Michael Lewis Is Buying What Sam Bankman-Fried Is Selling

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Michael Lewis was captivated by Sam Bankman-Fried from their very first assembly—and on the proof of Lewis’s new e-book, Going Infinite, his affection has not wavered within the two years since. Which is stunning, as a result of Bankman-Fried is not a lauded cryptocurrency billionaire however an alleged con man, on trial for seven counts of fraud and cash laundering. (He has pleaded not responsible.)

Lewis was launched to Bankman-Fried by an unnamed good friend, who was poised to spend money on the latter’s crypto trade, FTX. The deal “would bind their fates, by means of an trade of shares in one another’s corporations value a whole lot of hundreds of thousands of {dollars},” and so, naturally, the good friend needed Lewis to take a look at this scatterbrained prodigy who had gotten wealthy from buying and selling digital cash.

SBF duly turned up on Lewis’s porch in Berkeley, California, carrying cargo shorts and “ratty New Steadiness sneakers.” The pair took a stroll collectively, talked about finance and philanthropy, and the older man got here away impressed: “I referred to as my good friend and mentioned one thing like: Go for it! Swap shares with Sam Bankman-Fried! Do no matter he desires to do! What may presumably go fallacious?

And that, my pals, is just a little literary approach we name “foreshadowing.” In November final yr, FTX declared chapter. The person who appeared destined to be the world’s first trillionaire—and who needed to make use of his cash “to handle the largest existential dangers to life on earth”—as an alternative ended up getting extradited from the Bahamas. FTX had loaned a number of billion {dollars} to Bankman-Fried’s buying and selling agency, Alameda Analysis, leaving it with out sufficient money to match buyer withdrawals. The legality of that mortgage is now a matter for the Daniel Patrick Moynihan U.S. Courthouse, in Manhattan, New York.

By Michael Lewis

The Bankman-Fried story is a basic story of hubris, and Michael Lewis had a backstage cross for all of it. Having acted as a meals taster for his investor good friend—revealed elsewhere to be Brad Katsuyama, the topic of his 2014 e-book, Flash Boys—he wound up shadowing SBF within the ultimate days of his pomp, and in the course of the run on FTX that introduced him down.

Going Infinite is subsequently a portrait of grandiose ambition, youthful vanity, and the distorting energy of cash. This e-book comprises potential polycules, earnest discussions of saving the Earth, and a supporting solid of grifters, vultures, and Gisele. We comply with Bankman-Fried by means of his lonely childhood, with eccentric mother and father who don’t rejoice birthdays or holidays; on to his hiring by the high-frequency buying and selling agency Jane Road Capital by means of a sequence of math puzzles; after which to his ultimate vacation spot at FTX, the place he survives an early workers revolt and afterward guidelines as an absolute monarch.

In understated, streamlined prose, Lewis captures SBF’s weirdness. His protagonist’s knee is perpetually “jackhammering” underneath the desk. His hair is at all times puffed right into a “Jewfro.” He commonly sleeps on a beanbag close to his desk. The difficulty is that these particulars—already acquainted from a thousand journal profiles—are introduced as a counterpoint to Bankman-Fried’s mathematical genius, when everyone knows they are going to be learn as proof of it. He’s a contemporary archetype: the human pc, too busy dreaming in binary to clean his personal socks. Frankly, I’d have been extra shocked to be taught that SBF was a reliable supervisor and considerate good friend moderately than, because the e-book portrays him, an emotionally stunted slob with consideration points.

Notoriously, Michael Lewis prefers to jot down about unsung heroes, such because the scientists who foresaw the hazard of the coronavirus or the oddball brief sellers who predicted the 2008 monetary crash. Right here, although, he’s confronted with a personality who morphed right into a villain midway by means of his writing course of. Time and again, I puzzled if Lewis had constructed a field marked unconventional maverick takes on the banks and was making an attempt to cut the limbs off the precise story to squash it inside.

Many anecdotes seem designed to current Bankman-Fried as a particular star-child, however I believe make him sound like a prick. He performs a online game whereas on a Zoom name with Vogue’s Anna Wintour. He showers popcorn throughout his non-public jet. He asks his closest colleagues to vote on a plan of action after which ignores it. The phrase that captures him greater than some other is careless. He’s careless of his look, careless of different individuals’s emotions, and careless of their cash.

His gender and age are important to this portrait. Bankman-Fried must be a boy genius for the trick to work, for his little foibles to be excused. There was no “grownup supervision” at FTX, Lewis writes, no “wizened adults” to restrain its excesses. (Everybody concerned was above authorized age.) Bankman-Fried “thought grown-ups had been pointless,” and that class included banks and governments. After FTX recordsdata for chapter, Lewis recounts how two feminine workers, Constance Wang and Quinn Li, remained in its empty Bahamas compound, together with Bankman-Fried. Wang alternates pumping him for info—she has since cooperated with the authorities, and has not been charged with any crime—and cooking him dinner. When police flip as much as arrest SBF, his mother, Barbara, “stopped arguing with Sam about what he may say to Congress, and began arguing with him about what he ought to put on to jail. She needed him to placed on lengthy pants. Sam insisted on remaining in his cargo shorts.” (Discover me a middle-aged lady who can be indulged like this—petted and coddled and absolved of fundamental human obligations. No such particular person exists.)

Whereas Li hunts for contemporary socks for her 30-something boss, Wang discovers Manfred, the stuffed toy animal Sam has carried with him since childhood.

The promise and the peril of a Michael Lewis e-book is that he will get near his topics—on this case, uncomfortably shut. That isn’t such an issue within the early half of the e-book, the place its protagonist continues to be a wild-haired wunderkind. However later it begins to learn just like the case for the protection.

When relaying the popcorn and the socks and the stuffed animal, Lewis makes the editorial option to let these particulars converse for themselves, moderately than present a condemnatory gloss. That mentioned, at the same time as indifferent and ironic a narrator as Lewis can’t restrain himself from questioning Bankman-Fried’s knowledge in paying Shark Tank’s Kevin O’Leary $15.7 million for “twenty service hours, twenty social posts, one digital lunch and fifty autographs” to advertise FTX. After the crypto trade’s collapse, he wonders concerning the lacking billions however can’t cease himself from blurting out: “You paid Kevin O’Leary for digital lunch? Critically?”

He additionally refrains from delivering a verdict on efficient altruism, or EA, a philosophical motion that has suffered from changing into a part of the SBF mythology. In its greatest kind, efficient altruism is a doctrine that brings rigor and accountability to charitable donations. (Mosquito nets for malarial areas: good. Huge bureaucratic NGOs: dangerous.) Bankman-Fried was a zealous apostle for the trigger; a number of instances within the e-book, he claims to be making billions from crypto solely in order that he can provide it away. However as an alternative of saving lives that exist already, the proponents of EA quickly turn into obsessive about future generations as but unborn. They fear about synthetic intelligence and local weather collapse and asteroid strikes (not less than till they do the maths on the final of those and uncover they’re extraordinarily unlikely). These sections of Going Infinite radiate doomsday-cult vibes. However Lewis withholds judgment, even when SBF and pals are proven fretting concerning the finish of the world whereas their very own firm slides towards oblivion.

His wry, amused, noninterventionist strategy is a high-risk one. Forward of publication, the writer informed The Guardian that he was conscious of one thing “within the air—round Walter Isaacson’s book [on Elon Musk] and possibly round mine—this sort of suspicion-slash-hostility in the direction of the journalist who actually will get to know their topic, that it’s entry journalism, otherwise you acquired too shut or no matter.”

The central query of Going Infinite is about naivete—was Sam Bankman-Fried a figuring out huckster, or was he a dewy-eyed harmless circled by sharks? (For what it’s value, the takeaway needs to be the identical: We’d like banking laws to guard us from idiots and criminals.) Lewis is Workforce Dewy-Eyed Harmless; he doubts that the Alameda association was a deliberate fraud, and bolsters his case by noting that hundreds of thousands preserve turning up, of which SBF and pals have merely misplaced monitor. However that makes you wonder if Lewis, too, has been naive. His story rests on a bedrock of “Nobody noticed this coming,” when the truth is that loads of individuals did.

On the finish of final yr—proper when FTX was collapsing—I made a documentary concerning the quasi-religious overtones of crypto. For a few of these I interviewed, the implosion of Bankman-Fried’s empire felt like a vindication. For months, skeptics had been warning that crypto’s unregulated markets, which requested buyers to place religion in digital tokens usually traded in financially opaque tax havens, simply might need some issues. (The crypto growth arose in response to the 2008 monetary disaster, and a sense of distrust with standard banking. However the huge banks acquired a authorities bailout after they overreached. Nobody would come to avoid wasting crypto.) Opposing these naysayers, nevertheless, had been legions of influencers telling anybody who would hear that crypto was the way forward for finance—open, democratic, free from authorities management.

The boosters had been persuasive, as a result of, initially, the numbers did go up. 5 years in the past, a single Bitcoin price about $6,000. By the autumn of 2021, it was value 10 instances that. As an increasing number of common of us purchased into Bitcoin and different tokens, their costs soared—and a few of that cash went straight again into convincing much more individuals to imagine the hype. Keep in mind final yr’s Tremendous Bowl? Each different advert was for crypto, together with one from FTX that starred Larry David.

On the similar time, many mainstream journalists—arts graduates who didn’t perceive phrases reminiscent of DeFi and WAGMI however may scent a cash geyser when it was raining celebrities on them—wrote articles about SBF that didn’t hassle themselves with the sustainability or legality of what he was doing. At one level in Going Infinite, Bankman-Fried’s media handler provides him a notice studying: “You may’t keep away from the Monetary Occasions man however be very cautious round anybody from the Monetary Occasions as a result of the Monetary Occasions may be very anti-crypto.” (In different phrases: The Monetary Occasions man is numerate. Beware.) Lewis paperwork this reputation-laundering course of in gory element. One thing is grubby and déclassé … till it succeeds so terribly that it turns into simpler to fake that it’s and at all times has been respectable. See additionally: Donald Trump.

At present, after a sequence of crypto hacks and collapses, the skeptics need justice—or possibly revenge. It was no enjoyable to be a Cassandra, delivering prophecies of doom whereas throughout you, soon-to-be-penniless idiots gloated about their Dogecoin features. Going Infinite has subsequently attracted essential evaluations from outstanding cryptoskeptics reminiscent of Molly White, who was interviewed for it, and Coffeezilla, the scourge of crypto scammers. (Isn’t it pleasing that mavericks working exterior the system at the moment are offering an enormous problem to a Michael Lewis narrative?)

That mentioned, even much less engaged readers will strategy this e-book with the plain query: Was FTX at all times going to fail? For me, that query was answered on web page 174, when Bankman-Fried wonders what to do with all his billions and considers “Anthony Scaramucci’s funding agency, SkyBridge.” The Mooch! In fact! What’s it about giving cash to a person who lasted solely 11 days as Donald Trump’s press secretary earlier than being fired for calling up a reporter and taking pictures his mouth off that doesn’t scream “I’ve nice judgment”? This whole interval, with SBF in his imperial pomp, had extra pink flags than a Chinese language Communist rally. In an April 2022 podcast, Bloomberg’s Matt Levine characterized Bankman-Fried’s personal rationalization of his technique again to him like this: “You’re identical to, ‘Nicely, I’m within the Ponzi enterprise, and it’s fairly good.’”

Lewis doesn’t embrace this trade within the e-book, nevertheless, and as an alternative writes: “As late as the ultimate days of October 2022, you could possibly have ransacked the jungle huts till you had been blue within the face and have had not the faintest sense that something was amiss.”

Believe me, I didn’t strategy this undertaking anticipating to evaluate the idea of Michael Lewis in addition to the textual content of Going Infinite. However it’s unavoidable, as a result of Lewis is not only any journalist. He’s a $10-a-word celebrity from the era earlier than clickbait and aggregation. At present, though his books are nonetheless best-sellers, his cool, omniscient fashion is out of step within the age of the first-person industrial advanced. Worse, his fame and success make him a one-man Hawthorne effect: He modifies conditions just by being current. Persons are clearly flattered to be the topics of a Michael Lewis e-book—simply as Walter Isaacson presumably snared Musk and Steve Jobs by declaring that his earlier biographies had been of Leonardo da Vinci and Albert Einstein.

Potential topics may additionally be flattered by … effectively, literal flattery. In Might 2022—effectively into the reporting for the e-book, 5 months earlier than the FTX collapse, and never lengthy after Matt Levine overtly used the phrases Ponzi enterprise in relation to crypto—Lewis interviewed Bankman-Fried onstage at a convention within the Bahamas. This incident doesn’t seem in Going Infinite, nevertheless it does function in one other new e-book on crypto. In Quantity Go Up, the rather more cryptoskeptic reporter Zeke Fake records Lewis asking “questions that had been so fawning they appeared inappropriate for a journalist.” (Lewis later confirmed to Fake that he was not paid to seem on the convention—not like Invoice Clinton, who took residence a reported $250,000 for sharing the stage with SBF.) “You have a look at the present monetary system, then you definitely have a look at what’s been constructed exterior the present monetary system by crypto, and the crypto model is healthier,” Lewis mentioned. “It eliminates every kind of rents, however the individuals who get these rents are actually pissed off on the concept of getting them taken away.” That should have been music to Bankman-Fried’s ears; he was a lone wizard disrupting a sclerotic set of vested pursuits.

Lewis’s stellar fame is so distorting that his fame and success rub off on his interviewees—they get showered with press consideration and portrayed on movie by Brad Pitt or Christian Bale, in addition to coming into one of many world’s most unique golf equipment. The author Samanth Subramanian described the constellation of economic whiz children, sports activities analysts, and star scientists that populate the books as “the Michael Lewis ecosystem—a rarefied, overwhelmingly male community inside American society.”

Lewis’s work contributes to one thing of a genius-making business, a silent and mutually useful transaction between anointer and anointed wherein sure persons are exalted. He’s proper to assume that this e-book will see him bracketed alongside Isaacson’s portraits of greatness, and lots of now discover the entire undertaking biased and undemocratic. Final month, one in every of Rolling Stone’s founding editors, Jann Wenner, declared that no ladies or individuals of colour had been “masters” of music who merited the distinction of being included in his e-book of collected interviews. Stevie Marvel and Joni Mitchell, he claimed, weren’t as “articulate” or philosophical as Bono and Mick Jagger. Wenner lost his seat on the board of the Rock and Roll Hame of Fame within the backlash to these feedback.

This rebellious temper has coloured the reception of Lewis’s work. A couple of weeks earlier than Going Infinite was printed, Michael Oher—who was the topic of Lewis’s 2006 e-book, The Blind Facet, which grew to become a movie starring Sandra Bullock—filed a lawsuit alleging, primarily, that Lewis had gotten his story all fallacious. The white household who took Oher in, the Tuohys, was not the savior of a poor Black child who wanted to go to varsity to satisfy his promise as a soccer participant, he claimed. As a substitute the household exploited him by means of a conservatorship. (The Tuohys agreed to dissolve the conservatorship however denied Oher’s declare that they “noticed the Petitioner as a gullible younger man whose athletic expertise could possibly be exploited for their very own profit.”)

When requested concerning the lawsuit, Lewis infected the state of affairs by suggesting that Oher had modified from the quiet striver he had identified. “That is what occurs to soccer gamers who get hit within the head: they run into issues with violence and aggression.”

Could Michael Lewis actually not have seen FTX for what it was proper till the tip? I suppose that is my very own prejudice exhibiting, however I discover it exhausting to imagine {that a} author as sensible as he’s—his 2016 work, The Undoing Mission, concerning the beginning of behavioral economics, is one in every of my favourite nonfiction books—could possibly be so blinkered. And the proof factors each methods. In April 2022, for instance, whereas claiming to not see any issues with FTX, Lewis was nonetheless asking its senior executives to do a “pre-mortem” on it: “Think about we’re sooner or later and your organization has collapsed: inform me the way it occurred.”

That’s fake naivete to attract out your interviewees, certainly, however elsewhere I detected the true factor. Describing his first assembly with the younger billionaire, Lewis uncritically relays Bankman-Fried’s view that his mother and father “had been regulation professors at Stanford who had mainly zero curiosity in cash and had been bewildered by what had turn into of their son.” As a reader, you nod alongside: tweedy professors with elbow patches and push-bikes, yada yada. I do know the kind. However then you definitely learn the chapter documents, which declare that Bankman-Fried employed his father as an adviser on a promised wage of $1 million. When a paycheck arrived for a fifth of that, his dad emailed him to remonstrate: “Gee, Sam I don’t know what to say right here. That is the primary [I] have heard of the 200K a yr wage! Placing Barbara on this.” (Barbara, bear in mind, is SBF’s mother.) This aspect of the household is absent from Lewis’s narrative. Of their place are a few austere eggheads straight out of central casting.

That is the hazard of “story”—what Joan Didion and Janet Malcolm, of their other ways, warned us to not belief. In fact Sam Bankman-Fried, the human automaton, would have eccentric teachers for folks. And so Joseph Bankman can fly on non-public jets, keep in $1,200-a-night resorts, and write emails complaining that $200,000 a yr isn’t sufficient for his nepo-dad non-job … and nonetheless get described as having “mainly zero curiosity in cash.”

That very same story calls for that Sam Bankman-Fried should be a visionary with no time for the little particulars moderately than, say, an easy criminal. For Lewis, taking this place is a wager as dangerous as something dreamed up by an overexcitable crypto day dealer. (He notes that the American courts hardly ever acquit in circumstances like this, at the same time as he yearns for the entire thing to be an enormous misunderstanding.) The voices of these burned by the FTX collapse, in the meantime, are notably absent from the narrative. A thousand tiny tragedies—a school fund vanished, retirement financial savings gone—are left unmourned.

Once you settle for the constraints of Lewis’s strategy, nevertheless, you might be free to get pleasure from its pleasures. He stays the best dwelling exponent of the plain fashion in reporting. Every phrase is perhaps value $10, however he studiously avoids $10 phrases. His eye for element is unsurpassed: A 2,000-pound, 14-inch dice of tungsten, an extremely dense steel, is ordered because the centerpiece of the Bahamas workplace. “Rising from the ocean of abstraction, the earth’s most concrete object,” he writes. Celebrities are wooed, jungles are cleared, playing is a metaphor for the whole lot. The exact descriptions of FTX’s organizational construction and its sailor-on-shore-leave strategy to price management depart you questioning the way it didn’t collapse earlier. And as a chronicle of collective delusion—a contemporary model of the Dutch tulip mania—Going Infinite is an prompt basic. I can’t consider many photographs as haunting because the one Lewis sketches of overgrown adolescents taking part in Storybook Brawl and writing each other relationship memos in the midst of a paradise that they by no means see as a result of they’re too busy ones and zeros on a display screen.

And if that is an instance of the “Nice Man” idea of historical past, then hardly ever has the Nice Man appeared so empty. “In a number of methods I don’t actually have a soul,” Bankman-Fried writes to his on-off secret girlfriend at one level. “I don’t really feel happiness.” As a protagonist, he’s antic, perplexing, gifted, dumb. (Once you’re positive that you simply’re smarter than everybody else, you are able to do issues which might be certainly very silly.) He strikes by means of the world like a magnet by means of iron filings. Persons are drawn to him; they mythologize him; they love him at the same time as he insists that he can’t love them again. Michael Lewis deserves enormous credit score for capturing him in all his infinite weirdness.

Naive or figuring out, harmless or responsible, Sam Bankman-Fried the person grew to become SBF the icon due to individuals and constructions which have survived the FTX crash with barely a scratch. Mark Zuckerberg, one other boy genius in ratty sneakers, as soon as described Twitter as a clown automotive that fell right into a gold mine. Sam Bankman-Fried was a Seth Rogen character who fell right into a tulip subject circa 1634. One other one shall be alongside in a minute. We by no means be taught.

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