Did You Hear The One About The Starfish?

Why I missed dinner last night

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Welcome back, Shit Givers.

Because I am a sap, I have been thinking about my kids a lot lately. And kids in general. They’re going to grow up and live in a world that’s very different from ours, and it’s important to me that they’re all as ready for that as they can be.

So this week: Did you hear about the starfish?

— Quinn

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Did You Hear The One About The Starfish?

I was listening to a conversation between Chris Sacca and Ted Seides the other day, on Ted’s excellent podcast Capital Allocators.

Chris Sacca is famous for having the best VC batting average since Ted Williams and then suddenly retiring, only to unretire a few years later to found Lowercarbon Capital with his equally-impressive wife, Crystal English Sacca.

Their goal: Invest in climate tech companies and buy us time to unfuck the planet.

You can see the appeal.

I have always appreciated Chris’s candor and enthusiasm. But when Ted asked how Chris and Crystal manage to balance work (unfucking the planet) and being around for their young kids, there was one line that stuck out to me, and it was when Chris replied (and I’m paraphrasing here):

“You know, the answer to why you tell your kids you can’t hang out right now better be really fucking good.”

That one stuck with me. And here’s why.

It stuck with me because I’m thankful, proud, and privileged to be a dad who is home for dinner and bedtime virtually every night, and it kills me when I can’t be, whatever the reason. My kids didn’t notice my occasional absences when they were toddlers — toddlers barely have object permanence. And when they’re teenagers, they’ll probably give even less of a shit when I’m MIA — if not celebrate my absence.

But right now, when they’re most aware and most desire my full attention — my time — to justify a late-night at the office means I better be on the cusp of curing some goddamn disease.

That’s how important my time with them is — to me, and to them.

And yet — I’m definitely not curing a disease. Not directly, at least. That’s not how my brain works, or how my biology grades went.

That’s also not my job. My job is to help all of you understand and unfuck our rapidly changing world, together, through context and Action Steps. I call it Compound Action, which is just a catchy way of saying we stand on the shoulders have the millions who’ve done it before us, for everyone to come after us.

So when I have to miss dinner or can’t play catch or Barbies or catch with Barbies, it’s usually because I have to finish up an essay like this one, or tag-in to some policy call.

The kids are bummed — I can see it — but they finally kind of understand what I do, so they’ll (gently) roll their eyes and go back to their sweet potatoes. They will, in all of their grace, forgive me. It doesn’t happen often.

But here’s the thing —even though they’re increasingly cognizant and proud of what I do and why I do it, and understanding more of the world around them, some part of me still believes they’re always going to remember me missing dinner, not why I missed it.

Each time I have to pass on some crucial moment with them, it feels like I’m failing a test, that they’re more aware of our limited time together than I am (which is probably impossible, not only because they’re brains aren’t fully formed yet, but because I’m obsessed with how little time I have with them).

But at the same time, as they grow, they’re also getting a better idea of how goddamn lucky they are to have parents who can often both be home for dinner and bedtime (and breakfast, and games and recitals and just building forts in the woods).

They’re increasingly aware of what they have, and importantly, what other kids around them don’t — parents, food, water, books, toys, time.

That recognition, in this moment, is serendipitous for my work here, because for all of the enormous progress we’ve made here in the US and across the world to improve childhood outcomes — literally even just making it out of childhood alive — we keep choosing to not do more, if not to punish kids and families altogether.

And it’s really pissing me off.

So last night I told my kids I couldn’t hang out because I’m actually helping other kids.

In The Expanding Circle, Peter Singer wrote:

“The proposal that we might risk lessening the happiness or prospects of our own children, to however slight a degree, in order to save strangers from starvation strikes many people as not merely idealistic but positively wrong.”

One, great news, I don’t give a shit what other people think about me, or my parenting, about my work, or how much profanity we use here (it’s the turn of the tide, shit’s real, get on board or unsubscribe).

Two, yeah, my kids need me, just like they need their mom (ok, maybe less than they need their once-in-a-universe mom). But while they’ve each got their own strengths and struggles, overall, they’re gonna be ok. More than ok.

Which leaves some room for altruism. Especially for kids.

We’re actually going to drastically expand our efforts to research, define, cooperate, and activate behind a kids-specific platform here, so I won’t go into everything today — consider this a (3000 word) primer.

Altruism — doing the right thing, even and especially if you don’t get anything out of it — probably started in our genes as a way to protect our kids, family, and community, in that order.

This genetic mandate and sequence is still a fundamental tenet, if not a practice, for most of us. Care, from the inside out.

But it doesn’t extend as far as we need it to. To understand the chasm between what we say and what we do, just watch any NFL game, funded in part by alcohol and the Defense Department, and then stroll your local TJ Maxx for a broad assortment of “Family, Faith, Friends, Flag, Firearms - 5 Things You Don’t Mess with” t-shirts (and don’t think for a second that list is in the correct order).

Caveating of course that there are so many incredible selfless people who care for kids for very little pay, if any, in reality, old white people are terrified of an influx of brown kids flooding public schools and their parents taking meaningful jobs, when those white people send their kids to private school and refuse to do those jobs, anyways. They LOVE some farmer’s market peaches, though.

People go to church quite a bit less than they use to, something as a basically-pagan-atheist-religious-studies-major I have complicated feelings about, but either way — there’s less structured community than their used to be. Kids are hanging out less. Adults are hanging out less. Parents are talking to their kids less.

There’s so many opportunities to mindlessly scroll Facebook on the toilet at home or while literally driving your truck, and not see the real life kids who need help or that you might run over while they walk to public school not because they want to, but because we don’t pay bus drivers enough and immigration doesn’t exist anymore so there aren’t enough bus drivers to even pay.

Anyways —

Our lizard brains evolved into primate brains, later evolved into NPR brains, and then into these scatter-shot social media brains, and here we are:

Patriotism means very little in practice; we both under and over-think everything; we argue over how beneficial AND tone-deaf Effective Altruism can be at the exact same time; travel nurses hold up our healthcare system and GoFundMe pays for our funerals; the worst billionaires in history build yachts and spaceships and college dorms instead of museums and national parks.

But, again, not everyone has given up on other people’s kids.

In 2023, Against Malaria is probably the most effective organization on the planet, protecting children you’ll never meet with treated bed-nets you’ll never need for a disease you’ll never encounter.

George W. Bush — the war criminal, yes, I know — probably saved (after years of pleading from advisers and other unlikely allies, including Bono, who recounts the whole thing in a delightful Irish accent in his audiobook) more lives through PEPFAR than anyone ever will.

The UN Millennium and more recently,Sustainable Development Goals have — however very unevenly — put magnificent dents in childhood poverty, hunger, and disease.

These are people and organizations and massive efforts all saying, “Other people’s kids deserve better.”

Sure, the world is filled with tragic but heartfelt stories of parents of kids with cancer fighting to make sure more kids don’t get cancer, or that we find cures, or treatments, or at the very least, alleviate the costs of traveling for treatment or a clinical trial.

Or the reverse — a small child watching their parent suffer from some form of progressive muscle dystrophy, and quietly willing herself or himself into just the scientist who would find a cure.

But this is still the basic, hard-wired altruism we’ve all got buried inside. We have to do much, much more.

We have to not only look outside our own homes, but around our neighborhoods to pay teachers more, to expand education, to provide books, to provide community health clinics, to plant tree-cover, to build and operate more pools and free swim lessons, to expand SNAP and Medicaid and reduce the administrative burdens of both, to banish ultra processed food and forever chemicals and lead pipes, but also fight for mandatory parental leave and paid leave for salaried and hourly jobs, to not just let 70,000 childcare facilities close, leaving at least three million more kids without reputable care, or any care.

And again, we can and have to go further: beyond our state borders, beyond our national borders, to Africa and India, to the continents and billions of young people poised to reshape everything about our economies and societies in coming decades, but whose children will, yes, grow up with GPS and wifi, but often still without refrigeration, and with sea-level rise.

Great news: History is littered with examples of people doing exactly these things:

Someone making or selling a vaccine for malaria probably isn’t doing it for their own kids. Infant mortality didn’t get cut in HALF because one parent kept their toddler away from the fusebox or actually got them to actually wash their hands.

We didn’t regulate clean water and clean air because our own kids weren’t suffering from dirty versions — we know this, because the people who voted for them were overwhelmingly not people who were exposed to them.

Unfortunately, this progress is being challenged at every front. The days of Congresses coming together to do the right thing for kids and families are very, very few and far between. The COVID money — the trillions that changed lives, however briefly, and the hundreds of billions we lost track of or were pilfered by bad actors — may have been the last straw.

Across the world, 4.3% of children die before they’re 15 years old. That’s 5.9 million kids a year, 16,000 kids on any given day, 11 kids a minute. Again — this is both horrific, and incredible.

It used to be SO MUCH WORSE. And now — through the choices we make, through Compound Action, we can make it so much better in so many more places. Children born in Somalia, where 14% die, could be like children in the EU, where 99.55% survive childhood.

You might think the US is a great place to give birth and/or be born, and comparatively to say, sub-Saharan Africa or southern Asia, you’d be right. But compared to any other wealthy country, it’s a nightmare. It simply doesn’t have to be this way.

Millions of people across the world have been working for decades to improve access and quality of nutrition, vaccines, sanitation, healthcare, midwives, housing, and education. The work is impossibly difficult and never-ending, but it isn’t rocket science.

But despite the heroic efforts of those who came before us, and who continue this work today — having blown way past their own programmed altruism — we’ve got a very long way to go to reach Sustainable Development Goal 3.2 — to reduce the child mortality rate to at least as low as 2.5% in all countries by 2030.

Right now, 3.9% of kids worldwide die before they reach age five, and to me, that’s fucking unacceptable.

“The fact that even the best-off countries struggled for millennia to keep children alive and improved the health of their children only in recent decades suggests that there is nothing that would prevent the same progress in those countries where children have the poorest health today.”

— Our World in Data

During and after COVID, vitally important childhood vaccination programs across the world faltered. Russia’s fucking war in Ukraine, continued energy poverty, and fossil fuel…fueled…global heating and floods threaten crops and farmland. Reversing or mitigating these is going to be wildly difficult.

And yeah, look, again, I get it. I’m tired, too. My work and kids are exhausting and expensive. I’m donating a lot, too. There are some hugely wasteful non-profits and policy pork (we don’t point you towards those, don’t worry). I think the way some folks in Effective Altruism ignore problems close to home sucks.

Kids matter everywhere, full stop.

On the one hand, kids continuing to suffer and die in Africa and Asia when other counties have leveled up with a pretty reliable playbook is fucking bullshit.

On the other, any kids continuing to suffer and die in the richest countries is fucking inexcusable. We are simply choosing not to help them. Actively choosing. It makes me furious. Furious.

But there’s one little thing you’ll notice, if you’re around kids a lot.

Kids generally choose to help other kids. They generally choose to help, period.

Sometimes you have to train them a little bit, or even incentivize/bribe them, but it’s amazing how at the very least they hear about other kids suffering, look down at their stainless steel bento lunchbox packed with hand-cut real food and think, “That’s fucked up.”

But somewhere along the way, at some point when I guess the incentives become big enough, some adults stop caring about other people’s kids.

Have you heard the story about Susie? With the starfish? I’ll tell it now.

Little Susie, she was six. Let’s call her six.

Anyways, she’s strolling down the beach, and she’s got some distance from her parents — a nice little dose of childhood independence — and it’s low-tide, so she’s just casually picking up starfish that were left on the beach, and tossing them back into the waves.

Along comes some middle-aged dickhead walking in the opposite direction. This guy sees Susie toss yet another starfish into the waves and — keep in mind, this is a choice he’s making, to use his time and energy for this, without even introducing himself — he says to Susie, “You know, you can’t save all of them.”

Susie looks down and regards the starfish in her soft little six year old hand, looks back up at the guy and says, “Yeah, but I can save this one.”

She tosses it into the sea as he stomps off to listen to the ALL IN podcast on his AirPods because — despite his completely unprovoked lecture — starfish and Susie are below his line of shit he could possibly care about.

Understand this: Susie has no genetic relation to that starfish, at least not recently. She can’t. She is a person. It is an echinoderm.

Susie is throwing it back into the water, where it has another chance to live because - simply - it does not have to die. Not if she has anything to say about it. Her world is simple, her priorities are clear, her power is enormous.

“Well, actually”, you say, not enormous. The resources available to Susie are limited: Susie doesn’t have a donor advised fund, she doesn’t have an employer to match her new monthly donation to the Ocean Conservancy, she isn’t even using her hard-earned allowance to save this starfish because it is in cash in a drawer at home.

But I will tell you this: Susie is spending something far more valuable — her time.

Singer would be a fan:

“My contribution cannot end a famine, but it can save the lives of several people who might otherwise starve.”

Look. Again. I get it. It’s a lot to ask. You’ve got a LOT going on.

There’s another election coming. In Virginia, there’s another election in like weeks. And we’ll talk about those races as we get closer and I’ll indicate very clearly where I feel like we can make a measurable difference.

But kids need help now. It’s probably the most important ask, every day.

Among all the meaningful opportunities to bend the needle, across all of the interwoven systems of air and water, food and healthcare, education and poverty, helping children everywhere, now (and often that means indirectly, by helping their parents or guardians), simply provides the best bang for our buck, long-term.

Still not convinced? Ok, so, let’s be honest here.

If you’re reading this, whether you’re a new or long-time subscriber, there’s very little chance you’re thinking “Ok, but…I’m kind of selfish.”

But maybe there’s some tiny part of you that can’t possibly look beyond your own kids, grandkids, nephews, nieces, or students, for whatever reason.

Truth bomb: I can relate. I want to tell you one more personal story here. But first, another anecdote from Singer, this time about intimate relationships:

Whether we’re talking about relationships within, or even among different communities, he said, “People who are altruistically motivated will make more reliable partners than those motivated by self-interest. After all, one day the calculations of self-interest may turn out differently.”

We’ve all suffered and lost so much these past few years, but permit me this bit:

Throughout a lifetime of enormous privilege, I’ve seen my fair share of shit. I had crippling childhood asthma. I lost one of my best friends to cancer at age 30, and another to drugs and suicide a few years later, a precious uncle to ALS, a cousin to ALS. I watched four grandparents suffer through Alzheimer’s, I have spent time with children with cancer who weren’t there the next week.

Every one of these stuck with me, because I’m not a monster, but not just in the way you’d think.

Here’s my secret (well, one of them): I have absolutely donated to organizations that support people who suffer from these exact issues, all the while quietly calculating that someday, maybe, my meager contributions might make those organizations more capable should my loved ones ever need them.

There. I said it.

On the one hand, I rationalize these donations as some version of future-proofing. Like building a doomsday bunker but the bunker has co-benefits like providing funding for pediatric cancer research.

On the other, it is definitely not selfless. It’s selfish. I’ll own it.

But here’s the thing, if you really need it: Aren’t the organizations benefiting either way? Aren’t other kids and people benefiting either way?

We’re going to talk a lot more around here about how to improve the lives of kids.

So before I finish, take a moment and stop thinking about other people’s kids in this country and other countries and come back to the ones closest to you in your life.

The ones who fit so neatly into “kin altruism.” The ones you’d do anything for.

You’d go without food to feed these kids, give them the only water when they’re thirsty, work a second job or third, volunteer in their classroom, lock and stand guard at the door of that classroom when there’s someone in the hallway who wants to hurt them.

Your kids or charges may or may not know what resources you have. Sometimes it’s clear: You may flaunt them if you have them. Or they may only be aware because sometimes they have less food to eat than they want or need. Sometimes the power is cut off, even for just a day.

But I truly believe that once you do everything you can for them, intentionally toeing the line of what they need versus what they want, encouraging them to learn to read, to learn history and ethics and math and science and civics, as you cultivate a household ethos of empathy and care —

— once you do all that, as you do all that, I’d be willing to bet that if you asked them whether it’s fair that other kids don’t have books or food or power or water or a roof, or whether other kids should find it difficult to breathe — they’d reply that no, it’s not fucking fair.

But know this: Once you ask them, they’re gonna know what you know it, too.

And then — because they’re kids and they will hold you to every little thing you’ve ever said out loud — you’re going to have to do something about it.

And it might mean missing dinner once in a while.

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