I don’t know what I expected from Michael Lewis in his new book about Sam Bankman-Fried, but I can tell you that I expected more than crypto mania and tulip mania analogies.
Unfortunately, that’s what I got.
It’s definitely possible to write a thoughtful book exploring the good and the bad of the world of crypto, no matter how you personally feel: Writing that the “mania for crypto recalled […] when a single tulip bulb traded for roughly triple the price of a Rembrandt” is far too hackneyed to cut it anymore.
As this is now my third book review this year of books about Sam Bankman-Fried, I consider myself one of only a few experts on books about Sam Bankman-Fried. And while each book about SBF that I’ve read has given me a different angle into his life and businesses, Lewis’ book has definitely given me the most biased angle of them all.
“Going Infinite” was intended to be a success story. Unfortunately, when its main character turned into a failure overnight, so did the book.
After FTX blew up last year, a lot of really rich and really important people had to ask themselves — how did we get totally bamboozled by Sam? It was a reckoning that left many both financially and personally embarrassed. As just one example, powerful venture capital fund Sequoia Capital even took down their fawning blog post about how wonderful it was that SBF could take important investor calls while playing video games.
And rightfully so, it’s embarrassing!
Michael Lewis, apparently, feels no such embarrassment.
Just like the now-deleted blog post, Lewis takes a chapter to expound on how wild it is (implying what a sign of genius it is) that Sam was able to play Storybook Brawl while on a video call with Anna Wintour (with undue awe on the audacity of how SBF even took the call only having a vague idea what Vogue is).
Lewis then spends a significant amount of time on how Sam was allowed to “be Sam.” Being Sam, as Lewis describes it, revolved around an inability to truly commit to any event, call or meeting until the night before, as that was when he could fully calculate the benefits of the outcomes of attendance. Being Sam meant shooting popcorn and peanuts into your mouth on a plane, missing 40% of the time, and leaving the food littered on the floor for someone else to clean up. Being Sam is looking down on people who don’t think like you.
“[Sam would] need to hire some lower-IQ people to do the boring stuff, like finding office space and getting food for traders and paying utility bills and probably lots of other things that he hadn’t thought of.”
None of all this is wild or cool or a sign of genius. Writing off this behavior as cute and quirky is a gross misconception that clearly feeds into the now debunked, calculated media portrayal of Sam as a lovable, messy nerd who can’t tie his shoelaces, let alone steal $8 billion dollars.
Read our book review of Zeke Faux’s Number Go Up: Love crypto? Read this book. Hate crypto? Read this book.
In his very writing throughout the book, Lewis seems to unconsciously adopt Sam’s disdain for anyone who is outside the effective altruism movement, or even outside his current line of vision. Perhaps disdain is the wrong word; total lack of interest and ability to see others as human beings might be more apt.
And this portrait of Sam isn’t helped by Lewis’ oft-repeated refrain that Sam lives in a world apart from “grown-ups” — a refrain that does not sit right with me, or anyone else who knows how old Sam is.
“The truth was that grown-ups bored him. All they did was slow him down.”
Constantly referring to anyone over Sam’s age as a “grown-up” infantilizes Sam for no reason: He is not a 15-year-old wunderkind who ran a company into the ground, he is a 31-year-old man who ran a company into the ground.
Setting aside Lewis’ clear admiration for Sam’s character and business acumen, the book contains several odd disconnects in logic in its description of Sam in the bargain.
Lewis writes that Sam is able to get loans totaling $170 million from the effective altruism community to start trading at Alameda Research. But some time later, when he needed money to start FTX, Lewis then writes that “Sam didn’t have any friends with the kind of money he needed.” Yes, there was an internal fight at Alameda with Sam that split the EA community, but it defies logic to imagine that it was a clean split dividing the monied half and the broke half.
Read our book review of Brady Dale’s How the FTX Bankruptcy Unwound Crypto’s Very Bad Good Guy: Drowning in Sam Bankman-Fried, a survival guide
This isn’t the only fallacy in the book — Lewis writes how Sam is shocked as a child to find out that people actually believe in God, but later writes that Sam believed God tweaked the profession of trading to make it “more congruent with his mind.” Lewis writes how Sam was “trying to buy a seat in Congress,” and then essentially on the next page, continues: “Trump’s assault on the government, and on the integrity of US elections, belonged, to Sam’s way of thinking, on the same list as pandemics and artificial intelligence and climate change.”
You can’t have it both ways. Is SBF confused about his own personality and beliefs here, or is Lewis?
Lewis ends the book by spending more time poking fun at what he sees as the weakness in John J. Ray III’s bankruptcy strategy than he does on any examination of FTX’s business strategy. Even though my expertise is not in bankruptcy proceedings, I have to imagine that the man who handled the aftermath of Enron isn’t a total chump. But if I only had Lewis’ description to go off of, I’d leave with the impression that he is an old fool. You can practically hear SBF’s own frustrations with how the bankruptcy is handled — on top of how little Ray understands about cryptocurrency — in Lewis’ final chapters.
The fact that Lewis is more critical in the last 20 pages of how the FTX bankruptcy is handled than he is of how FTX is run in the first 200 says all that you need to know about this book. If I didn’t know that Sam was under house arrest during its writing, I’d imagine that he had been dictating the pages in a whisper to stenographer Lewis over his shoulder.
Don’t miss a moment of SBF’s time in court. Stay up to date with all trial coverage from Blockworks.
I don’t care much about tech, I don’t care a whole lot about finance, either. I care about writing stories and watching weird things unfold. And that’s why I’ve ended up in crypto.
But because I’m missing that passion for what crypto and blockchain are all about — finance, tech, privacy, yadda yadda — I’m going to write instead about what I am actually interested in. Everything about crypto that has very little to do with crypto.
That’s what this column will be about. All the tangential stories that come out of the blockchain and crypto space, what I think about them, and how I navigate it all as a skeptical former Russian literature major.
It’s precisely my perch as an outsider that lets me do what I do: Opine on all sides of any crypto issue, no strings attached, no skin in the game.
If you want to talk crypto with me, let’s go off topic.
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