The Asian crisis? Put it down to Monica

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The Independent Online
IN KOREA, a million or so workers are poised on the brink of riot, furious that their government acceded to the International Monetary Fund's demands for a change in the local labour laws.

In the wake of General Suharto's similar IMF deal, the Indonesian people have turned their anger on Chinese merchants and burned hundreds of Chinese- owned shops to the ground. In Malaysia, Dr Mahathir Mohamad blames his nation's economic problems on a cabal of foreign Jews which, he says, conspired to destroy the Malaysian currency. Even in relatively tranquil and prosperous Singapore, Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew says that Asia's problems are to blame less on Asians themselves than on "corrupt foreign lenders."

When your television set busts in the middle of the Super Bowl, your first instinct is to smack it on the side. When your economic system busts in the middle of a miracle, your first instinct is to lash out at whomever you happen to be doing economics with - the IMF, the Jews, the Chinese, or corrupt foreign investors. Half a billion people who, not very long ago, thought of themselves as God's gift to global capitalism are now being made aware that their economic systems are failing. They are only doing what any red-blooded American would do in the same situation: looking for something to kick around.

The trouble in Asia is finding a genuinely satisfying, all-purpose scapegoat. Focus is the key to a successful venting of rage. The reason it feels so good to knock the crap out of your computer after the hard drive crashes is that, at the moment of impact, nothing distracts you from your hatred of that little black box. For that one, cathartic moment it alone is the cause of all that is evil in the world.

In this respect, and many others, the Asians are at a disadvantage. Their crisis is complicated. Many, many foreign people have earned a share of the blame. Lynching a few Chinese for "hoarding" sugar and flour won't make Indonesians feel any better if the very next morning their rulers must submit to another long list of onerous demands from Larry Summers, the US deputy Treasury secretary. No, what is needed in Asia is a single Prime Mover - a person on whom everything that goes wrong might plausibly be pinned. Right now, that person does not exist. But that could change, and quickly.

At this very moment the IMF is playing a confidence game with the global economy. The $100bn it plans to hand out around Asia is necessary but insufficient to effect a rescue. The point of the money is to generate the illusion that everything is heading in the right direction. The presence of lots of boring guys in suits handing out billions of dollars cloaks the enormous political risk of investing in countries where they hang people who hoard sugar. It inspires businessmen to invest, which in turn reignites the local economy.

But none of this is possible without the original burst of confidence provided by the IMF's billions. To get the $100bn, the US Congress must first vote to fund the IMF. Six weeks ago there was little doubt about this; the support of the Clinton administration was enough to pass a congressional resolution. Now it isn't nearly so clear.

Perceptions are as important in politics as they are in business. Congress is more likely to approve of the Asian bailout if they perceive that Clinton is strong. But for the moment, at least, and in spite of the poll numbers, most people on Capitol Hill think that Clinton is doomed. And their belief emboldens them to wage war with him on all manner of issues. To a bond trader it seems obvious that Americans should approve of the bailout. To Jesse Helms it is not: how many Americans see the point in giving money to people who a few years ago were putting them out of business?

To pass the bailout Clinton must go out and sell the bailout. But the threat of being asked questions about Monica Lewinsky apparently prevents Clinton from selling anything - most recently he delegated the task of explaining why he planned to bomb Iraq to ineffective advisers. And if Clinton hasn't the nerve to explain why we must go to war to save ourselves, how on earth will he summon the will to explain why we must give $100bn to people who, not very long ago, were putting us out of business?

Monica Lewinsky may not have done much to get Asia into its current financial mess. But she may prevent them from getting out of it. Powerless, essentially innocent, far away from those doing the suffering, and female, she has the makings of a perfect scapegoat. She may at last give Asians a focus for their rage.

q Michael Lewis is the author of 'Liar's Poker', the best-selling account of life on Wall Street in the 1980s.

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