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FOLLY REACHES NEW HEIGHTS IN WASHINGTON

Some smart-aleck aide in the White House said to Newsday the other day, "If we got Netanyahu and Arafat coming here and shaking hands on a deal for an Israeli pullout, the question is, will we get a 'Wag the Dog' interpretation?"

The only trouble with the question is that there is no question about it: So purblind is the media/Republican obsession with the president's sex life that his standing ovation at the United Nations and subsequent meetings with world leaders on the international financial collapse were a bare blip on the media screen, not even a momentary distraction for the Republicans in their effort to elevate oral sex to the crime of the century.

As President Clinton focused on tottering economies around the world, his speech was actually dismissed as yet another ruse to draw attention away from the far more important issue of exactly where he touched Monica Lewinsky. This is insane.

In what may yet become the stupidest act in the annals of folly, let it be recorded that on Sept. 17, in the face of international economic calamity, the House of Representatives again refused to approve $18 billion for the International Monetary Fund.

Now, if you were to make the argument that the IMF should not be re-funded because its prescription for countries in economic collapse makes things worse, that is a fair argument, although even the IMF is showing signs of getting it now. But that's not what the Republicans are doing; they're refusing to re-fund the IMF because Clinton wants them to. Not since Nero fiddled while Rome burned has the world seen folly like this.

The basic argument against the current IMF prescription is simple Keynesian economics. The IMF has been insisting that other nations raise their interest rates, instead of cutting them, and cut their spending instead of increasing it. Is that what we would do? As our economy starts to slow, you notice that the big cry, and apparently the next move to be made by Alan Greenspan and the Fed, is to cut interest rates.

Instead of letting Asian, Russian and now Latin currencies decline -- which is what the United States did with its own currency in 1985 -- the IMF has insisted that other countries prop theirs up. Poor Russia took IMF advice, and the only people who benefited were currency traders.

For three critiques of what is wrong with IMF policy, I recommend these essays: Paul Krugman in the Oct. 5 issue of The New Republic, "How Washington Worsened Asia's Crisis" (Keynesian perspective); Bernie Sanders in the Sept. 28 issue of The Nation, "Globalization's the Issue" (socialist perspective); and Mahatir Mohamad, prime minister of Malaysia, in the Sept. 21 issue of Time, "Call Me a Heretic If You Like" (from outside the box).

So if the IMF is doing everything backward, why would we want to support it? a) Because we can't influence it if we ain't in it. b) Because it's the only tool we've got, and we should be able to get it going in a better direction. Quite apart from IMF policies, Mohamad and others raise the issue of controls on capital flow, and even longer-term thinkers are raising the possibility of global financial institutions that would replicate the responsibilities of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the Federal Reserve.

Meanwhile, Clinton declared the economic crisis "the biggest financial challenge facing the world in a half-century" and prescribed a Keynesian dose. He wants to drop the famous Greenspanian inflation-phobia, spur growth and get the World Bank to double its aid in Asia. He's also calling for a summit meeting of finance ministers both from the afflicted and the as-yet-unafflicted nations. The Group of Seven industrialized nations, coordinated by the Treasury Department, issued a joint statement signaling coordinated interest-rate cuts.

Clinton also called for the use of emergency IMF money for Brazil. The consensus is that if Brazil goes, we're all sunk. But Brazil is the last place to try the usual IMF prescription, which is why Clinton's leadership is so important. Inflation is low, and unemployment is already high in Brazil. If they cut interest rates and increase spending, they should get increased business activity and employment out of it.

If both Washington and IMF policies have been based on fear of speculators -- designed to soothe investors and prevent runs on various economies -- does it not make more sense to apply rational policies to help economies that are in the ditch and control speculators by other means, such as controlling capital flow?

Fort Worth Star-Telegram

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