Even Michael Lewis Can’t Make a Hero Out of Sam Bankman-Fried

GOING INFINITE: The Rise and Fall of a New Tycoon, by Michael Lewis

Reading “Going Infinite,” Michael Lewis’s strange new book about the disgraced crypto entrepreneur Sam Bankman-Fried, you soon get the sense that Lewis felt unusually flummoxed by his material. Among the reliable pleasures offered by a Michael Lewis book are his formidable storytelling skills, his comic timing, his winsome confidence. He makes sure to give you an unsung hero to root for: the dedicated public servant, the renegade baseball general manager, the contrarian investor who doesn’t get snookered by the hype. Even Lewis’s first book, “Liar’s Poker,” which recounts all kinds of bad behavior on Wall Street, is structured around a young man named Michael Lewis who leaves the “absurd money game” of finance for the bright lights of journalism and best-sellerdom.

Bankman-Fried was supposed to be another hero in this vein — or at least that’s what Lewis suggests in the opening pages of “Going Infinite,” recalling how a friend who was about to close a deal with Bankman-Fried had asked Lewis to look into him. After his first meeting with Bankman-Fried at the end of 2021, Lewis says, he “was totally sold.” He called up his friend: “Go for it! Swap shares with Sam Bankman-Fried! Do whatever he wants to do! What could possibly go wrong?”

The profusion of exclamation points is a tipoff that Lewis is at least somewhat aware how dumb such optimism looks in retrospect — especially now that jury selection for Bankman-Fried’s trial on fraud charges is scheduled to begin on Tuesday, which is also the book’s publication date. But “Going Infinite” still contains zombie traces of the old unsung hero project, one that should have taken a definitive drubbing last November, when Bankman-Fried’s crypto empire imploded. Lewis, who traveled back and forth from the Bahamas, where Bankman-Fried was based, had, in the months leading up to the disaster, a front-row seat — from which he could apparently see nothing. “As late as the final days of October 2022,” he writes, “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.”

“Not the faintest sense”? That April, Bankman-Fried had given an infamous interview to Bloomberg’s Matt Levine in which he all but admitted that the cryptocurrency industry — the linchpin of the Bankman-Fried edifice — was like a Ponzi scheme. (Zeke Faux’s recent book “Number Go Up” offers a shrewdly skeptical view of crypto where “Going Infinite” is stubbornly credulous.) Not to mention that a crypto crash had already begun earlier that year.

But Bankman-Fried had long been positioning himself as a different kind of crypto guy. He was a vegan, because he cared about the earth; he slept on a beanbag chair by his desk, because he didn’t care about his personal comfort. In 2017, he helped found a crypto trading firm, Alameda Research, and two years later built a crypto futures exchange, FTX, because he was an effective altruist whose goal was to make enormous amounts of money to donate to worthy causes.

“Infinity dollars” was in fact how Bankman-Fried put it to Lewis at their first meeting, explaining how much money he needed to address existential risks, like an apocalypse started by artificial intelligence. Lewis found the discrepancy between Bankman-Fried’s grand ambitions and disheveled self-presentation intriguing. He was far from alone. The incessant video game-playing, the furtive lack of eye contact, the unkempt hair — it all became part of the billionaire’s brand, which was burnished by his supposed do-gooder intentions. While Lewis was shadowing Bankman-Fried, Bankman-Fried also seemed to be on an endless publicity tour, eager to sing to any journalist who was willing to listen.

And Lewis listened. He offers the quirky portrait that is standard fare in his books. We learn that Bankman-Fried is someone who is unmoved by art and disdainful of Shakespeare (“unrealistic characters, illogical plots and obvious endings”). He cares a lot about “humanity” but little about individual humans (“I guess I should care the same amount about everyone”). He has little patience with the concept of responsibility (“fault is just a construct of human society”). He allowed Lewis to read his “private writings,” in which he complained about being consistently misunderstood. “No one is curious,” a morose Bankman-Fried wrote while working at the quantitative trading firm Jane Street after college. “No one cares, not really, about the self I see.”

Given the financial wreckage in FTX’s wake, this kind of self-pity might sound like the world’s tiniest violin. Bankman-Fried is given ample space in this book to air his pet theories about what led to the collapse, while insisting that his intentions were always pure. Occasionally, Lewis will hand the mic to a devastated subordinate who finds Bankman-Fried’s excuses hard to swallow. “He made me try to believe it was an accounting error,” says one woman. He “let me go out and lie” for him, says another former employee. Lewis, for his part, says he kept trying to get to the bottom of what happened — though his endless interviews with Bankman-Fried seemed to yield diminishing returns: “I’d poke and prod and always come away with the sense that I’d learned less than I need to know.”

But this isn’t a book of investigative journalism; this is Lewis’s account of being a fly on the wall — a perspective that’s all well and good when your subject isn’t a billionaire savant who is charged with defrauding people who trusted him. Lewis seems so attached to the protagonist of his narrative that he takes an awful lot in stride. He tells us that Bankman-Fried is so worried about the threat to democracy posed by Donald Trump that he was planning to give the Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell “$15-$30 million” to “defeat the Trumpier candidates in the U.S. Senate races.” Thirty million? To Mitch McConnell? To save democracy? (Bankman-Fried also said that he was told that Trump might be willing to sit out the next election for $5 billion.)

Lewis ends his story by describing how Bankman-Fried’s parents were so fearful for their security that they purchased a German shepherd named Sandor, who had been trained to kill on command when given the correct instructions in German. The parents had learned the commands, but Sam had not. “So when Sam was in a room with the dog, it always felt as if some accident was waiting to happen,” Lewis writes. “It would have been very Sam Bankman-Fried to have been eaten by his own guard dog.”

Is this supposed to be a metaphor? Or maybe an attempt at a joke? Is Lewis trying to suggest that the guard dog is somehow like those former employees who are expected to testify against Bankman-Fried?

Lewis is an undeniably talented writer, but the subject of Sam Bankman-Fried doesn’t play to his strengths. He knows how to write a happy story, not a tragic one. I keep thinking about what Christina Rolle, the chief financial regulator in the Bahamas, said about Bankman-Fried soon after everything came crashing down. “I don’t think he knows why people don’t trust him,” she told Lewis. “It’s not hard to see you are being played by him, like a board game.”

GOING INFINITE: The Rise and Fall of a New Tycoon | By Michael Lewis | Norton | 254 pp. | $30

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