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Sam Bankman-Fried Is an Uninspiring Scam Artist in Michael Lewis's 'Going Infinite'

By Dustin Rowles | Books | October 16, 2023 |

By Dustin Rowles | Books | October 16, 2023 |


I did not read Going Infinite: The Rise and Fall of a New Tycoon because I was interested in Sam Bankman-Fried but because I like Michael Lewis books. I read it despite SBF, in whom I have little interest. I do not care about Wall Street, finance, or crypto. I understand that the scam SBF pulled off is more significant than even that of Bernie Madoff, but I have less sympathy, overall, for his victims. From an outside perspective, FTX felt like a scam within a scam: A crooked firm within the crooked world of cryptocurrency. There is a finite amount of money. People who quickly make billions of dollars either do so off the backs of others or the money is illusory. In this case, it was both.

Michael Lewis’s book does not attempt to do a forensic accounting of SBF’s crimes. His investigation of the missing $8 billion is cursory, at best (PJ Vogt’s podcast, Search Engine, does a more thorough and entertaining examination of the missing $8 billion). Lewis has received plenty of criticism for it, but I don’t care that his book is not an indictment of SBF. It’s a character study.

As a character study, it’s fascinating mainly for how unfascinating SBF is. He’s not an interesting person, which proves that sometimes cults are less about their charming leaders and more about the money. The people surrounding SBF were only interested in him as a means to make it. Before starting his first company, Alameda Research, his colleagues at Jane Capital loathed him. At one point, the employees at Alameda Research tried to oust SBF because he was reckless and inspired little loyalty. Even after making billions, SBF essentially paid out millions of dollars for friends — he literally hired a guy to find people with whom he could hang out. Those people spent time with him only because he was rich and certainly not because he was interesting or insightful. Honestly, even his parents — Stanford legal professors — didn’t seem all that taken with their own son (especially relative to SBF’s brother).

Not that SBF seems to care. SBF feels no empathy. He has no emotions. He had to teach himself to simulate emotions through facial expressions because he was so offputting. He had to fake smile around other people so he wouldn’t creep them out. There are also anecdotes in Going Infinite about how he’d play video games while, for instance, Zooming with Anna Wintour, answering only “Yup” at the appropriate moments. The stories are not meant to illustrate his genius or suggest he is a brilliant multi-tasker. They’re intended to demonstrate what a dick SBF is.

Actually, being a dick requires intent. There was no malice behind SBF’s actions, as there was no malice behind SBF’s scams. He didn’t give a shit. He was adept at finding wrinkles in the system he could exploit — slight differences in the exchange rates he could arbitrage, for instance — but he wasn’t intellectually curious or seemingly all that knowledgable about the markets. Sam Bankman-Fried doesn’t read. How could anyone trust someone who doesn’t read with millions of dollars?

SBF has been criticized in podcasts for being so matter-of-fact about the Ponzi scheme he was running, but he was matter-of-fact because he doesn’t think his actions were particularly wrong. People gave him billions of dollars. He made bad bets. He sought to cover those bets with money from his other company. He failed. He kept poor financial records. He hid his profit motives behind some bullshit called effective altruism. What’s the big deal, he probably thinks?! Comme ci, comme ça. If they didn’t want to take big risks, why did they give their money to a guy who hasn’t showered in a week?

I don’t feel sympathy for SBF, just as he feels no empathy for his victims. That’s because he’s incapable of it However, I am annoyed because most people understand that if it looks too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true. With all the institutional knowledge these financial companies have, I don’t understand how they could think otherwise when a man who only wears a hoodie is involved.

SBF is probably going to spend the rest of his life in prison. He should. How much will a person who feels no emotions care? I’m not sure. Prison will not cause him to feel anything for his victims, employees, or Caroline Ellison. It will primarily make him feel intensely uncomfortable for the next 50 years because he can’t continue to play video games while others talk at him. It’s a punishment that fits the crime.

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