I’m a long time fan of Michael Lewis, and so was eager to read his new book about Sam Bankman-Fried (SBF), Going Infinite: The Rise and Fall of a New Tycoon. Like many of Lewis’ books, being uninterested in the subject matter he addresses (baseball, finance, organizational psychology, crypto currency) is no impediment to reading and enjoying his work (though I will say, I personally find all of these topics interesting). He’s a fabulous storyteller and a great teacher in the sense that he makes everything he writes about fascinating. This is in large part because he picks curious characters to research and write about. Going Infinite is no exception.
Here’s some background if you don’t know anything about SBF, or his now bankrupt companies Alameda Research (a hedge fund) and FTX (a crypto currency exchange). SBF joined a hedge fund out of university and parlayed that knowledge into the crypto space, creating Alameda Research. He then expanded by creating FTX, an exchange where people could trade different kinds of crypto currency. At its height, these two businesses valued SBF’s wealth at over $30 billion at the young age of 26. Within a couple of years of reaching these heights, there was a ‘run on the bank’ that forced FTX into bankruptcy, revealing that SBF had in fact engaged in financial fraud, for which he has been recently convicted.
However, in Lewis’ telling, the incredible success and ultimate bankruptcy of SBF is not even the really interesting part. The focus of the story is SBF himself, and his commitment to Effective Altruism, a way of allocating resources for the best possible impact on humanity (kind of an extreme, data-based utilitarianism). Let’s start with the first. SBF is painted as a kind of tragic, yet exceptionally talented person. He is a brilliant, independent thinker, and outstanding at solving complex and dynamic problems. He is skeptical of authority and accepted belief, and wasn’t bothered by others’ opinions of him. These were the qualities that led to his enormous success, as he could comfortably think against the grain of accepted opinion. They were also the exact reasons why he failed so spectacularly. His lack of empathy and EQ made him a terrible manager, and along with his anti-authoritarianism, unwilling to take the experience of others as valuable if he could not think his way through their guidance. This immunity from the wisdom of others (as well as the consequences of his poor decisions arising, it would seem, from not being willing to accept either norms or even laws) made him both an original thinker, but also unable to engage in a broader set of social dynamics that were thrust upon him with the growth of FTX. Even before his epic failure, I found myself pitying him, in spite of his success.
The other pillar of the book is Effective Altruism (EA). SBF framed the goal of his desire for wealth as being about making the most amount of money in order to have the most positive impact on humanity as a whole, not for his personal indulgence. And it would seem that this was indeed true, at least to a very real degree. EA reflects a relatively new and growing approach to moral decision making, grounded in data and utilitarian principles. In Lewis’ analysis, SBF’s absence of feeling toward any single person was displaced onto a general care for humanity as a whole (i.e. with no demand that he care for any specific person), in the rational framework of EA. This is what made EA so attractive to the unemotional SBF. Throughout the story we see the power of this approach, and, like so much with SBF, its dysfunction when taken to an extreme.
While not my favorite Michael Lewis book, it was definitely well worth reading. I was curious about how the book was received by those who know more than I do about crypto (um, almost everyone), or who might not have accepted Lewis’ read of SBF. I thought this one, by Molly White, was thoughtful and worth thinking about as a point of contrast.
Just Because I Liked It:
- I was totally inspired by Avi Fishoff in his interview on Meaningful People. Just because he has a big heart, Avi created a home for young people who were homeless (and on drugs) called Home Sweet Home. He had no idea what he was doing, but made an indelible impact on virtually every person who walked through his doors.
- Who knew there were so many halachic questions about Amazon in Halacha! This was another great interview on Halacha Headlines.
- Yesterday was the Hilula of the Baba Sali. If your Hebrew is good enough, it’s worth taking a moment (see here – thank you Rabbi Kadoch!) to take in some of the miracles he made possible. But don’t forget, while his miraculous stories are often told, they are only on the back of his incredible knowledge of Torah.