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Michael Winship: This Just In From Middle Earth

(Photo by Robin Holland)

Below is an article by JOURNAL senior writer Michael Winship. We welcome your comments below.

This Just In From Middle Earth
By Michael Winship

QUEENSTOWN, New Zealand – You might think it hard to think about politics when you’re in a place as extraordinary as this on New Zealand’s South Island. The landscape fills the eye with glacial and volcanic lakes, valleys and mountains so breathtaking and eerie in their beauty they inspired director Peter Jackson’s vision of mythic Middle Earth when he adapted J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings into three epic motion pictures.

In the cab on the way from the airport the driver immediately announced he had worked four days as an extra on the second film of the trilogy – “The Two Towers.” He was proud to say he played a refugee from Rohan escaping the evil Orcs.

At least I think that’s what he said. The New Zealand accent plays tricks with vowels. On Saturday, it took me a while to figure out what a tour bus driver meant when she said the only mammal indigenous to the country was the “bit.” I finally realized she was talking about bats.

Then she kept insisting we’d soon be riding on a cruise missile. Visions of hurling to earth astride a bomb a la Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove danced through my head until I understood she was saying “cruise vessel” – the three-masted ship we were taking on a voyage around Milford Sound.

Actually, she and the taxi driver were just about the only people I met here who opened the conversation without talking about Barack Obama’s victory, as well as our congressional elections. This trip began in Auckland, New Zealand, on the North Island, where I was attending an international conference of writers, all of whom were eager to discuss recent events in the States. “This is your Mandela moment,” South African Kwazi Diamond declared to me the first day. “This was the world’s election.”

And so it was, but once again it’s more than a little embarrassing to realize yet again how little we Americans know about the electoral politics of other nations compared to what they know about ours. In fact, New Zealand had its own national election just four days after America’s – literally as we were flying here. Hands, please, if you knew that. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t until I arrived.

They had a turnout here of 78.69% of enrolled voters – and were disappointed. It’s the second lowest voting rate in more than 20 years. We, on the other hand, were reasonably delighted with a 62% turnout – only about four million more than 2004, despite predictions of a massive bump this year in the number of those casting ballots.

Like President-Elect Obama, New Zealand’s new leader, John Key, is 47 years old and having to hit the ground running, facing a major economic crisis, his country already in recession. But unlike Obama, Key is taking office almost immediately and heading straightaway for Peru, to attend a meeting of the Asia Pacific Economic Forum (APEC).

What’s also different – perhaps appropriate in a land that’s upside down from us and where water spirals down the drain in a different direction – is that the political shift here is the opposite of that back home in the States. John Key is a conservative replacing a liberal – the Labour Party’s left-leaning Prime Minister Helen Clark, who served in office for nine years.

Key has formed a coalition government that he characterizes as “center-right,” including representation from the free market party known as ACT and the Maori Party that represents the country’s indigenous people – about 15% of the nation’s 4.3 million population. Traditionally, the Maori – among New Zealand’s poorest and most disadvantaged – have aligned with Labour.

Coincidentally, despite the Obama win, the idea that the United States also is a “center-right” country and should so be ruled is being pushed in America by such conservative commentators as Pat Buchanan, Charles Krauthammer, and Joe Scarborough.

They’ve been seconded by former Bush campaign strategist Matthew Dowd who advised Obama to "govern from the center, where the vast majority of the country is," while Hillary Clinton's adviser Mark Penn wrote in the FINANCIAL TIMES: "Stick to Centrism." NEWSWEEK agreed, declaring in a headline a couple of weeks ago: "America remains a center-right nation -- a fact that a President Obama would forget at his peril."

But on the other side, the argument is made that Barack Obama's election marks a revival of the progressive tradition stretching back to the New Deal and beyond – to Lincoln's vision of a strong national government and a wider, more generous embrace of just who constitutes, "We, the people."

The one thing that’s clear in both America and New Zealand is that Obama and his team were right – these were elections about change, about throwing the long-seated rascals out, period – whether they were conservative or liberal in their outlook.

Quite simply, the time had come. In the elections’ wake, Tapu Misa, a newspaper columnist in the NEW ZEALAND HERALD, wisely chose to quote Alfred, Lord Tennyson: “The old order changeth, yielding place to new, And God fulfills himself in many ways, lest one good custom should corrupt the world.” Whether change will lead to improvement and advancement, or simply signal motion without action, is now the formidable challenge faced by both our nations.

Please note that the views and opinions expressed by Michael Winship are not necessarily the views and opinions held by Bill Moyers or BILL MOYERS JOURNAL.


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Soup Duck: How can you call it an auto crisis when there is an overwhelming surplus of gas burning cars all over the roads and in lots. When a machine is manufactured that is a major polluting activity in itself, and if it is an old fashioned "car", a complete waste of labor and energy. Maybe bankruptcy of the former big 3 would provide a healthy manufacturing moratorium until alternative efficient vehicles could be prepared for production. Meanwhile lets applaud those who drive the little old cars (like me-1993 Escort wagon)) that get as good gas mileage as the new ones and are not wasting fresh materials and labor, polluting by their industrial production. I can wait for a good electric and so can you.
Are we gonna keep swimming in the same soup or start a new recipe, Duckie?

Gratuns frum Nursealun (transl. Greetings from New Zealand)
David Eddy and Jeff both make good points. I submit that both the US and NZ nations are at present severe blights on humanity and our excessive destruction of resources puts every one at risk. We indulge in dangerous denial of the Conservation Principle of Energy and this is manifest in our confused uses of the “conservative” symbol. As I point out in my recent blog the most meaningful use of the symbol is to symbolise whether we conserve resources and the balances and flows that sustain us or not. This use completely alters the framework of political commentary.

It means, for instance, most Americans and New Zealanders are described as extreme non-conservatives. The use basically says it’s our walk rather than our talk that counts and registers our votes.
It also means, as I point out in my blog, that Sarah Palin and John Key won the election –just as I predicted the day Sarah was selected as a VP candidate. The folk that Barack is surrounding himself with are the people that gave us $US10 a barrel oil; SUVs on scale; $5 airfares; the repeal of the Glass Steagall act; the trashing of community electrical structures in both our countries plus places like the Russia; Enron in the USA and OnEnergy in NZ; carbon trading. McMansions etc. John Key was a prominent Merrill Lynch trader, thinks mineral oil IS energy and supports carbon trading and more motorway construction.
More detail at my blog

Winship mourns at the bottom of our world as the DOW hits 7552. What is real?

It is sad that Barack Obama shares many sociopolitical limitations with Bill Moyers. Like author guests on the Journal, cabinet and agency appointees must come from a narrow segment of celebrity and privilege, share the same mindsets and histories, and be utterly predictable in the eyes of the wealthy class. many times, the very persons with current poignant expertise are blatantly excluded. As Obama and Bill make peace after the election, there is a certain strata of patrons with whom that placation is to be made.

Our economic imagination is stuck in a rut while the value pump (corporate capitalism) is overhauled, and the working people and the underclass pay the garage tab. Here was our chance to begin anew with a plan of sustainability and fairness but it is being wasted.

The rich boys have taken their equipment home and we futilely try to play the defunct game without the trappings. Citizens, we have the power to experiment, make new rules, and exclude the instruments of domination now in abeyance. Jan. 20th is the day all of us must assert our personhood in every way available to us.

Let's demand answers as to why circumstances cannot change and as to how we've been deceived and manipulated.

I have to write about the auto crisis.

"CEO are certainly to blame for making these commitments with the unions but you can't have a company paying someone for not taking a job and paying someone a pension and insurance for 25 years. Plan and simple it is a bad business model it should go bankrupt."

Those like the poster above who say we should let the automakers go bankrupt don't have a lot of facts to back up their assertion. It is because it is, the argument runs. If they can't cut it through the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression because they made some missteps, we should watch them go down the toilet. They should go bankrupt. "Period."

It reminds me of what people said about Lehman Brothers before we watched Lehman go down the toilet. And boy were people wrong. Before Lehman went bankrupt we were heading into a fairly normal recession. After the situation worsened dramatically. Investor confidence crashed, the stock market crashed, credit markets seized and no one would lend to each other anymore in what has become the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

Many of the same people, by the way, who now are calling for the bankruptcy of the US automakers, said Lehman should go bankrupt then. These same people were in denial that the US economy was heading for a recession. They underestimated what was happening. Spending a few billion to save Lehman might have averted the US government having to spend hundreds and hundreds of billions more now.

We can't undo what happened to Lehman and we don't make decisions with the benefit of 20 20 hindsight. But we can learn from the past. This is a very dangerous economic crisis that is not to be experimented with. We can't afford to take another chance. Throwing just one of the three massive auto companies into bankruptcy could cause 2.5 million people to lose their jobs. The timing could not be worse. That's a huge chunk of American families at risk of not being able to pay their mortgages. That's a huge chunk of consumer demand evaporated.

This is not to mention that letting one or more of these companies go bankrupt now will feed the fear that is paralyzing these markets. And this during a vacuum of leadership during this period in which a failed President exits and before President-elect Obama has any power to react.

And to those who say that the US automakers would be fine in bankruptcy because they would reorganize instead of folding up shop - what assurance do you have of that? The answer is none of course. I for one am not buying a car from a bankrupt automaker. It's just common sense. The bankrupt company is far less likely than its competitors to be around to continue making parts to service the car. Once an automaker declares bankruptcy there is a very good chance it will quickly end up completely folding up shop.

Once we get through what is now the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, then we can consider whether to let normal capitalism go back to work in the auto industry. It is worth noting by the way that the last time the government bailed out Chrysler, despite the parade of horribles painted by critics then as now, the company survived for decades and our government made money on the transaction. It is also worth noting that by letting our automakers fall into bankruptcy we will be tying our hands behind our economy's back as all our trade partners support their auto industries through this economic crisis.

Middle Earth got financially liquidated a few decades back, and the commonsense of the pop. has been under-attack and in decline ever since!

Obama is starting to look less and less as the "change" person he campaigned as and he hasn't even been sworn in yet. It's starting to look like Clintons 3rd term.

I do not know what conservative or liberal means to the New Zealanders but these words have become meaningless here in the US of A.
The same person can be a fiscal liberal and a social conservative or versa-visa. Conservative can mean anal retentive and liberal can mean does not give a rats ass about anything.
Labeling people is getting way out of hand. Some of the labels do not make sense. For instance; if you call someone a conservative Christian and it means they support torture, it becomes obvious that they are not a Christian.
What is necessary is to know exactly what people support and what they will not support by specific instances.
As far as economics is concerned; it should have nothing to do with conservative or liberal.
It should be based on what ever it takes to support a quality society within the limits of the countries resources.

Neat article on New Zealand, but (as a native—and author) I would NOT class new Prime Minister John Key as a "conservative". Both main New Zealand political parties (Key's National Party and the Labour Party) are more Center Social Democratic parties. In fact, for years I've joked that New Zealand is the only country with two conservative socialist parties. The ACT Party, which is the nearest advocate we have the George W. Bush version of conservative economics, polled well under 4 percent of the total vote.

Gordon Dryden
co-author, UNLIMITED: The new learning revolution and the seven keys to unlock it (The Introduction is free at; you may notice some similarities with the Obama election campaign: to unleash the power of millions.)

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