Substack Podcast #022: Pandemic economics with Nathan Tankus
|Aug 13, 2020|| 13|
For the final episode of this season, we spoke with Nathan Tankus of Notes on the Crises, who writes about the pandemic-induced global depression and how policymakers should respond to it. Nathan started his newsletter at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States in order to analyze the economic impacts of the global crisis.
Nathan has been recognized as a prominent voice in economic policy. His newsletter has followers ranging from journalists to economists, including those working at the Fed, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Department of the Treasury.
We talked about why Nathan decided to write about the pandemic, what it’s like to write in the field of economic policy, and the Bloomberg profile that skyrocketed the success of his platform.
We’ll take a brief pause as we wrap up this podcast season, but stay tuned for more conversations next month. Let us know if you have suggestions for who we should interview next season!
Notes on the Crises, Nathan’s newsletter
Nathan on Twitter
A 28-Year-Old With No Degree Becomes a Must-Read on the Economy, Nathan’s Bloomberg profile
(1:35) Why Nathan decided to start covering the pandemic
(7:44) How Nathan built his initial following
(24:28) The role of credentials in the field of economics
(35:26) How a Bloomberg profile led to achieving his long-term goals
(57:39) Nathan’s thoughts on monetizing his newsletter
On writing about a crisis:
Of course, crises are terrible things. But the one thing that analysts really relish in a crisis is that it's very easy to make a crisis, and analyzing what's going on in the crisis, your full-time job. Because it's such a timely and urgent issue, there are people who are always willing to have these conversations with you and to argue with you. It's the perfect instigator for public conversation and debate.
On having the ability to write freely:
I was writing so much that first week. I wrote 21 pieces for Substack. I wrote one piece for another publication in a month. I was publishing a piece basically every weekday. That scale, that pace – there's just no other publication that's set up to do that kind of thing, especially not in the freedom that I had to just focus on it and do it the way I wanted to do it. Doing it myself was just complete freedom to define it how I wanted to.
On his decision to focus on one topic:
For other publications, it's not necessarily "news" to say the same thing ten different ways. But I felt it was news. To really understand the pandemic ... you can't just read one piece that explains it to you. It has to be something that you engage with day in and day out for weeks.
You write Notes on the Crises, which covers in your words the play-by-play of the current pandemic-induced global depression and how policymakers should respond to that. I remember seeing your name pop up around mid-March. You started your newsletter on Substack at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. What prompted you to start writing?
Nathan Tankus (00:00:51):
Well, I hadn't really been paying attention. I had a lot of other things going on, a lot of other things that I was focused on. I hadn't really been paying attention to what was going on. I sort of vaguely knew what was going on, especially because I was following the Democratic primary, but not in detail. Then, March 9th was the first time I got a wake up call about what was going on. That was when free market trading on U.S. Treasury securities - when the prices went way up, which means the interest rates went way down.
Nathan Tankus (00:01:35):
We actually temporarily hit negative interest rates on some U.S. Treasury securities. That really made my eyes open up wide, and try to understand exactly what was going on. Around the same time, the oil price collapsed. Those things were signals to me because generally, the interest rates on U.S. Treasury securities fall because people expect that the Federal Reserve is going to cut interest rates a lot, and that they're going to hold them low or at zero for a long period of time. Generally, the Federal Reserve does that when there is a big recession.
Nathan Tankus (00:02:28):
That was the signal to put the market stuff aside and put whatever else was going on in my life aside and figure out, “Wait, what actually is going on here? Why is there a big depression coming?” I started reading up, thinking about the coronavirus, and started thinking through the implications of what we really were facing … reading some of the epidemiology literature backing the projections of what was going on, especially the College of London study that came out early on. That made me really wake up and think, this is the big one. No one in my life really gets it.
Nathan Tankus (00:03:13):
None of the people who are outside of the economics world really get it. Even the people within the economics world who I regularly engage with, they aren’t fully taking seriously the implications of what was going on. No one was really being paid to really spend all their time to focus and do that. I had been thinking about starting a Substack for a while to produce my own commentary. I had some other projects that I wanted to finish first, but this seemed to take precedence for me over all of that. It was time to just try to get out early, and try to do as much as I could to find what was happening.
It's like the perfect research problem. Because you're already well positioned to be thinking about this kind of stuff. You were working in a research capacity already, right? This is the most timely thing you could focus in on full-time.
Nathan Tankus (00:04:08):
Yeah, exactly. Of course, crises are terrible things. But the one thing that analysts really relish in a crisis is that it's very easy to make a crisis, and analyzing what's going on in the crisis, your full-time job. Because it's such a timely and urgent issue, there are people who are always willing to have these conversations with you and to argue with you. It's just the perfect instigator for public conversation and debate. With the collapse of journalism and the way that economic policy is structured in the United States, there was a real gap that I could fill. I think my experience over the last four months really shows that I was right in my estimate that if I started writing right then, it would be something that could define a real turning point in my career.
Which seems to be playing out already.
Nathan Tankus (00:05:27):
I mean, it couldn't have played out much beyond what I could have ever imagined.
Nathan Tankus (00:05:31):
I had some sense, but as I announced recently, I'm planning on turning Notes on the Crises into a full fledged publication, hiring guest writers, and hiring investigative journalists to investigate some things around the state unemployment insurance systems for me. I just could never have imagined having the resources to do that before this. I sort of had the idea I could have a decent, nice income like the Bloomberg profile talks about. Everything from the Bloomberg profile on me since has changed the scale of what I could do.
Yeah. You've had a really incredible trajectory. I have an entire section of this interview devoted just to talking about the Bloomberg profile.
Nathan Tankus (00:06:23):
I'm excited to dig into all of that with you. I'm curious, you're saying that you felt like when you started writing, no one you really knew was talking about it. Nobody even in the economic circles that you were in were talking about it. When you started writing, were you thinking of having this be for the economic circles that you're involved in, or to make this entire situation palatable to a broader public audience?
Nathan Tankus (00:06:46):
I think I always thought of it as both - as really engaging the people I was in the economic policy conversation with, and writing broader things to make what was going on more accessible. I'm definitely still thinking of this as a two-tier thing. The thing is, there are people who I think broadly agreed with me about the scale of the crisis. But they're just not writing every day the way that I could. They didn't have the freedom. Even if they could write frequently, they didn't have the freedom to take a research perspective of trying to break down all the set of interrelated issues, and try to do it the way I was doing it.
Nathan Tankus (00:07:44):
The other thing is that I was writing so much that first week. I wrote 21 pieces for Substack. I wrote one piece for another publication in a month. I was publishing a piece basically every weekday. That scale, that pace - there's just no other publication that's set up to do that kind of thing, especially not in the freedom that I had to just focus on it and do it the way I wanted to do it. Doing it myself was just complete freedom to define it how I wanted to.
Nathan Tankus (00:08:30):
The other thing is, a lot of what I was doing was repetition, different ways of saying the same thing. For other publications, it's not necessarily "news" to say the same thing ten different ways. But I felt it was news. Because it's one thing to hear that it's a worse crisis than the Great Depression. It's one thing to hear it's the worst unemployment situation, far worse and far faster than the Great Recession. But to really understand that, to really have a grasp of what that means and the scale of the problem you're talking about, you can't just read one piece that explains it to you. It has to be something that you engage with day in and day out for weeks.
Nathan Tankus (00:09:18):
Then it fully starts to sink in, the scale of what we're talking about. Definitely when I was starting to write around mid-March, the scale even in economic policy circles wasn't being taken seriously. We're still not anywhere near responding to the crisis with the scale that it requires. I was talking about leaving a $3 trillion package just for households alone, let alone state and local governments. And leaving at least $1 trillion for state and local governments just over the first four months or six months or so. We still haven't reached that scale. That definitely was not the economic policy conversation that was happening in March. I was already, from the word “go” basically, making that point - talking about how the CARES Act, the big thing Congress ended up passing, which they did pass quickly, was far too small. That definitely was not the conversation, even among people who understood that we were in a big recession.
It's interesting to just think about the opportunity that presents itself when you have these big crises like this, this particular pandemic being the most extreme example I can think of, where it's a time when suddenly everyone you thought was an authority maybe isn't an authority anymore. No one really knows what's going on. Everyone is searching and grasping for anyone with a coherent narrative on the story. It seems like you were really well positioned to be able to do that.
Nathan Tankus (00:11:01):
Yeah, I was well positioned because that was my experience in the last crisis. What got me interested in economics was having this feeling that this was the most important thing going on, and that the assigned experts didn't really have a good handle on what was going on. That was fascinating to me. There's danger in that. Things aren't about crises all the time. Up until the public health crisis, I don't think we were necessarily facing some big economic crisis that was happening or going to happen in the next few years.
Nathan Tankus (00:11:37):
It had been over a decade since the 2008 crisis. When your introduction is a crisis, there's a danger of expecting that crises are going to happen all the time, which is something I had to be wary of. Entering that way, the advantage is that when crises do happen, you are prepared for them. You can think about what is often missing in the conversation during those crises, and what would be useful to someone who is just trying to get a handle on economics and a handle on the crisis in the moment, on the fly.
I'm particularly intrigued by this lack of gatekeeping that seems to emerge, even outside of crisis mode, in the realm of economics and finance-related writing. There are just so many prolific writers that are available at anyone's fingertips on the Internet. We've seen a lot of finance writers on Substack. It feels like there is this alignment with the idea of independent writing and this particular area of study. I'm thinking about Byrne Hobart - he writes finance and focuses on business on Substack. He also doesn't have a bachelor’s degree and has written about the experience of being hired at a hedge fund without one. Why do you think this particular vertical lends itself so well to a lack of gatekeeping? What comes to mind for me is maybe money as the ultimate metric or credential. But then is the converse also true, where in other fields of study, where there aren't these clear metrics or numbers involved, maybe those verticals are more likely to gatekeep than in economics or finance?
Nathan Tankus (00:13:27):
I think there's two layers. First of all, there are two different things there. There's gatekeeping and credentials in finance, and then there’s gatekeeping and credentials in economics and the economic policy conversation. They're a little distinct. For finance, I think that there are credentials. There are things that people are seeking, but they're not necessarily educational credentials. Finance is more of a quirky culture. It sees itself as distinct from the hierarchies that exist elsewhere in society.
Nathan Tankus (00:14:04):
Often, they're looking for a certain type of thinker or a certain type of person. Ultimately someone who can do the work that has some alternative way of proving their credentials besides an educational credential. They're ultimately looking for a product. They're looking for something useful. I think in the economic policy conversation, it's less that there aren't gatekeepers, but that there are people who can shepherd you. In the same way that with a golf club, you don't need to have a golf membership. You just need to be brought in by someone with a golf membership who decides to bring you in. I think that's what happened in the economic policy conversation. Someone following you on Twitter is a bit of an endorsement. Someone tweeting out your pieces is somewhat an endorsement, sometimes a really strong endorsement.
Nathan Tankus (00:15:16):
A lot for me was Joe Weisenthal and Bloomberg. Joe, as soon as I started writing, helped me. We've been friends for a while, and people who’ve talked and engaged for a long time. As soon as I started writing, he was super supportive. Tweeted out every piece really, really aggressively, along with the most extreme praise that you could possibly give someone as a writer. Him and then others - Miles at Yahoo Finance, various people put their weight behind what I was putting out there. People were then just engaging and arguing with me. David Beckworth from The Mercatus Center was quoted in the Bloomberg profile, and he did a big interview with me talking about Treasury issues, the coronavirus crisis, and the Federal Reserve.
Nathan Tankus (00:16:25):
I had a lot of people who were engaging me and taking me seriously, and having these back-and-forths gave me the legitimacy and signaled that I was really someone they needed to pay attention to. I wouldn't go so far as to say there are no gatekeepers. It's just that the gatekeepers structure is looser on Twitter. It's not about getting a four-year educational credential or agreeing with the set of analysis as an institution. A set of prominent figures can tweet out your piece, and that can be sufficient engagement, legitimacy, and so on.
That makes sense. As we're talking through this reputation that exists, you're mostly citing people on Twitter or individuals that you're talking to. I'm wondering how that parallels. Where do you see the overlap of what we think of as “trained economists,” versus this study of economics that can take place anywhere? I'm particularly curious for someone like you, who spent as much time learning outside of school as in school. It surprises me that you say you'd like to study for a PhD in law at some point. It sounds like to some extent, you are still bought into the idea of going through that more formal pathway. At the same time, it seems like focusing on law is motivated by this desire to understand money through a lens outside of the field of economics. I'm curious, what is your take on the more distinctly academic field of economics, and how does or doesn't that overlap with the reputation system that you're talking about?
Nathan Tankus (00:18:15):
I think it does overlap. I think economists are a little bit on the back foot when it comes to that kind of policy conversation, because the economic profession has a bad reputation coming out of the 2008 crisis. People debate how deserved that is. I would say it's mostly deserved, with obviously exceptions of individual people. I think that means that economists have a really hard time fully delegitimizing a person, as someone who is not worth listening to.
Nathan Tankus (00:18:59):
Within economics, they do that to people who are accomplished PhD professors all the time. Whether I or someone else who is a close colleague of mine has credentials is a little bit besides the point in terms of the hierarchies that people try to enforce within economics. With economic policy in the broader space, people are just looking for what's useful. If I'm saying something useful and people aren't finding this other mainstream economist's commentary useful, they're going to take something from me.
Nathan Tankus (00:19:31):
Now, there still is that barrier that I'm never going to be publicly some congressperson's advisor until I have a PhD. People will talk to me on background. I'll have a phone call on background with various people, but it's just not possible to really take me on in an advisory capacity, let alone in an actual position somewhere. That is still a barrier. Right now, I'm doing these journalistic pieces. People can put me in a category. They can rationalize it to themselves as: he’s producing sophisticated economic journalism. In some ways, I am pursuing doing that rather than engaging these academic debates. And to really be fully taken seriously in those academic debates, I'm going to need to get a PhD.
Nathan Tankus (00:20:26):
I'm also interested in teaching. I'm interested in pedagogy. On that level, I'm also interested in pursuing a PhD and pursuing a professorship position somewhere. Obviously, Substack has changed that a lot. I don't need it for any economic reasons. I could very, very easily and very comfortably live on writing my Substack into the future. But still, I would want to do that. Eventually, those kinds of positions make it much easier to be publicly sighted by congresspersons, and ultimately - who knows? - Be in a position to potentially be up for some sort of policy job.
It's interesting to hear you say that. I think my perception is, you've written this body of work on Substack that itself could be a research artifact or output that is worthy of something that, say, a PhD could have done. I'm wondering, have your goals changed? Maybe initially, you were just writing for whichever audience was going to listen to you. But now as you're reaching these different sorts of audiences and attracting serious interest from, say, government officials, do you feel that need for some bigger stamp of approval in order to get to those conversations that you want to have? And be in the room of the places you want to be? Is that recent success driving that change?
Nathan Tankus (00:22:04):
I think that was always my initial goal. A lot of the people, for example, who I have for email signups are in government. I've had eight people from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation sign up with their FDIC emails, before the Bloomberg profile came out, and a couple more since then. My government email following was actually pretty prominent before the Bloomberg profile. I had done an informal Zoom call with some congressional staffers in the past, and a few calls here and there with people. Bharat, who is one of the commissioners on the Coronavirus Oversight Commission, had been publicly supportive of my work already before anything came out with the Bloomberg profile.
Nathan Tankus (00:23:06):
I was already thinking in terms of, I want to have some influence now, and I want to be able to have more influence on governmental policy in terms of getting my PhD. Which I already wasn't planning on doing so, or pursuing more education in the fall. Especially with just coronavirus going around, really making that logistically harder. My plan basically on that has not really changed much otherwise. Except obviously the Bloomberg profile has given me more opportunities of, say speeding that process up.
In your ideal world, would there not be these sorts of barriers to getting into those next level conversations that you're talking about? Being officially cited on testimonials and things like that. Do you think there's a good reason why we do maintain that separation between independent researchers, or journalism, or however you want to characterize what you're doing right now, and the more credential, needs a PhD kind of thing? Is that the right way for the world to be?
Nathan Tankus (00:24:28):
I think there is a role for the educational credential and the educational institutions. Especially because so much of the alternative credentials that people rely on are racialized and gendered. I wrote a thread responding to the otherwise supportive Bloomberg profile the day it was posted disagreeing with the idea that I have no credentials. I have no educational credentials. I think that's a careful difference. When I was 19 and I put on a dress shirt and dress slacks and walked into a conference, my whiteness, being a man, made no one really give me a second look in terms of being in that room.
Nathan Tankus (00:25:26):
I deserved to be in that room. I had a pass to be in that room simply by the nature of what I looked like. That has facilitated greatly my ability to absorb information and to get into conversations with people, because until they realize that I have weird ideas or that I'm not educationally credentialed, the default assumption is that I deserve to be there. I think in a world that hasn't changed a lot of those other structures, but relied less on educational credentials, I'd be concerned that it would be more and more people who looked like me dominating those conversations.
Nathan Tankus (00:26:10):
That said, the flip side of that of course is that the educational credential needs to be much more accessible, and needs to be designed more to fit the lives of those kinds of people who we want to have in those conversations. People who are alienated from conventional academia in the way that it's structured, in the way that the default life is assumed to be the life of an upper middle class white guy. Education definitely needs to be structured in different ways. I think there should be an option for people who struggle with conventional education like myself, to be able to submit work alternatively. Submit something that is the equivalent of a dissertation to get a PhD, or enter into some sort of internship and apprenticeship process along with that dissertation, to gain some of those other skills, especially pedagogical skills.
Nathan Tankus (00:27:17):
We can design better and more alternative pathways. We can make it financially much more accessible. We can make academia much more culturally accessible. But I do think educational institutions do play an important role, in that there's these other sets of institutions and structures that will dominate if education steps out of the way.
That's a really wonderful analysis. Thank you for sharing that. I have one more question on this topic. Then I'd love to talk about the Bloomberg profile a little bit. I'm just wondering, much of the analysis in your publication appears through this lens of modern monetary theory. Which please correct my summary if I get anything wrong here, but is just this idea that governments essentially have a monopoly on being able to print money. And therefore can always issue more as opposed to the current mainstream narrative that new spending plans need to be "paid for" by citizens through taxes, or other sources.
As an outsider to this topic, it seems like the underlying concepts have been around for a while. But modern monetary theory in its modern form has been this growing movement in the past few years. It feels like especially with the recent pandemic and the memes that have come out of it, I feel like this is a sign of tastes that are shifting. Can you help us characterize, where has the growth of that interest been taking place? Is this happening in academic circles or elsewhere? Where are these new ideas being shared?
Nathan Tankus (00:28:44):
First, I'll give my little quick spiel on MMT. It's definitely a focus of the capacity of the federal government to create money. But it's not simply, we can print money rather than issuing bonds. It's really a reframing about how the system already works, that we already always rely on money finance. It's just complicated and convoluted with these sets of institutions that the public doesn't really understand. Then there's this instrument, the government Treasury security, which people think of as this national debt. This scary thing that's going to burden our grandchildren. Really is serving this monetary policy role.
Nathan Tankus (00:29:38):
It's serving a role in the Federal Reserve's complicated world of interest rates and financial conditions, and isn't serving this conventional role of, well, you need to go find money somewhere. It's serving this different purpose. When you look at it that way, there's a whole reframing you can do about how monetary policy works, how fiscal policy works, and even how non-financial regulation, how environmental regulation and health and safety regulation works. That provides a different lens for thinking about how economic policy can work, and how we can provision resources. How we can marshal fiscal resources to accomplish things that we want to do, like responding to the coronavirus depression and responding to the pandemic. That's my capsule spiel of MMT.
Nathan Tankus (00:30:42):
Obviously you can read the Substack, and there's a lot more detail you can go into. I can suggest specific posts as introductory things, but that's the heart of it for me. I think the reason that MMT has gotten more influential is simply because it got some prominence after the 2008 financial crisis and the Euro's own crisis for having correct things to say about those crises. Before MMT, there wasn't really a recognition that countries in Europe had given up quite a valuable thing by giving up their own currencies and relying on the Euro. MMT provided a coherent analysis, which I think has stood the test of time.
Nathan Tankus (00:31:36):
Over the years, simply its predictions have held up while other predictions didn't succeed. As time goes on and as these other predictions turn out to be wrong, about how the national debt is going to explode at any time, about how interest rates are about to explode and disrupt everything, how we're going to have hyperinflation. All these predictions, how they haven't come true. How ideas like the Trump tax cuts meant that the U.S. government couldn't respond to the next recession. These things have clearly proven not to be true. MMT is winning that battle of attrition, where at the same time, people are more and more recognizing that they are urgent problems, which we would want to use government spending to alleviate, that don't otherwise have a strong justification for why we'd be able to do that without say, raising taxes a bunch or cutting spending in other places.
Nathan Tankus (00:32:48):
Especially crises like climate change, but of course right now, coronavirus depression. In that time period where MMT has had the set of successful predictions, other sets of predictions haven't fared as well. The problems are more and more correctly seen as having the urgency that they have. The scales are shifting in one direction towards MMT. I think there also is just more and more recognition that specifically the U.S. dollar isn't going anywhere. Because we've had yet another crisis where the crisis happens, and there is a flight to safety, a flight to countries, to foreign countries wanting to buy up, get safety to the U.S. Other countries having the shortages of dollars because they need access to basic necessities as the global depression took hold.
Nathan Tankus (00:34:02):
The U.S. yet again stepping up to respond to that crisis, and to lend to governments around the world in order to respond to that crisis. In that moment, people want to look for explanations for why that's happening. When if you took the conventional view that big budget deficits meant that the dollar was going to collapse, the exact opposite happening yet again for the second time in a decade. It's hard to understand otherwise.
Got it, that makes sense. Thank you. I'd love to chat about the Bloomberg profile that came out in early July. You kind of blew up after this profile came up, being an understatement. You said that getting that profile piece changed your life forever and for the better. Just for context, for some of the folks that are listening to this, there's a line in the profile itself where they talk about your numbers a little bit. They say that you had 450 subscribers at the time of the profile, getting you $45,000 a year. Then the article came out, and that order of magnitude shifted completely. You mentioned on your Substack a week and some change later that you had gained another 1300 subscribers on top of that 450. What was that experience like for you?
Nathan Tankus (00:35:26):
Unbelievable. Honestly, it was just so overwhelming that I couldn't really handle it. That Friday after the profile, I got 388 subscribers. Almost the total of what I had up to the profile. That was just unbelievable, just completely unbelievable. To the point where I had to try to get a handle of, “This is real. This is happening.” That whole weekend, I had a bunch of phone calls with friends just to try to calm me down. It was such an increase in scale of what I was doing that I had this panic that I had to do a whole bunch of things.
Nathan Tankus (00:36:17):
I had to instantly hire people to do things, and figure out a way to get some of the attention that I had onto other people. That was overwhelming. It really took me until probably five days after the profile to really handle it, and get control, and be able to process that it was happening, because it was so fast. It felt like everything all at once because I went out to breakfast, and someone recognized me from the profile at breakfast. They were on their bike going by the outside of the restaurant. I was in their outside seating. He stopped from his bike to congratulate me.
Nathan Tankus (00:37:19):
Then I got up, I paid my bill. Walked up to 8th Avenue, where I was living at the time. There was someone who was at the same sidewalk, and was looking over at me. I was like, "This can't be real." He stopped and asked me if I just had a profile published on me. Then he asked me for a selfie.
Oh my gosh.
Nathan Tankus (00:37:46):
That was two people who recognized me from the profile within eight minutes of each other. That was just so much. That felt like reality was collapsing in on itself and just folding, and the simulation was glitching. That completely blew my mind. Unfortunately, I didn't get recognized again from the profile since. But two within the eight minutes of each other was just unbelievable. Honestly, a lot of it was so overwhelming that I had to deal with it.
Nathan Tankus (00:38:30):
Of course, once I had processed those feelings and kind of, no, this is real. This is happening. You've had this big success. Then I was okay. I could start really seriously planning on what my long-term goals were. Ultimately, this is great. Now, I can pay guest writers, which I'm doing. I've hired a freelance journalist to do some investigative, some smaller investigative reporting for me. I'm in the process of getting the Substack translated into Spanish, and having a Spanish version of the Substack that will translate my archive, and then catch up to the current posts. I'm in the process of really expanding in that way. Now, I can have the potentiality of turning what originally was just the Nathan Tankus Show into a full fledged publication that becomes a platform for alternative economics ideas for the big audience that I now have.
So cool. I'm sitting here getting a total contact high just listening to your story. I'm hearing this mix of emotions from you. Did this article make you feel lucky, or this total loss of control? Because it's this experience that can happen to writers where literally one endorsement or major piece of coverage can just completely change our lives. I can imagine that being both thrilling, but also kind of disorienting.
Nathan Tankus (00:40:15):
Yeah, it was definitely disorienting. It was thrilling, but it was also disorienting. Luckily, I had a writer friend of mine who already had a large following. That was the other thing. My Twitter following went from 14,000 to 80,000. Now it's a little under 89,000. It was coming so quickly. I was getting Twitter followers faster than my heart was beating. Just in and out every moment, 24 hours. Because also, it was getting translated in all these different languages. A Twitter friend of mine, someone who has a Twitter who is a friend of mine, reminded me. I asked them, "How do you deal with it?" They reminded me that you can turn off the notifications for people you don't follow.
Nathan Tankus (00:41:06):
I had to do that. As soon as I did it, it was instant calm. It was like, oh, I'm having a normal experience that I would have had before. There was so much interaction. I started following more people. I would get notifications when I turned them off. It was like my normal set of interactions from before. It tells you how crazy the spotlight was on me at the time. It definitely is a feeling of not having any control over what's going on. I yo-yo'd between these big plans of basically using every single dime that had come in the door, maybe even more, to going, "No, got to wait and see exactly what's going to happen with all this." I'm pretty confident I can sustain it up until this point. I didn't fall below where I was at the peak.
Nathan Tankus (00:42:07):
I've done a more steady, slow growth since then. I'm taking a more wait and see approach. I'm still paying guest writers now and such. The way I'm exercising control now is keeping this big buffer between what I could be putting out the door and what I am putting out the door, in terms of expanding the publication and seeing how things go in the next six months or so. I'm confident that it's still sustaining growth. It's the kind of thing where the jump up, the discontinuous jump up, you can't control. But you can control what you do with it and what you try to do with it, and sustaining the slower pace from then on. That's how I've regained control.
Nathan Tankus (00:43:12):
It's a feeling of extraordinary luck. Obviously I did a lot of work to get to this point. But definitely also extraordinary luck to have the relationships that I have. I have a lot of Bloomberg journalist friends. Peter Coy, the person who authored the profile, isn't one of them. But I've definitely been more of a fixture in that space, both on Twitter and sometimes in person. That changes things. If I was an outsider to that group, and if say Weisenthal tweeted out my pieces but just tweeted it out as someone who just liked what someone was putting out. And not just someone who believed in my work, but also was a friend. Do I get the Bloomberg profile? I don't know. In some sense, you can think of that as also work.
Nathan Tankus (00:44:12):
I had lunches, dinners, and going out to drinks with a crew of journalist friends for almost two years before the Bloomberg profile comes out. On the other hand, how many people will get that kind of opportunity? It's back and forth. I can argue it from almost any position. There definitely is a huge, huge element of luck involved. Also, the resources frankly to still be out there, still be putting my thoughts out there without having the big... being able to wait for the big day where I blow up.
I'm still just so struck by this line from the profile where it's just talking about you making $45,000 a year. They say, "He thinks he can learn another $20,000 from other speaking and writing engagements." It feels so surreal. I love seeing where that was at the time that you published it, and where you're at now. Just given everything that happened after that, do you feel like you were setting your sights too low before? Or is that just where it was? I'm wondering if there was some learning here about writers being able to set their ambitions higher than they previously thought possible.
Nathan Tankus (00:45:31):
I don't think there's any way to really set your ambitions. I was slowing down before the profile came out. I was netting one or two. I think it was a few days before where I got four subscribers in a day and was happy about that, because it hadn't been like that for a couple weeks. I think it's the kind of thing you can't plan for. My plans and my thought process at the time was reasonable. There was a way in which this profile could have been written differently, where I got 100 subscribers from it rather than 1350 or whatever the boost I said in the piece was.
Nathan Tankus (00:46:15):
That easily could have been what happened. That's all there is to it really. I think I was on a reasonable pathway to get to 100,000. Let's talk about being friends with Joe. Joe went in and changed the headline around noon of that day to punch it up. He's the one who went from... originally was like, "Credentials don't matter on the internet. I'm just a Nathan Tankus subscriber." Or whatever the original headline was. He punched it up to just, 20-year-old without a bachelors degree has blah blah blah following, or whatever the updated headline was.
Nathan Tankus (00:47:12):
That was the headline that really took off and went global. The article was succeeding. A lot of it was, Bloomberg has the best SEO in the business, far and away. It's also specifically having a profile. Bloomberg is distinct from having a profile in any other publication, even the New York Times. They have this system where if an article is doing well enough, they push it more. Friday night, part of the reason why my subscriptions that Friday were so crazy is because they push notifications of the article to people's phones and devices.
Nathan Tankus (00:48:01):
You can't pay for that kind of publicity, to literally have it show up on someone's Smart watch or something. I just saw some funny screenshots people were sending me funny pictures of. That's the kind of profile that it's impossible to put a value on. I guess it is possible, but it's extremely, extremely valuable. That's just so unique, and something you can't try to replicate it. The best you can do is put your work out there and built all the relationships you can, and hope that you take off at some point. But it's definitely not something you plan for.
Nathan Tankus (00:48:42):
I will say, my experience is that if you're writing about something timely that a lot of people care about, even without that big blowup, a slow and steady consistency can do a lot for you. I think I took advantage. I played my moment very well. I wrote almost every weekday for the first months at a time of the crisis, which was very fast moving. And was able to take advantage of that to have a real big growth initially, and not have any of the growing pains that other publications have. Then wrote pretty consistently from then on.
Nathan Tankus (00:49:29):
My experience, if you're writing about something that has a large enough potential audience, consistently putting out pieces twice a week, you can build an audience. You might be building an audience slower than I did. But if you have the time to devote to it, I think you can eventually build it to where there is a decent... where you can get a decent income out of it. Assuming that you have the depth of knowledge to sustain a twice a week publication, where any individual piece could potentially be interesting to people.
That's right. You were writing for four months before the crazy spike and growing consistently and upholding, it sounds like. You've touched on this a little bit, but I'm wondering what you think success looks like for an independent writer. Does having more paid subscriptions mean that it has to turn into a full-time publication? Or is it just being yourself and continuing to write as you are? Does that change the relationship that you have to your readers if you do turn it more into this publication?
Nathan Tankus (00:50:43):
I could have just kept on going the way I was. Frankly, making $180,000 a year is nothing to sneeze at. That's not something that could really sit well with me. First of all, that's more money than I could possibly imagine having anything to do with. Second, obviously I want to be successful, but I have broader goals. Sitting on $180,000 of income, just because I'm having personal success, doesn't mean anything is changing with this crisis.
Nathan Tankus (00:51:25):
Unemployment insurance benefits as we speak have expired. Based on my previous knowledge of the subject, and also what my investigative journalist is digging up, even if they pass the bill while we have been doing this interview, that isn't sufficient. A lot of people are going to have their benefits cut off, and some of them, it could take months for them to get their benefits. Some people still haven't straightened out their benefits for March.
Nathan Tankus (00:52:01):
I can't sit by when I potentially have the possibility within reach of hiring investigative journalists to dig up more materials on this, and really push the issue on this topic. And bringing in guest writers to write about timely and important stuff as well. Growing a publication lets me have more influence, and more influence can change it. Even if I didn't say anything on a big scale about unemployment insurance, even small, minor changes to legislation. We're talking about a really outsized impact for the amount of money I'm talking about investing.
Nathan Tankus (00:52:45):
There are companies that spend millions and millions and millions of dollars to get relatively minor administrative role making changes from different government agencies. Not even congressional legislation. For me personally, when you get to that scale, I can't imagine doing anything else but trying to make it bigger. The other alternative, which I'm certainly going to do some of, is just donating a bunch to a nonprofit I believe in. I want to be able to eat, but this has much more been about trying to exercise some influence. The money is nice, but it's a poor substitute for that unless I can directly plow it into having more influence over what's going on, and producing research and evidence of a lot of the dysfunction that's happening.
I really like that framing. One of the things that you mentioned you were getting after this recent growth is an editor. I'm curious, as an independent writer who is very much valued for your counterintuitive thinking and writing, what do you think the value is of having an editor?
Nathan Tankus (00:54:17):
Not having an editor was the biggest frustration going into this. That was the biggest thing I wanted to do. That was the thing I was unsatisfied with my income at the time was. To me, $65,000 a year was fine to live on, except I would keep on having to put out stuff that doesn't have editing. Everyone needs an editor. I firmly don't believe in unedited writing. I did it because it was a necessity at the time. For me, other people might not know this, but even just the few pieces that have come out since I've been using an editor I think are dramatically improved for having an editor. Having that checkup, getting rid of distracting spelling errors. But also restructuring the pieces to be more forceful, convincing, to be more accessible.
Nathan Tankus (00:55:19):
For me, I get final say on what the version is. I send my piece to my editor, and then I get edits back in suggestion mode. I accept or don't accept the suggestions. Then I look it over one last time to see if there's anything missing. There are some edits that don't fit my voice, so I don't accept those edits. But I also could take the idea of what they are going for or what she was going for and change it. I think editing is an absolute necessity for writing. I don't really think that editing is something that you can really get by with on a long-term business.
Nathan Tankus (00:56:03):
Obviously Substack is a writing outlet for your more free flowing stuff. I was able to be successful without having an editor. It's not the absolute necessity to have success. But as a writer who takes writing seriously, I don't think I could spend years staring at my own unedited writing ever. At some point, I would really want an editor. I think it's crucial. Especially now that I'm growing, editing now helps provide a more consistent voice across guest posts and my own posts. I think editing is an absolutely essential piece of writing.
Totally. Especially maybe when you're writing alone. It's good to have someone to look at your stuff, and someone to bounce ideas around with. The last thing I want to touch on before we wrap up is the fact that you also experimented with a few different models for paid subscriptions. In the beginning, I believe you had donations only. The pitch was, if you want to extra financially support me, go ahead. Then at some point, you started offering premium content in addition to your free stuff. It seems like you had this mindset shift at some point as going from thinking about paid subscriptions as this extra financial support, to someone actually paying for a service. Just wondering, for people that are listening, can you share any of your learnings there in terms of, how did your psychology evolve around that?
Nathan Tankus (00:57:39):
My initial thinking was, I felt like I couldn't justify taking money from someone unless I could show that I was going to consistently write. Frankly, I've blogged before where I dropped off. It was very inconsistent. I wasn't going to charge anyone, especially something that could potentially also have yearly subscriptions, if I wasn't sure I was going to be consistent with it. But the attention was so immediate and so big. My email list was getting so big that I realized quickly. First of all, I could write every day. Once you've done eight posts in 10 days or whatever, or eight posts in a week, you've shown that you're consistent. You believe in it.
Nathan Tankus (00:58:26):
Secondly, I knew that the audience was there to provide financial support. I didn't realize the extent to which Joe would immediately start tweeting out pieces, and that I would get this immediate rush of attention from it, from the very first piece. The first piece that wasn't just a glorified Facebook post. It's one where I literally created the Substack so that I could have a place to put a Facebook post that I wrote on the crisis just for my friends essentially, my Facebook friends. The first post after that was a post about, were we already heading towards a recession? That got over 10,000 unique views, which is crazy. It's largely because Joe picked the perfect sentence to tweet out, and tweeted it out. I learned very quickly that I had a huge audience that I didn't realize, or what felt huge at the time. Now, the scale is even so much bigger than it was then.
Nathan Tankus (00:59:40):
The biggest thing I think I learned is that people don't think of it as just giving you money, I want this person to have an income. That was my big fear when the Substack had gotten so big. I was like, "Well, people can do that. People can figure it out, have some sense of what's going on. They know that." Or, at least in my head. This is more money than any one person should have. Obviously I have a big finance audience. I'm sure a lot of them would listen to this and go, "What are you talking about?" When I'm calling $150,000 more money than God or whatever. But for me, I couldn't in good conscience tweet about, "Subscribe to my Substack" or whatever, when my annualized income was that high.
Nathan Tankus (01:00:36):
The only way I could justify it was that I could make a commitment that that money was going elsewhere. What I learned in doing that is that, yeah, people see it as they're paying for a service. I would say the lesson to take from that isn't necessarily, you need to be doing premium posts all the time. People think that they're paying for a service even if the posts are free. Generally, there are a lot of people who they like paid content. But if they have a feeling that X or Y thing that I like isn't going to happen without me providing financial support to it, they'll do it. That's why publications like The American Prospect or The Nation or whatever, they can get monthly recurring donations from people as well, even when all of the writing is publicly available.
Nathan Tankus (01:01:36):
While I do think you should realize, or the potential audience of this should realize that people are thinking in terms of paying for a service, that doesn't necessarily mean you need to make everything about premium content. At least in my experience. Especially if people see the value of the conversation that you engage with by having publicly available posts, or mostly publicly available post. And they think it's timely and important. If you're writing, for example, Petition, who I believe is ranked number sixth or number seventh, the most highly paid Substack. The work they put out, that is a mostly paid subscription type of work. I think their pricing reflects that, as well as their posting schedule. Because you're talking about a relatively big, but a specific bankruptcy audience that isn't trying to influence... do what I'm trying to do. Which is stop the wave of bankruptcies.
Nathan Tankus (01:02:48):
They want more inside information on corporate restructurings, on what's going on, largely because of their own investment decisions or purchasing decisions, and so on. That's the kind of work that you don't necessarily see a ton of value in having a ton of publicly available information. Thinking about your audience that way, about, do people think they're getting their personal benefit from your work? Or whether they see some public value in your writing, I think is the biggest determinant in whether you think you should be doing mostly paid posts or mostly free. That said, it all depends on your audience. Many audiences have many different kinds of views on this. I also kind of believe in publicly available content. The more I can avoid putting a paywall on something, or that the paywall just becomes a preview of content, that's my preference.