Sam Bankman-Fried is on trial for the biggest crypto fraud of all time, accused of stealing an astonishing $10 billion. Michael Lewis followed the Crypto King for eight months to give us an insight into a strange world where effective altruism went spectacularly wrong.
There’s a strange feeling in the tech industry of late – perhaps, during the fall of the Roman Empire, similar feelings permeated the societies under Roman rule. The modern-day amphitheater offers us mere mortals a glimpse into the lives of crazy crypto-billionaires like the missing Crypto Queen Ruja Ignatova. One of the more recent crypto fraud cases is that of the once-friend of stars and politicians, “Crypto King” Sam Bankman-Fried.
In “Going Infinite: The Rise and Fall of a New Tycoon,” author and financial journalist Michael Lewis gives the reader an insight into the enigma that is Sam Bankman-Fried. Lewis is clearly charmed by the man, to the point that the story almost made me feel that Lewis had a bit of a crush on him.
Eight months shadowing Bankman-Fried
The book opens in 2021 when Lewis was asked by a friend to check Bankman-Fried out before he closed a deal that would see him intrinsically linked to FTX and the Crypto King. Lewis’s friend felt that he understood FTX but not the man behind the platform – this was to become a theme of Bankman-Fried as an enigma playing computer games while the rest of Rome burns.
The enigmatic air of “there but not there” was a trademark of the man – perhaps not purposeful, but certainly a defining trait. Bankman-Fried’s “otherworldliness” is captured in Going Infinite with descriptions of his interactions, or rather lack of interaction, with big names across the world, from Hilary Clinton to Taylor Swift.
Lewis describes how Bankman-Fried regularly played computer games while on video calls with the rich and famous. In a description of a call with Vogue Magazine editor Anna Wintour, Lewis describes how Bankman-Fried plays a game on his computer while talking to Wintour and saying the word “Yup” whenever it seems appropriate. As Lewis put it, “he needed something, other than what he was expected to be thinking about, to occupy his mind. And so, oddly, the more important he became in the eyes of the world, the more important these games became to him.”
Lewis also gives an account of the much-put-upon PR director/odd job assistant Natalie Tien, who said that Sam was the hardest part of her job. In fact, Sam was the hardest part of most FTX employees’ jobs, as the book paints a picture of a man who takes no prisoners when it comes to putting the hours in: “Anyone at FTX who tried to live a normal life simply did not stick.” This expectation of all work, no play echoes some of the harsh realities of life under Elon Musk during the takeover of Twitter; maybe it’s a big tech thing to beat your chest and your employees?
Innocent man-child or a hardened fraudster?
To build a profile of the man, Lewis takes us on a trip down memory lane, exploring Bankman-Fried’s nerdy childhood and his days as an “MIT physics student who lost his interest in physics.”
Perhaps somewhat ironically, Lewis describes how Bankman-Fried never really cared about money. However, it was at an MIT job fair that he came across Wall Street and eventually found a summer internship at Jane Street Capital. Lewis goes into much detail about the interview with Jane Street traders, pointing out how the probability problems put to Bankman-Fried opened fresh ideas about his true capabilities. This may have been a turning point.
Throughout the book, Lewis paints a picture of Bankman-Fried as a kind of innocent man-child. He says: “One of the first things I noticed about Sam Bankman-Fried was how easy he was to steal from.” This picture of a naive spirit permeates the story.
Lewis spent eight months observing the empire that Bankman-Fried had built as a good, effective altruist, saving us all from a terrible world. But instead, he is standing trial with allegations of a $10 billion fraud over his head.
During the recently opened criminal trial of Sam Bankman-Fried, prosecutors have described how he “lied to the world” and that the FTX scandal is one of the “biggest financial frauds of a generation.” Bankman-Fried has put out a statement saying, “I didn’t steal funds, and I certainly didn’t stash billions away.”
“Brewed by pirates, for pirates”
Lewis takes us through a jungle of remembered meetings, thoughts, and visions captured from Bankman-Fried during his eight months with the man. Alameda Research and its neo-hippy governance are drawn into the book, as is Bankman-Fried’s love affair with Caroline Ellison, the CEO of Alameda. Bankman-Fried is accused of allegedly repaying billions of dollars of loans owed by Alameda using FTX funds.
The final chapter, “Coda,” describes a sad scene depicting Bankman-Fried’s office after the liquidators had been in. There were FTX beer cans with the tagline “Brewed by pirates, for pirates,” waiting to be consumed. The tchotchkes, coffee mugs, and even the eyeglasses of the former occupants remained on the desks exactly where they had been “when the volcano erupted.”
Going Infinite: The Rise and Fall of a New Tycoon by Michael Lewis has been criticized for its lack of objectivity, but it is still a good read. Time will tell if the FTX scandal results in Sam Bankman-Fried’s conviction or not. In the meantime, Lewis has described his book as a “letter to the jury.”
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