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Making Peace With Never Doing a PhD
Karlstack is split up into 5 sections: Economics, Academia, Politics, Crypto and Personal. If you don’t care to receive self-indulgent emails about my personal life, to opt-out of this “Personal” section you can click the “Settings” button (at the top right corner of your screen) and then click “Manage Subscriptions.”
A couple of years ago I was blackballed from econ PhD programs.
I can’t “prove” I was blackballed, but yeah… it’s pretty obvious.
Foremost among the reasons for my excommunication was that I was involved in the biggest econ scandal of 2020, Paul Krugman, professors seek top economist's removal from influential job for criticizing Black Lives Matter. I provided this quote to Fox News:
This quote might seem rather tame in hindsight, but it was featured in big, bold letters on the biggest stage in the USA at the precise apex of this spike:
If you were there, at the height of the most expensive riots in US history, you’ll remember how crazy it was. Different times. At such a time, such a quote (opposing the riots, or at least, standing up for those who opposed the riots) was considered heresy.
If all I did was provide this quote and then walk away, I probably could have survived PhD admissions unscathed. The bigger problem came when I leaned into it… in the EJMR thread discussing this scandal, I wrote:
By writing this comment, I instantly became one of the only people in the history of EJMR to doxx themself, thus putting a huge radioactive target on my back. Over the next couple of months (while my PhD applications were pending) I continued to post on EJMR under the name “Karl.”
People often ask me about the etymology of “Karl”. The answer is that my video game moniker in high school (more than a decade ago) was “drugdealerKarl,” named after a character on the popular TV show “Workaholics.” Eventually this was shortened to simply “Karl” — that was the nickname my friends/cousins would call me, and it has stuck ever since.
So yeah, this excommunication was totally self-inflicted. I basically filtered myself out.
I could never bring myself to care about the taboo of posting on EJMR — what’s so terrible about this anonymous forum for economists? For starters, all the same economists who indulge in #EconTwitter are the exact same ones who indulge in EJMR. So the fact that #EconTwitter clutches their pearls at any mention of EJMR is very puzzling. It’s all one big, fake, choreographed performance which I refuse to participate in.
Not to mention that Twitter is much more sexist, racist, hateful, etc than EJMR could ever hope to be. Please go search your favorite racial or homophobic slur on EJMR, then search the same slur on Twitter. Compare the results… which website spews more bile? The answer is undoubtedly Twitter, and not even on an absolute basis, but on a per-capita basis as well. Yet #EconTwitter claims the moral high ground? Absurd.
I can complain about how unfair or irrational the EJMR taboo is, but at the end of the day, the taboo exists, I knew about it, and I deliberately chose to flout it. Therefore the last thing I want is to style myself as a martyr; to bewail one’s lot is always despicable. Whether one ascribes one’s afflictions to others or to one’s self, it is all the same. Only losers complain.
In addition to posting on EJMR, I had the audacity to go on Twitter during those months when my PhD applications were pending and loudly rail against the evils of affirmative action. Despite the fact that 74% of Americans think race and ethnicity should not be considered in admissions decisions, and despite the fact that the Supreme Court is about to make AA illegal, saying as much at the height of #BLM was a heretical opinion on #EconTwitter — one that gets you blacklisted from the profession.
Several senior economics professors sent me private notes telling me to stop tweeting against affirmative action; I ignored them. So yeah, I signed my own death warrant.
Do I regret it? Not for a second. The whole point of (my naive, idealized version of) academia is that you’re supposed to be able to speak your mind. If speaking your mind is what gets you shunned by academia these days, why would I want to be part of academia?
You might call me an idiot for speaking my mind, but I would counter that it is far more idiotic to hide your true opinions in the name of careerism. After you spend a few decades suppressing your true self, eventually you wake up one day to find yourself an old man full of regret who has never spoken his mind a day in his life.
Enjoy life. This is not a dress rehearsal, and no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.
Of course I wasn’t the perfect PhD applicant. I had an underwhelming math background (no real analysis) and my grades wouldn’t blow anybody’s hair back. Still, I was a strong candidate, especially because I wasn’t even aiming very high, I was aiming at mostly mediocre schools.
At the time of my application I possessed a Masters in Financial Economics from a top school, 2-3 years of work experience as an economist at Statistics Canada, experience as a research assistant at UChicago (Chicago econ has 7 Nobel Laureates in the department) and my GRE score was 338/340 — good for the 99.99th percentile.
What did I do instead of an econ PhD?
I started this Substack, and set off to travel the world.
This Substack has worked out better than I could have hoped for — I would even go so far as to call it “mildly successful.”
I could have spent the past year toiling away on an econometrics paper that maybe 5 people would skim the abstract of, or I could write 100+ articles which have garnered over 1 million cumulative views. The latter is clearly more influential & intellectually fulfilling.
Of course, it is easy for my critics to dismiss this as sour grapes. A giant cope.
Maybe they are right.
“You don’t want me in your club? Well I’m having much more fun in my own club! You’re all corrupt and conformist anyways!”
Whether the grapes are rotten or not, the fact remains that, for better or for worse, my full-time job is now as a Substack writer. There will always be rocks in the road ahead of us. They will be stumbling blocks or stepping stones; it all depends on how you use them. In other words: I’m making wine out of sour grapes.
Some of my friends (leetcode techbro types) scoff at my Substack output and think that the 1 or 2 or 3 articles I pump out per week are not sufficient to merit a full-time job — they think that my writing should be a night/weekend side-hustle, while I focus on a “career” during the day.
I could not disagree more strongly. Leetcoders are slaves, pure and simple. I would sooner commit seppuku than attend a “scrum meeting.”
As a writer I work longer hours than most people do at their full-time job. My articles are long, and the research is time-intensive.
A central part of my job is reading lots of books and going for long walks, meaning that even when I am not “working” on writing my articles, I am still thinking about them constantly. This takes up a tremendous amount of mental energy; I simply do not have enough space in my head to balance this with a “career.”
I recognize all too well that I may be a mediocre writer right now, but I also know that becoming a better writer is a lifelong journey. Even if you think I am a bad writer now, I am much stronger than I was 100 substack articles ago (sometimes I go back and read old articles and cringe), and much weaker than I will be in 100 articles from now. Maybe in a decade — if I work really hard, every single day — I can become a good writer.
Lately I have been reading Nietzsche. Some of you may scoff at this because I fell for the “Nietzsche meme,” sure, whatever, call me basic. I haven’t read him since high school, when I tried and failed to read Thus Spoke Zarathustra, so I feel some of his books are now worth reading if for no other reason than to be acquainted with the Western canon.
The first thing I feel upon reading Nietzsche is deep depression. He’s so much smarter than me, such a deeper/better thinker, that it drives me crazy knowing I’ll never be able to reach that level even after a lifetime of trying.
Insanely depressing to think about how futile my life is compared to his.
It makes me want to give up.
Nietzsche wouldn’t want me to wallow in my own inadequacy, though; he would want me to live dangerously and to take risks. Despite the fact that I am not as smart as Nietzsche, I take solace in the fact that his “Übermensch” is not necessarily the strongest or the smartest (although a baseline level of IQ is required), but the one who follows his own path. That is really what Nietzsche’s overarching theme is, as far as I can tell: finding yourself.
Finding yourself is one of the most fundamental endeavors of your life, so that is what I will attempt, even if it means moving to the 3rd-world to be able to afford life. I am not a trust-fund kid, I can’t afford to be a struggling writer in Canada, where rent is many multiples higher than it is in Mexico.
So I moved to Mexico for the cheap rent, to pursue my dreams. He who has a why, can bear almost any how.
Moving to a Mexican favela (it’s actually nice here, I just enjoy cracking self-deprecating jokes about being a Mexican hobo) to focus on becoming a professional writer is a risk worth taking. Solitude allows me the time and space to dedicate myself fully to becoming what I want to be; to becoming who I want to be. No distractions. I feel like a monk.
Surely Nietzsche would approve of me isolating myself. He often wrote about the need to isolate yourself away from society. In Schopenhauer as Educator, for example, he writes that if someone wants to maximize their potential, they need to take the difficult path which often leads to isolation. Being a loner is not easy for most people, but this is one of the prices someone must pay for the privilege of owning themselves.
In Beyond Good and Evil, he writes, 'Every select man strives instinctively for a citadel and aprivacy, where he is free from the crowd, the many, the majority—where he may forget "men who are the rule," as their exception.
The most intelligent men, like the strongest, find their happiness where others would find only disaster: in the labyrinth, in being hard with themselves and with others, in effort; their delight is in self-mastery; in them asceticism becomes second nature, a necessity, an instinct.
One thing that Nietzsche made me rethink about myself are my motivations. What am I trying to accomplish with my writing? For years I told myself that I seek only truth. I wanted to be in academia to find the truth. Now I write on Substack to find the truth. Truth. Truth. Truth.
In Beyond Good and Evil, in the chapter called Prejudices of Philosophers, Nietzsche argues that every philosopher tells themselves the same thing about their quest for truth, and they are are all delusional. What they are really after is not truth, but power.
This is his famous concept of “Will to Power”, which I haven’t fully wrapped my head around; I don’t really understand it yet, and thus don’t understand myself. It has me second guessing my whole “truth-based” identity. Am I a fraud?
The powerful, as Nietzsche points out expressly, have no need to prove their might either to themselves or to others by oppressing or hurting others; if they do hurt others, they do so incidentally in the process of using their power creatively; they hurt others 'without thinking of it'.
So please know that when I shit on the personification of slave-morality, Dr. Jennifer Doleac, it is not out of a desire to hurt her. She is insignificant. I shit on her simply because that is where my creative passions led me to wander.
Academics such as Jennifer Doleac are slaves: they are weak, hate themselves, hate their life, and are guilty about their own existence. Due to her own failures and lack of creativity she is full of ressentiment, thus she seeks vengeance towards those greater than herself.
Calling her a slave is not to say that I am a master — but at the very least, I can strive to be a master. I am choosing to walk my own path, and choosing to work on myself in the hopes of one day becoming great.
The question, then, is what constitutes greatness? Can it be measured tangibly?
Well, I am approaching 3,500 free subscribers (left) and 150 paid subscribers (right).
If-and-when I hit 1,000 paid subscribers, I will consider that a great achievement. A great achievement means greatness. Greatness is within my reach — at least, I have a running head start.
All things that are truly great are at first thought impossible.
Last year I thought 10 paid subscribers was impossible, then I thought 100 paid subscribers was impossible; then I thought 1,000 was impossible. Now I am starting to believe 1,000 paid subscribers is possible; all it requires is grinding away in solitude for another year or two, and believing in myself as an Übermensch. It is not the strength, but the duration of great sentiments that makes great men. Consistency is the key to success in the Substack game.
The purpose of existence is to live as a fierce individual who has unlimited freedom and agency in their own life, and I believe that Substack can give me that freedom and agency. When I reach 1,000 paid subscribers I will be truly free… I will be uncancellable.
If I fail to reach 1,000 paid subscribers, so be it. I know of no better life purpose than to perish in attempting the great and the impossible.
So, as walk out onto my balcony and gaze upon my Mexican favela, I don’t see a sea of squat, impoverished Mayans… I see greatness.
Consider becoming a paid subscriber to help me achieve greatness