Published July 28, 2014
Something called The Good Country Index was published recently. It is a list of 125 countries ranked according how much good they do in the world, from Ireland at the top to Libya at 125th. As a marketing stunt, it was brilliant, generating a few hundred thousand news articles around the globe. It was, predictably enough, conceived by a marketing guy who, even more predictably enough, paid someone else to do all the hard work. You can take a wild guess at which one got most of the media attention.
The guy who did all the work?
No. But let us salute Dr. Robert Govers for all his hard work on what is essentially an idiotic concept dreamed up by someone who wanted to create a global moral league table. Dr. Govers did the best he could, given what he was asked to do, namely work out statistically how much good a country does in the world.
That doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.
Bad ideas often seem good. Milk is good, lemon is good, so you try squirting a little lemon in your milk. Not only do you end up with curdled awfulness, but also everyone you tell about squirting lemon in milk assumes this is a euphemism for something.
Which is just like creating statistical models and applying them to moral issues… how?
Because you end up with a curdled, useless mess. The index is a collection of thirty-five datasets, some of which make sense, for example how much hazardous waste a country exports. Some are really arbitrary, like how many Nobel Laureates are born in a country. No really, the birthplace counts.
If you think that measures what makes a good country I’ve got some shares in a Nobel Prize Laureates’ sperm bank to sell you.
Furthermore, they claim not to be passing judgment. The only reason to create a ranked list of countries and call it “The Good Country Index” is to pass judgment.
Besides, what kind of low self-esteem nobodies cares about meaningless lists?
Icelanders care about these ranked lists of countries. When the country ranks in the top places for gender or social equality, that fits with the self-image of Iceland as a nation without class difference or gender bias. If Iceland had been the top country on the list of good countries, there would have been much backslapping, as Icelanders like to think they are at worst harmless, and at best a force for good. Being in the top 20 is not so bad.
In America they have a saying, second place is just first loser.
So by placing 17th in the Good Country Index we are twelfth loser. Wait… is that right? Oh well, Iceland never places very high on ranked lists of which countries are best at maths. Iceland ranked at number 1 in the “Current Contributions to Planet and Climate” section, though data on Iceland was missing for three out of the five indicators for that category. Of course, the list that Iceland most wants to rank high on is the list of countries that matter in the world.
You should get a marketing guy to make up a list, call it the “Countries That Matter Index” and put Iceland on top.
For a brief while Iceland mattered on the world stage. Well, that is exaggerating it slightly, but Icelanders felt like Iceland mattered and self-image is all that really counts. It all began with Björk and Sigur Rós and people travelling to Iceland to listen to awkwardly-dressed teenagers mumble into microphones and strum badly tuned guitars. Then came the banking miracle, which was less a case of turning water into wine than how to turn a nation’s gold into a pie in the face.
Everybody loves a clown.
During the financial crash Icelanders felt like they mattered, insofar as the person everyone points and laughs at because they pied themselves in the face is surely the centre of attention. Then there was the first gay prime minister in the world, popular crime writers and, the country’s crowning glory, shutting down a quarter of the planet’s air traffic with a volcano. Okay, so the nation does not really have any control over the volcano, but world media came to Iceland and their struggles to pronounce Eyjafjallajökull caused general merriment.
Don’t get cocky, the Welsh turned unpronounceable place names into an artform long before anyone settled Iceland.
See, it is hard to compete when you are a nation of 325 thousand people. Probably it is best for Iceland to stop worrying and settling down for a life of restful obscurity. Otherwise there is the risk of turning into the country equivalent of the kid who drinks lemon-curdled milk in cooking class to get attention.