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To Infinity and Back
Assorted thoughts on Sam Bankman-Fried and “Going Infinite”
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Michael Lewis is incredibly lucky that FTX collapsed when it did.
When everything came off the rails, he’d been following Sam Bankman-Fried for a while, and, by his own account, was charmed. If the company could have just held on for another year, Lewis probably would have published the book he was originally writing—the one in which FTX is a classic success story, and Sam one of his typical heroic protagonists. Then, when the collapse finally came, he’d have looked like an idiot. Instead, he has the literary scoop of the year.
Sam the Sociopath
Some critics have called Going Infinite a hagiography, primarily because Lewis leaves open the possibility that Sam is innocent.
More importantly, anyone who thinks this book is a hagiography isn’t reading closely enough. Lewis paints a picture of SBF as, at best, someone who has something seriously wrong with him, and at worst a full-on sociopath.
Sam has to teach himself to make normal facial expressions so that he doesn’t frighten his coworkers. He feels nothing in the presence of art. The people around him are continually disturbed by his indifference to others’ feelings. In his own telling, he never experiences pleasure or happiness. He tells a prospective lover that he makes everyone around him sad and describes his effect on women he dates as “harrowing.” He says—this is a verbatim quote—“in a lot of ways, I don’t really have a soul.”
Amusingly, he also seems to have an unusual talent for modeling how Donald Trump’s mind works. (Allegedly, Trump’s ambiguous endorsement of “Eric” in that Missouri Senate primary where both candidates were named Eric was SBF’s idea.) I will leave an interpretation of what this might mean as an exercise to the reader.
Utilitarianism, Beauty, and Joy
It’s no wonder that someone who can’t feel happiness was drawn to a hardcore form of utilitarianism that focused exclusively on alleviating suffering. Sam’s professed ethics perfectly match his personal psychology. There’s no vision of beauty or joy or any positive good at all. Good is nothing but the absence of a negative.
Sam considers himself the ultimate rationalist, but his ethics are a good reminder that no matter how “rationally” we think we’re evaluating the world, our beliefs are inevitably downstream of our psychological makeup.
Sam professed to care about humanity as a whole, but it doesn’t seem like he ever cared about an actual, living person. Throughout the book, his reduction of all moral questions to probabilities and expected value comes across as borderline nihilistic. In that, and in his insistence that beauty and pleasure are unimportant concepts with no relation to ethics or morality, he is one of the least Nietzschean figures I’ve ever encountered.
Ethics Starts at Home
Here’s a good rule of thumb: if you’re an asshole to all the people around you, you are probably not a “good person,” no matter how much good you profess to be doing in the world at a more abstract level.
Sam is an asshole on every single page of this book. The only time I found myself liking him is when he explores the feasibility of simply paying Donald Trump not to run for president a second time. (Apparently, the Trump team got back to him with a number: $5bn. Weirdly good insight into the man’s psychology, right?)
Sam treats everything in his schedule as optional and constantly breaks appointments, even with his own parents. At his first company, he’s such a bad leader that all his cofounders try to remove him, but they can’t, because he kept 100% of the equity for himself. At FTX, he actively avoids multiple people who directly report to him. He sleeps with an employee; then, when she confesses her romantic feelings for him, he moves to Hong Kong to avoid her. And, of course, when the company implodes, he spins a story in which it’s everyone’s fault but his.
Also, even without the fraud, FTX was a morally questionable business. I’m not anti-crypto (I still own some), but “investing” in it is basically just gambling. I think gambling should be legal, but I wouldn’t go into the casino business. And pushing it on regular people by preying on their fear of missing out, as FTX did with their super bowl ad, is morally indefensible.
Another thing that’s morally indefensible? Not subscribing to Candy for Breakfast.
Many writers have criticized the leaders of the effective altruism movement for getting so close to Sam, implying that they should have foreseen his ethical lapses. The criticism is directionally correct, but the specifics are wrong. EA leaders shouldn’t have gotten so close to Sam because running a crypto exchange is not a particularly ethical way to make money, and that matters, regardless of what you plan to do with the money later on.
Sam and Sex
For someone who supposedly can’t feel pleasure and who doesn’t have “desires” in the traditional sense, Sam sure likes to fuck. The book alludes to several romantic and sexual relationships, including the infamous one with his meek subordinate Caroline Ellison1. (In the best line in the book, Lewis writes, “Sam wanted to do whatever at any given moment offered the highest expected value, his estimate of [Caroline’s] expected value seemed to peak right before they had sex and plummet immediately after. I bet he smiled to himself after he came up with that one.)
Perhaps this is too much to ask of a Michael Lewis book, but I would have loved a deeper dive into this particular element of Sam’s psychology. My best guess is that sex, for him, is less about the pursuit of pleasure and more like scratching an itch—something you’re driven to not because doing it feels good but because not doing it feels bad. Taking a lot of stimulants—something Sam was apparently doing daily—can certainly create this sort of manic, disconnected horniness. (There’s zero mention of drugs in this book, which seems like a mysterious absence.)
Did He Do It?
Unlike pretty much everyone else who has written about this, Lewis leaves open the possibility that Sam is innocent. In his telling, FTX may have had unconscionably sloppy accounting practices, been negligent in how they managed customers’ money, and lost enormous sums on a series of bad bets—but they may not have knowingly defrauded those customers. This is essentially the same argument SBF’s team is making in court.
But: does it even matter? The carelessness it takes to accidentally lose track of eight billion dollars is still appalling. In some ways it’s even worse than outright theft. I have grudging respect for someone who pulls off an enormous con, whereas I have nothing but disdain for someone who loses billions just because they’re too lazy or stupid to implement proper accounting practices.
The more striking thing is that Sam’s entire defense—that FTX’s collapse was negligence, not fraud—rests on a distinction that is irrelevant according to Sam’s self-professed utilitarian ethics. It’s an argument focused on intent coming from someone who claims to believe that only the effects of your actions matter.
I can’t exactly fault him for going with whatever legal defense he thinks has the best chance of working—in the courtroom, we’re all deontologists. But no matter what the jury decides, he’s undeniably guilty according to his own ethical system.
Unlike SBF, I can feel joy, mostly from people hitting the like button when they enjoy my writing.
Who, I recently learned, went to the same high school as me. She’s five years younger, so we just missed each other.