson-Crapo should be “hard-wired” so regulators can’t change them when political pressure rises. Otherwise, the panelists predicted their would be bi-partisan pressure brought to bear to loosen restrictions so as to avoid “taking the punch bowl away from the party.” Josh Rosner, managing director at Graham Fisher & Co., was more critical of the current efforts, “Politicians on both sides of the aisle are concerned about too-big-to-fail, but this bill increases size of banks.” Rosner also criticized the the flexibility the bills give regulators and warns that the bills expect regulators to keep up with market innovations — something history suggests might not be a very reasonable expectation.

Do leaders and entrepreneurs need college? Maybe. Dreamworks’ Jeffrey Katzenberg, Starwood’s Barry Sternlicht and others talked about the giants of innovation who didn’t do to or dropped out of college, but seemed to come down on the side of that being an exception rather than the rule. Sternlicht described it as, “learn to walk before you run” — not closing doors that could be opened through college.

Advice for young people — passions versus skill. On that same panel, Knowledge Universe USA CEO Tom Wyatt emphasized the importance of following passions in response to Katzenberg’s proposition that we’re perhaps delivering the wrong message to young people. “Speakers today say, “Follow your dreams.” What about, “Follow your skill. … follow that thing you’re really good at,” he said. On this point, however, it seemed there was general agreement that passion and skill are not at odds but are complementary, with only disagreement on which deserved priority.

“Death, taxes and student loans”: Former Secretary of Education William Bennett lamented the titanic amount of student-loan debt that is being accumulated and the effect it will have on Americans, jokingly referring to the three things Americans can’t escape: “Death, taxes and student loans.” Bennett said institutions of higher learning should have “skin-in-the-game” when it comes to loans taken on by their students.

Dodd on Dodd-Frank fails: Former Sen. Christopher Dodd says one of his big regrets about the architecture of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act is that it didn’t call for self-funding of the Securities & Exchange Commission. Dodd explained that much of the intentions of Dodd-Frank will be nullified when Congress limits the funding of regulators. Bob Diamond, the former CEO of Barclays, added that Dodd-Frank also falls short on the issue of too-big-to-fail. “Regulators don’t really think too-big-to-fail has been addressed, nor do they think that it can.”

Wellness as the key to healthier Americans, lower costs. The opening panel, moderated by Michael Milken, noted how 70% of annual U.S health care spending is on lifestyle diseases, but only 4% of spending in on prevention, and how a “well-designed” corporate wellness program can save $3.30 in health care costs for every dollar spent. The costs of failing to prevent obesity, smoking and diabetes, over time, result in thousands of dollars per year per person.

Opportunity in Africa. Roughly 70% of Africans do not have electricity access, with some countries having as many as 98% without access — but spending an annual sum over the next 20 or so years equivalent to only 3% of the annual global power spend could solve this problem. Rwanda President Paul Kagame noted in multiple sessions how Africa is developing a middle class, that “your money is very safe” and has been, and there are great needs and opportunities in infrastructure.

Small biz recovery? Consumer spending is increasing faster than the overall retail rate at small businesses, which have not benefited as much from the economic recovery, according to MasterCard Advisors’ Sarah Quinlan. Use of credit is starting to rebound, she said, helping consumers better participate in the economy. One surprise: The volatility of luxury goods spending, which was sharply down in Q1 2014 because of winter storms, a weaker stock market and, of all things, the timing of the Easter calendar.

Contributing reporting by Sean McMahon in Beverly Hills, Calif.