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The Billionaire Who Fell and the Journalist

The Journalist and the Fallen Billionaire

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In Going Infinite, Michael Lewis gets close—too close—to Sam Bankman-Fried.

SBF and Lewis
Illustration by The Atlantic. Sources: David Paul Morris / Jeenah Moon / Bloomberg.

Michael Lewis was captivated by Sam Bankman-Fried from their very first meeting—and on the evidence of Lewis’s new book, Going Infinite, his affection has not wavered in the two years since. Which is surprising, because Bankman-Fried is no longer a lauded cryptocurrency billionaire but an alleged con man, on trial for seven counts of fraud and money laundering. (He has pleaded not guilty.)

Lewis was introduced to Bankman-Fried by an unnamed friend, who was poised to invest in the latter’s crypto exchange, FTX. The deal “would bind their fates, through an exchange of shares in each other’s companies worth hundreds of millions of dollars,” and so, naturally, the friend wanted Lewis to check out this scatterbrained prodigy who had gotten rich from trading virtual money.

SBF duly turned up on Lewis’s porch in Berkeley, California, wearing cargo shorts and “ratty New Balance sneakers.” The pair took a walk together, talked about finance and philanthropy, and the older man came away impressed: “I called my friend and said something like: Go for it! Swap shares with Sam Bankman-Fried! Do whatever he wants to do! What could possibly go wrong?

And that, my friends, is a little literary technique we call “foreshadowing.” In November last year, FTX declared bankruptcy. The man who seemed destined to be the world’s first trillionaire—and who wanted to use his money “to address the biggest existential risks to life on earth”—instead ended up getting extradited from the Bahamas. FTX had loaned several billion dollars to Bankman-Fried’s trading firm, Alameda Research, leaving it without enough cash to match customer withdrawals. The legality of that loan is now a matter for the Daniel Patrick Moynihan U.S. Courthouse, in Manhattan, New York.

The Bankman-Fried story is a classic tale of hubris, and Michael Lewis had a backstage pass for all of it. Having acted as a food taster for his investor friend—revealed elsewhere to be Brad Katsuyama, the subject of his 2014 book, Flash Boys—he wound up shadowing SBF in the final days of his pomp, and during the run on FTX that brought him down.

Going Infinite is therefore a portrait of grandiose ambition, youthful arrogance, and the distorting power of money. This book contains possible polycules, earnest discussions of saving the Earth, and a supporting cast of grifters, vultures, and Gisele. We follow Bankman-Fried through his lonely childhood, with eccentric parents who don’t celebrate birthdays or holidays; on to his hiring by the high-frequency trading firm Jane Street Capital through a series of math puzzles; and then to his final destination at FTX, where he survives an early staff revolt and afterward rules as an absolute monarch.

In understated, streamlined prose, Lewis captures SBF’s weirdness. His protagonist’s knee is forever “jackhammering” under the table. His hair is always puffed into a “Jewfro.” He regularly sleeps on a beanbag near his desk. The trouble is that these details—already familiar from a thousand magazine profiles—are presented as a counterpoint to Bankman-Fried’s mathematical genius, when we all know they will be read as proof of it. He is a modern archetype: the human computer, too busy dreaming in binary to wash his own socks. Frankly, I would have been more surprised to learn that SBF was a competent manager and thoughtful friend rather than, as the book portrays him, an emotionally stunted slob with attention issues.

Notoriously, Michael Lewis prefers to write about unsung heroes, such as the scientists who foresaw the danger of the coronavirus or the oddball short sellers who predicted the 2008 financial crash. Here, though, he is confronted with a character who morphed into a villain halfway through his writing process. Over and over, I wondered if Lewis had constructed a box marked unconventional maverick takes on the banks and was trying to chop the limbs off the actual story to squash it inside.

Many anecdotes appear designed to present Bankman-Fried as a special star-child, but I think they make him sound like a prick. He plays a video game while on a Zoom call with Vogue’s Anna Wintour. He showers popcorn all over his private jet. He asks his closest colleagues to vote on a course of action and then ignores it. The word that captures him more than any other is careless. He is careless of his appearance, careless of other people’s feelings, and careless of their money.

His gender and age are essential to this portrait. Bankman-Fried needs to be a boy genius for the trick to work, for his little foibles to be excused. There was no “adult supervision” at FTX, Lewis writes, no “wizened adults” to restrain its excesses. (Everyone involved was above legal age.) Bankman-Fried “thought grown-ups were pointless,” and that category included banks and governments. After FTX files for bankruptcy, Lewis recounts how two female employees, Constance Wang and Quinn Li, remained in its empty Bahamas compound, along with Bankman-Fried. Wang alternates between pumping him for information—she has since cooperated with the authorities, and has not been charged with any crime—and cooking him dinner. When police turn up to arrest SBF, his mom, Barbara, “stopped arguing with Sam about what he could say to Congress, and started arguing with him about what he should wear to jail. She wanted him to put on long pants. Sam insisted on remaining in his cargo shorts.” (Find me a middle-aged woman who would be indulged like this—petted and coddled and absolved of basic human responsibilities. No such person exists.)

While Li hunts for fresh 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 book is that he gets close to his subjects—in this case, uncomfortably close. That isn’t such a problem in the early half of the book, where its protagonist is still a wild-haired wunderkind. But later, it begins to read like the case for the defense.

When relaying the popcorn and the socks and the stuffed animal, Lewis makes the editorial choice to let these details speak for themselves, rather than provide a condemnatory gloss. That said, even as detached and ironic a narrator as Lewis cannot restrain himself from questioning Bankman-Fried’s wisdom in paying Shark Tank’s Kevin O’Leary $15.7 million for “twenty service hours, twenty social posts, one virtual lunch and fifty autographs” to promote FTX. After the crypto exchange’s collapse, he wonders about the missing billions but can’t stop himself from blurting out, “You paid Kevin O’Leary for virtual lunch? Seriously?”

He also refrains from delivering a verdict on effective altruism, or EA, a philosophical movement that has suffered from becoming part of the SBF mythology. In its best form, effective altruism is a doctrine that brings rigor and accountability to charitable donations. (Mosquito nets for malarial regions: good. Vast bureaucratic NGOs: bad.) Bankman-Fried was a zealous apostle for the cause; several times in the book, he claims to be making billions from crypto only so that he can give it away. But instead of saving lives that already exist, the proponents of EA soon become obsessed with future generations as yet unborn. They worry about artificial intelligence and climate collapse and asteroid strikes (at least until they do the math on the last of these and discover that they are extremely unlikely). These sections of Going Infinite radiate doomsday-cult vibes. But Lewis withholds judgment, even when SBF and friends are shown fretting about the end of the world while their own company slides toward oblivion.

His wry, amused, noninterventionist approach is a high-risk one. Ahead of publication, the author told The Guardian that he was aware of something “in the air—around Walter Isaacson’s book [on Elon Musk] and probably around mine—this kind of suspicion-slash-hostility towards the journalist who really gets to know their subject, that it’s access journalism, or you got too close or whatever.”

The central question of Going Infinite is about naivete—was Sam Bankman-Fried a knowing huckster, or was he a dewy-eyed innocent circled by sharks? (For what it’s worth, the takeaway should be the same: We need banking regulations to protect us from idiots and criminals.) Lewis is Team Dewy-Eyed Innocent; he doubts that the Alameda arrangement was a deliberate fraud, and bolsters his case by noting that millions keep turning up, of which SBF and friends have simply lost track. But that makes you wonder whether Lewis, too, has been naive. His story rests on a bedrock of “No one saw this coming,” when the reality is that plenty of people did.

At the end of last year—right when FTX was collapsing—I made a documentary about the quasi-religious overtones of crypto. For some of those 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 asked investors to put faith in digital tokens often traded in financially opaque tax havens, just might have some problems. (The crypto boom arose in response to the 2008 financial crisis and a feeling of mistrust with conventional banking. But the big banks got a government bailout when they overreached. No one would come to save crypto.) Opposing these naysayers, however, were legions of influencers telling anyone who would listen that crypto was the future of finance—open, democratic, free from government control.

The boosters were persuasive, because, initially, the numbers did go up. Five years ago, a single Bitcoin cost about $6,000. By the fall of 2021, it was worth 10 times that. As more and more regular folks bought into Bitcoin and other tokens, their prices soared—and some of that money went straight back into convincing even more people to believe the hype. Remember last year’s Super Bowl? Every other advert was for crypto, including one from FTX that starred Larry David.

At the same time, many mainstream journalists—arts graduates who didn’t understand phrases such as DeFi and WAGMI but could smell a money geyser when it was raining celebrities on them—wrote articles about SBF that didn’t trouble themselves with the sustainability or legality of what he was doing. At one point in Going Infinite, Bankman-Fried’s media handler gives him a note reading: “You can’t avoid the Financial Times guy but be very cautious around anyone from the Financial Times because the Financial Times is very anti-crypto.” (In other words: The Financial Times guy is numerate. Beware.) Lewis documents this reputation-laundering process in gory detail. Something is grubby and déclassé … until it succeeds so extraordinarily that it becomes easier to pretend that it is and always has been respectable. See also: Donald Trump.

Today, after a series of crypto hacks and collapses, the skeptics want justice—or maybe revenge. It was no fun to be a Cassandra, delivering prophecies of doom while all around you, soon-to-be-penniless idiots gloated about their Dogecoin gains. Going Infinite has therefore attracted critical reviews from prominent cryptoskeptics such as Molly White, who was interviewed for it, and Coffeezilla, the scourge of crypto scammers. (Isn’t it pleasing that mavericks working outside the system are now providing a huge challenge to a Michael Lewis narrative?)

That said, even less engaged readers will approach this book with the obvious question: Was FTX always going to fail? For me, that question was answered on page 174, when Bankman-Fried wonders what to do with all his billions and considers “Anthony Scaramucci’s investment firm, SkyBridge.” The Mooch! Of course! What is it about giving money to a man who lasted only 11 days as Trump’s press secretary before being fired for calling up a reporter and shooting his mouth off that doesn’t scream “I have great judgment”? This entire period, with SBF in his imperial pomp, had more red flags than a Chinese Communist rally. In an April 2022 podcast, Bloomberg’s Matt Levine characterized Bankman-Fried’s own explanation of his strategy back to him like this: “You’re just like, ‘Well, I’m in the Ponzi business, and it’s pretty good.’”

Lewis does not include this exchange in the book, however, and instead writes, “As late as the final days of October 2022, you could have ransacked the jungle huts until you were blue in the face and have had not the faintest sense that anything was amiss.”

Believe me, I didn’t approach this project expecting to review the concept of Michael Lewis as well as the text of Going Infinite. But it is unavoidable, because Lewis is not just any journalist. He is a $10-a-word superstar from the generation before clickbait and aggregation. Today, although his books are still best sellers, his cool, omniscient style is out of step in the age of the first-person industrial complex. Worse, his fame and success make him a one-man Hawthorne effect: He changes situations simply by being present. People are clearly flattered to be the subjects of a Michael Lewis book—just as Walter Isaacson presumably snared Musk and Steve Jobs by pointing out that his previous biographies were of Leonardo da Vinci and Albert Einstein.

Potential subjects might also be flattered by … well, literal flattery. In May 2022—well into the reporting for the book, five months before the FTX collapse, and not long after Matt Levine openly used the words Ponzi business in relation to crypto—Lewis interviewed Bankman-Fried onstage at a conference in the Bahamas. This incident doesn’t appear in Going Infinite, but it does feature in another new book on crypto. In Number Go Up, the much more cryptoskeptic reporter Zeke Faux records Lewis asking “questions that were so fawning they seemed inappropriate for a journalist.” (Lewis later confirmed to Faux that he was not paid to appear at the conference—unlike Bill Clinton, who took home a reported $250,000 for sharing the stage with SBF.) “You look at the existing financial system, then you look at what’s been built outside the existing financial system by crypto, and the crypto version is better,” Lewis said. “It eliminates all kinds of rents, but the people who get those rents are really pissed off at the idea of having them taken away.” That must have been music to Bankman-Fried’s ears; he was a lone wizard disrupting a sclerotic set of vested interests.

Lewis’s stellar reputation is so distorting that his fame and success rub off on his interviewees—they get showered with press attention and portrayed on film by Brad Pitt or Christian Bale, as well as entering one of the world’s most exclusive clubs. The writer Samanth Subramanian described the constellation of financial whiz kids, sports analysts, and star scientists that populate the books as “the Michael Lewis ecosystem—a rarefied, overwhelmingly male network within American society.”

Lewis’s work contributes to something of a genius-making industry, a silent and mutually beneficial transaction between anointer and anointed in which certain people are exalted. He is right to think that this book will see him bracketed alongside Isaacson’s portraits of greatness, and many now find the whole project biased and undemocratic. Last month, one of Rolling Stone’s founding editors, Jann Wenner, declared that no women or people of color were “masters” of music who merited the honor of being included in his book of collected interviews. Stevie Wonder and Joni Mitchell, he claimed, were not as “articulate” or philosophical as Bono and Mick Jagger. Wenner lost his seat on the board of the Rock and Roll Hame of Fame in the backlash to those comments.

This rebellious mood has colored the reception of Lewis’s work. A few weeks before Going Infinite was published, Michael Oher—who was the subject of Lewis’s 2006 book, The Blind Side, which became a film starring Sandra Bullock—filed a lawsuit alleging, essentially, that Lewis had gotten his story all wrong. The white family who took Oher in, the Tuohys, was not the savior of a poor Black kid who needed to go to college to fulfill his promise as a football player, he claimed. Instead, the family exploited him through a conservatorship. (The Tuohys agreed to dissolve the conservatorship but denied Oher’s claim that they “saw the Petitioner as a gullible young man whose athletic talent could be exploited for their own benefit.”)

When asked about the lawsuit, Lewis inflamed the situation by suggesting that Oher had changed from the quiet striver he had known: “This is what happens to football players who get hit in the head: they run into problems with violence and aggression.”

Could Michael Lewis really not have seen FTX for what it was right until the end? I guess this is my own prejudice showing, but I find it hard to believe that a writer as smart as he is—his 2016 work, The Undoing Project, about the birth of behavioral economics, is one of my favorite nonfiction books—could be so blinkered. And the evidence points both ways. In April 2022, for example, while claiming not to see any problems with FTX, Lewis was nevertheless asking its senior executives to do a “pre-mortem” on it: “Imagine we’re in the future and your company has collapsed: tell me how it happened.”

That’s faux naivete to draw out your interviewees, surely, but elsewhere I detected the real thing. Describing his first meeting with the young billionaire, Lewis uncritically relays Bankman-Fried’s view that his parents “were law professors at Stanford who had basically zero interest in money and were bewildered by what had become of their son.” As a reader, you nod along: tweedy professors with elbow patches and push-bikes, yada yada. I know the type. But then you read the bankruptcy documents, which claim that Bankman-Fried hired his father as an adviser on a promised salary 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 here. This is the first [I] have heard of the 200K a year salary! Putting Barbara on this.” (Barbara, remember, is SBF’s mom.) This side of the family is absent from Lewis’s narrative. In their place are a couple of austere eggheads straight out of central casting.

This is the danger of “story”—what Joan Didion and Janet Malcolm, in their different ways, warned us not to trust. Of course Sam Bankman-Fried, the human automaton, would have eccentric academics for parents. And so Joseph Bankman can fly on private jets, stay in $1,200-a-night hotels, and write emails complaining that $200,000 a year isn’t enough for his nepo-dad non-job … and still get described as having “basically zero interest in money.”

That same story demands that Sam Bankman-Fried be a visionary with no time for the little details rather than, say, a straightforward crook. For Lewis, taking this position is a bet as risky as anything dreamed up by an overexcitable crypto day trader. (He notes that the American courts rarely acquit in cases like this, even as he yearns for the whole thing to be a giant misunderstanding.) The voices of those burned by the FTX collapse, meanwhile, are notably absent from the narrative. A thousand tiny tragedies—a college fund vanished, retirement savings gone—are left unmourned.

Once you accept the limitations of Lewis’s approach, however, you are free to enjoy its pleasures. He remains the greatest living exponent of the plain style in reporting. Each word might be worth $10, but he studiously avoids $10 words. His eye for detail is unsurpassed: A 2,000-pound, 14-inch cube of tungsten, an incredibly dense metal, is ordered as the centerpiece of the Bahamas office. “Rising from the sea of abstraction, the earth’s most concrete object,” he writes. Celebrities are wooed; jungles are cleared; gambling is a metaphor for everything. The precise descriptions of FTX’s organizational structure and its sailor-on-shore-leave approach to cost control leave you wondering how it didn’t collapse earlier. And as a chronicle of collective delusion—a modern version of the Dutch tulip mania—Going Infinite is an instant classic. I can’t think of many images as haunting as the one Lewis sketches of overgrown adolescents playing Storybook Brawl and writing one another relationship memos in the middle of a paradise that they never see because they are too busy looking at ones and zeros on a screen.

And if this is an example of the “Great Man” theory of history, then rarely has the Great Man seemed so empty. “In a lot of ways I don’t really have a soul,” Bankman-Fried writes to his on-off secret girlfriend at one point. “I don’t feel happiness.” As a protagonist, he is antic, perplexing, gifted, dumb. (When you’re sure that you’re smarter than everyone else, you can do things that are indeed very stupid.) He moves through the world like a magnet through iron filings. People are drawn to him; they mythologize him; they love him even as he insists that he can’t love them back. Michael Lewis deserves huge credit for capturing him in all his infinite weirdness.

Naive or knowing, innocent or guilty, Sam Bankman-Fried the man became SBF the icon because of people and structures that have survived the FTX crash with barely a scratch. Mark Zuckerberg, another boy genius in ratty shoes, once described Twitter as a clown car that fell into a gold mine. Sam Bankman-Fried was a Seth Rogen character who fell into a tulip field circa 1634. Another one will be along in a minute. We never learn.

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