Top of the world, Ma . . .

Last updated 05:00 05/04/2014

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OPINION: If Fred Dagg was correct back in the 1970s and we didn't know how lucky we were, it's just about certain that we still don't.

But it's less because we're unappreciative or inattentive than because, in the passing decades, we've continued to receive up-and-down messages about how good and bad life on our shores really is.

Slippage in some performance indicators has been seized upon as further proof, if proof were needed, that things are going to hell in a handbasket.

Then, when we ascend a different ranking system, the celebrations, if any, tend to be muted because in the end we're most inclined to calibrate our assessments on our own experiences and observations.

There haven't been spontaneous street parties upon the news that a new global index assesses that we are the most socially advanced nation in the world.

Sounds good. And as these things go, the new Social Progress Index is a substantial brute covering 132 countries with the intent of capturing a much fuller picture than that provided by the gross domestic product, the useful significance of which is sorely limited.

After all, we're only 25th in GDP in the world. The new measure is intended to cover basic human needs, foundations for wellbeing and opportunity - as provided by 54 indicators.

It would be heartening simply to receive this information, dutifully acknowledge that for all the impressive bits we particularly need to lift our game on our weakest areas of health and ecosystem sustainability, and take what feelgoods we can from the assurance of think-tank director Michael Green that we're doing really well converting economic output into quality of life.

It is good news. It's does us no harm to appreciate the many things that really are good in our society.

But for all its ambitions, scale and resourcing, this shiny new SPI is not necessarily something upon which we should lean too heavily in our social planning. There's plenty of doubt out there that it does as much as we assume to capture Life As It Really Is.

In New Zealand, Marilyn Waring has emerged as a strong, quite compelling critic. She's mightily unimpressed by some of the generic lowest common denominator indices upon which the report relies. She speaks of "sad, old techniques" resurfacing.

Consider this piece of baseline data. Homocides and traffic accidents are factored in, but not violence against women and children. Ask yourself this: How much would that little squirt of information have done to damage our standing as the closest thing to paradise on earth?

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What's more, Waring regards this whole ranking malarky as a really infantile approach.

So what, then, is the reasonable way to receive this latest report? Embrace it, dismiss it, or behold it blankly?

Perhaps just be aware of it, be aware of the criticisms of it, keep our antennae up for examples of good ideas being used successfully elsewhere . . . and for heaven's sake fend off the sort of smugness that might lead to a disinclination to confront problems that don't appear to register on the SPI.

- Southland

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