Steven R. Covey offered some of the best advice available when he said that “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”
As a cultural economist, I deal continuously with the economic trilogy of scarcity, choice, and cost. Everything that exists is a scarce commodity. That isn’t to say that there is an immediate shortage of something or that something is “as scarce as hen’s teeth”—because there aren’t any hen’s teeth. But something is deemed scarce because everything that exists has alternative uses. People have unlimited wants and needs and they can come up with more uses for the capital or commodities than existing resources. Scarcity is called the “basic economic problem,” meaning that the problem always exists.
Ultimately, a choice has to be made to determine how a resource will be used. We have to choose the alternative we most highly desire. Sometimes we may think that cost deals only with dollars and cents. But in a truer sense, the cost of the alternative we choose is the loss of the value of the next highest alternative we forgo in making our choice. In other words, the real cost is the value of the alternative we could have had but decided to do without.
When we say that “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing,” we’re dealing with the subject of priorities, which is the arrangement of precedence and preference regarding certain resources, supplies, or services. We first have to decide what the main thing is? Then we have to decide to keep that main thing at the top of our priority ranking.
Consistent priority ranking is a difficult assignment on a personal basis. It’s an even tougher assignment on an international and cultural basis. Let me illustrate this from my travel journals:
Shortly after the tragic genocide situation in Rwanda, I traveled in a Volkswagen van from Kampala, Uganda, to Kigali, Rwanda. There had been nearly one million people murdered in the short span of one hundred days during the Hutu-Tutsi slaughter. It was one of the most heart-breaking incidents I had experienced in over thirty years of international travel. Limbs of dead bodies still protruded out of shallow graves. The economy was in shambles, and all was chaos. For the most part, the world totally ignored the tragedy and even the UN and the US refused to use the word “genocide” and chose not to send help. Project C.U.R.E. went there to help.
Upon my arrival in Kigali, I met with a lady named Christine. She was in her thirties, very knowledgeable and articulate, and was in charge of administering the offices of the cabinet members. She was openly supportive and appreciative of Project C.U.R.E., and I presented to her the inventory list of the cargo container from Project C.U.R.E. that had just arrived. She took the time to brief me on the genocide situation and I asked her if she had stayed in the country or fled to another country. She said that she had stayed in Kigali, and had witnessed the bloody attacks on the innocent citizens.
Christine also acted as the minister of rehabilitation and social integration. She asked about crutches, wheelchairs, and prosthetic equipment for those who had been left disabled by the war. They were in desperate need, and no one else was coming to their aid. Almost a million people had been murdered, and there were hundreds of thousands of other suffering human victims.
I expressed my surprise that others were not quickly coming to their aid: “While I have been in Kigali, I’ve seen scores of new, white Toyota Land Cruisers and new Land Rovers driving the streets of the city with the fanciest and newest of optional equipment added on. I’ve seen many NGO (nongovernmental organization) personnel sitting and conversing in the restaurants of Kigali. I just presumed that all those resources had arrived in Rwanda to aid in the horrible genocide crisis.”
Christine hesitated, then turned and looked out the window. “I’m sorry you saw that. No, those new resources and personnel are not here to bring help to the victims of the genocide. They’ve come as a result of a new grant of over fifty million dollars to further the ongoing study of the eating, mating, and sleeping habits of the gorillas in our forests. I wish there were some way to get our priorities straight.”
Keeping the main thing the main thing sometimes becomes a knotty problem. As I mentioned earlier, we’re the ones that ultimately have to make the decisions regarding the arrangement of precedence and preference of all resources, supplies, or services.
People have unlimited wants and needs and they can come up with more uses for the capital or commodities than existing resources can supply. But the old economic trilogy of scarcity, choice, and cost can help us remember this advice: We first have to decide what the main thing is and then, we have to decide to keep that main thing at the top of our priority ranking.