How Do We Choose Our Personal and National Priorities?

This is a Missing Link in What Passes for National Dialogue and Personal Reflection

What We REALLY Are Asking…

I learned an important lesson a long time ago. It’s one that comes to mind today as I look at how we talk with each other as a nation. The lesson? People often ask a leader “What is the number one priority I should focus on?” What they were often really asking me was “Give me one thing I can focus on and drop everything else.”

I see a variation of that on a national level now. One unfortunate example? Those who overlook everything wrong or improper that Trump does, because they want judges appointed. Importantly, this is not just a level of tradeoffs. This is a complete capitulation of judgement and standards for our would-be leaders. Unacceptable behavior made acceptable leaves a permanent stain. It lowers the bar of civilization. The crass and self-centered becomes normal.

It is true, of course, that some Trump supporters don’t simply give the man a pass. They actually like how he operates and (using the term loosely) how he thinks. That is a separate, albeit sad, problem. The larger problem is those who know what is wrong but choose to write it off for a single goal. This is what we need to  call out explicitly. How much degradation of the rule of law is OK with you? How much abominable personal conduct are you willing to be responsible for, fellow citizen?

Our country today is markedly less civil, less safe, less functional than at any time I can recall. If you are willing to sign off on all that, you are part of the problem and I hold you accountable.

Choosing Among the Worthy

There is another, less volatile debate to be had about national priorities also going on. This is a permanent fixture in any society, and it’s actually a good discussion to have, always. The announcement about the picture of a black hole led to comments about our priorities. As often happens in such situations, voices are raised in objection. We should not spend money on such things, they say, while people are hungry and bridges crumble. It is a fair question to ask.

For me, at least, the response is that as a great nation and a complex society, we should be able to do many things of value at once. Indeed, we must. Imagine trying to decide as a nation the one thing we would support in lieu of everything else. Good luck with that conversation. Life does not tend to work in sequence, one thing at a time. I absolutely believe that we should be ashamed that people are hungry, and that infrastructure is too long neglected.  But I am not willing to forego science and exploration until other priorities are fixed.

A conservative columnist with whom I rarely agree addressed this some years ago. When asked why we are spending money on a space program, he gave a simple reply. He said we do this because exploration is what you do as a great country. It is part of our obligation to our species. He got that right. Like it or not, a dollar taken from space or defense does not automatically mean a dollar for other programs.

A More Rational Approach

Over the years I have come to dislike intensely the idea of rank-ordering priorities by number. A numbered sequence, at least early in the discernment process, can be dysfunctional. Too many calories have been burned arguing whether something is priority 4 or 5. I find it much more useful to organize priorities into bands of prioritization.

Band I consists of those things that the organization (or the individual) must honor and get done. Failure is not an option, nor is negligence. These will get done; we will find the resources to do them, because we cannot afford to do otherwise.

Band II consists of worthy and important goals, but with some options for scale and time. They may need to wait for something in Band 1 to be completed before this topic can be fully addressed. We keep our eye on the ball, but we have some options and tradeoffs at our disposal.

Band III contains worthy, or at least interesting, goals. Some may be experimental. Some time, energy, and resources should be reserved for this Band or nothing herein will ever get promoted to Band I or II.  These constitute the “to be done” category, just not to be done just yet.

Everything else gets passed over, at least for now. Does this approach always work? Absolutely not. For example, a legislator may decide to support something not on her band list because the vote will gain support from others for something that is on her list. Tradeoffs will be made. Life goes on.

Shall We?

How about it, America? Can we learn to talk of bands rather than single goals? Can we do so with longer time lines? Things I want us to try in space 50 years from now require us to commit some resources now, with no assurance of a payoff. And while we are at it, can we expect more than single results delivery from our leaders? Do we remember how role models work?

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could be mature enough as a society to work this way? The price for not doing so is steep. May we expect more of each other, hold each other accountable, and risk actually having meaningful conversations with each other.  There is work to be done and it is our turn at bat.

     Bill Clontz

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