I haven’t read Michael Lewis’ The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, but I find it difficult to believe that the author expressed much sympathy for those involved in the United States housing bubble prior to the 2008 financial crisis. By contrast, his account of former FTX CEO Sam Bankman-Fried (SBF) is relatively glowing.
In Going Infinite: The Rise and Fall of a New Tycoon, published on Oct. 3, Lewis released many largely unknown details about the fall of FTX. That included SBF’s attempt to pay former President Donald Trump to not run for the office again, and writing a list of pros and cons for former Alameda Research CEO Caroline Ellison about their sexual relationship. But what stood out wasn’t the background about Bankman-Fried — it was the fact that the overwhelming majority of material focused on explaining how SBF’s brain worked with respect to money and his interactions with other people.
An entire chapter was devoted to SBF’s own motivations behind effective altruism: the idea that people should make as much money as possible in order to give it away and make the world a better place. But the term also seemed to be the theme of the book, painting a picture of SBF as someone who gathered effective altruists with little or no experience in crypto or finance to launch Alameda and FTX to framing them as crusaders working toward a noble cause — largely ignoring what was happening on the other side, with many FTX users losing their savings once everything came crashing down.
When FTX was forced to declare bankruptcy in November 2022, a lot of people were hurt, financially and emotionally. Some media outlets had portrayed SBF as a rising star who might one day bridge the divide between crypto and traditional finance, and FTX held billions of dollars from many retail investors. Unless those investors were quick enough to cash out immediately once the exchange’s downward spiral started, most have been cut off from their funds for months.
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According to the book, Ellison’s farewell message to Alameda employees in the wake of the collapse seemed carefree, disconnected from the reality of people losing jobs, money, and credibility. It seemed as though there was only one time when Lewis changed this narrative, describing a conversation between former FTX chief operating officer Constance Wang and SBF following the exchange’s bankruptcy.
“When you were doing this,” said Wang, “Have you ever thought how much this event will be hurting people, and does that count as part of your ‘initial expected value’ calculation?”
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Both before and after writing about this confrontation, however, Lewis seemed to in many ways infantilize Bankman-Fried, often framing the narrative around him as a highly skilled trader but outright incompetent at tasks most adults take for granted. He included details of FTX’s headquarters in the Bahamas, which was planned around a space for a cube made of pure tungsten. The book ended with Lewis’ own discovery of the object — and SBF’s only feedback on the endeavor: “badminton courts.”
If the prosecutors trying the case against the former FTX CEO only had the information available in Going Infinite, it’s doubtful there would have been any charges. The matter could have been considered a misunderstanding and settled outside of court. Lewis himself concluded FTX user funds had gone “nowhere” and implied hedge fund managers had no knowledge of wrongdoing prior to the exchange’s collapse.
“All sorts of people who had no idea exactly what had happened inside Sam’s world now thought they knew all they needed to know. A surprising number of them thought the crime should have been obvious all along. It hadn’t been.”