Stephen DUBNER: I feel like, as much as Sam Bankman-Fried has been in the center of a vortex, that you’re close to the center as well. Can you just tell me what your life has been like the past couple months?
Michael LEWIS: Um, surprisingly controversial. This material just landed in my lap. And I really did think when I was writing it, I had never had more fun writing a book than I had writing this one. I knew that some people were going to be a little bit upset with the book, but I thought basically it was going to be taken as a thrill ride. And it would just be a fun read for everybody. What I wasn’t prepared for was just the sheer volume of the anger.
Michael Lewis is one of the most popular non-fiction authors on the planet. His books include Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, The Big Short, Flash Boys, and now: Going Infinite: The Rise and Fall of a New Tycoon. The tycoon in question is Sam Bankman-Fried, who was briefly everyone’s favorite cryptocurrency billionaire, and Michael Lewis rode shotgun for some of the rise, and most of the fall. The fall was fast and hard: Bankman-Fried was recently convicted of seven counts of fraud and conspiracy in a New York courtroom. The controversy comes from people who argue that Michael Lewis went soft on Bankman-Fried instead of blasting him as a crook and a cheat. Here’s how a New York Times review put it: “Lewis … had, in the months leading up to the disaster, a front-row seat — from which he could apparently see nothing.”
LEWIS: It troubles me that people want to put Sam Bankman-Fried into a simple box, and put him on a shelf, and not think too much more about this.
DUBNER: Why? It troubles you why?
LEWIS: Because he’s so much more, and this is so much more interesting than that.
Today on Freakonomics Radio: “interesting” is just the start of it. Sam Bankman-Fried bared all to Michael Lewis, and now Michael Lewis bares all for us:
LEWIS: It was an unguarded-ness that was shocking.
It’s the latest installment of the Freakonomics Radio Book Club, and it begins right now.
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Here’s how Michael Lewis begins his new book, Going Infinite. This is from the audio version, with Lewis himself reading:
EXCERPT: I first heard about Sam Bankman-Fried at the end of 2021 from a friend who, oddly enough, wanted me to help him figure out who he was. My friend was about to close a deal with Sam that would bind their fates through an exchange of shares in each other’s companies worth hundreds of millions of dollars. My friend asked me if I could meet with Sam and report back whatever I made of him. A few weeks later, Sam was on my front porch in Berkeley, California. He’d emerged from an Uber in cargo shorts, a T-shirt, limp white socks, and ratty New Balance sneakers — which I soon learned were basically the only clothes he owned. We went for a walk — the only time in the next two years I would ever see this person who was always dressed for a hike actually go for one. During our walk I prodded him with questions, but after a while I was mostly just listening. The stuff he was telling me — all of which, I should say here, turned out to be true — was incredible. … By the end of this walk I was totally sold. I called my friend and said something like: “Go for it! Swap shares with Sam Bankman-Fried! Do whatever he wants to do!” What could possibly go wrong?
As we now know, a lot of things went wrong. Bankman-Fried started and ran two firms: a cryptocurrency trading firm called Alameda Research, and a crypto exchange, based in the Bahamas, called FTX. When FTX collapsed in 2022, Bankman-Fried was charged with shuffling money between the two firms, and spending billions of dollars of customers’ deposits on political contributions, celebrity marketing, and venture-capital investments. He also directed a lot of money toward the effective altruism movement. The thing is: as you read Michael Lewis’s book, it’s hard to separate Bankman-Fried’s illegal behaviors from the ones that were just sloppy, or weird. The book’s publication was timed to coincide with the first day of the Bankman-Fried trial. So, heading into the trial, a lot of people were asking Lewis what he thought.
LEWIS: I didn’t actually say, “I don’t think he did anything illegal,” or “I’m not sure.” What I said was, “I don’t want to say.” Because I want to just tell the story and let the reader decide what they think. The book is filled with stuff that is essentially law-breaking. But I’m just telling it, rather than telling you he broke the law.
DUBNER: So do you think maybe that’s why you’ve been somewhat punished, because you didn’t act as judge and jury in the book?
LEWIS: Yes. Totally. But what I did, and I did very intentionally, was I let the characters in the book investigate him, rather than me. I mean, it was made-to-order for narrative nonfiction. I had the chief operating officer of the company, who’d been there from the beginning, who realizes when it all blows up, she doesn’t know how this company operated. And she wants to lynch him. Like, she’s helping the prosecutor. She’s trying to find evidence. So I just let her do it.
DUBNER: So, your books are generally very well-reviewed. Among writers, you’re thought of as a writer’s writer. So I’m not used to seeing you get this kind of attention. Bad reviews, features that call you into question. I’ll read you a couple of headlines. From The Washington Post, “Michael Lewis Goes Close on Sam Bankman-Fried, Maybe Too Close.” L.A. Times, “What You Won’t Learn from Michael Lewis’s Book on FTX Could Fill Another Book.” Another L.A. Times piece: “In Michael Lewis, Sam Bankman-Fried Found His Last and Most Willing Victim.” So the through-line here is that critics feel you still treat him too much like a hero, and at least like someone to be sympathized with.
LEWIS: Well, can I push back on this first? There are also reviews, by better writers, in The New Yorker, in The London Review of Books, in The Times Literary Supplement, that are very positive. There was no consensus in the reviews. But the objections here were bewildering to me, because the idea that you’re not supposed to get to know your subject — I mean, there are people who have been presenting themselves as authorities on Sam Bankman-Fried who’ve never met him. It’s really useful to get to know someone if you’re going to write about them. The idea that I was somehow blinded to what he had done is preposterous, because I didn’t start writing this thing until January of this year. I could see what he’d done. I think that people are confusing painting him as he actually is with sympathizing with him. Is it surprising that if you paint him as he actually is, you feel yourself disturbingly drawn to him? Because this was the problem in the first place. This is what led to the whole problem. If you don’t feel some attraction to him, at least in the beginning of the book, you’re completely missing why this happened in the first place. So to start out as, “Oh, this guy is evil, and everybody saw it, and I saw it” — first, that’s false; second, you miss the wonder of the story.
The story really begins in 2017, when Bankman-Fried quit his job at the trading firm Jane Street Capital to start his own crypto trading firm, Alameda Research. As Lewis’s book makes clear, Alameda was, from the beginning, a mess. Bankman-Fried was very good at finding clever ways to make money by trading cryptocurrencies at a time when most mainstream trading firms still avoided crypto. But as a C.E.O., he was terrible: unfocused, unreliable, and totally uninterested in any of the normal processes required to run a company, or to manage employees.
LEWIS: And after about three months, half of them hated Sam and half of them thought he was a criminal.
Then he created the cryptocurrency trading platform FTX and became C.E.O. of it. He timed the crypto wave perfectly: by 2021, Forbes put Sam Bankman-Fried’s wealth at $22.5 billion, making him the world’s richest person under 30. At FTX, he was still a bad C.E.O. but there was more to it than that.
LEWIS: What he did is he misappropriated funds. He told people that their money was safe in one place. And he was actually — he was taking big gambles with it in another place. What’s odd about these gambles is that some of them seem to have worked out pretty well. Look, I’m not a lawyer and I was never all that interested in the legal questions. I was more interested in the moral questions. And he clearly, in my story, right from the beginning, did something that was illegal. He didn’t ever separate the funds. Like, he had his hedge fund, Alameda Research — or quant fund, or whatever you want to call it — and his exchange. And the way people got their dollars onto the exchange was by sending it to his quant fund. And it never left the quant fund. So he was essentially extending himself a free loan using customer deposits right from the beginning.
DUBNER: When you started hanging out with Sam, he was already well-known in some circles. Maybe not famous, quite. And then your relationship extended, including to the collapse of FTX, up to the trial and so on. First of all, I want to hear about how the reporting happened. I mean, we know a lot about you as a reporter. You really believe in the old-school idea of just hanging out with a notebook. So I want to hear about the relationship, how it worked, and especially how the relationship changed between you and him after the collapse.
LEWIS: I didn’t start out thinking I had a book or what the book was. I started out thinking, “This character is really interesting, and the situation’s bizarre.” He’s gone from zero to having $22 billion in 18 months, and the world is organizing itself around this pile of money. I just want to watch. So that’s how it starts. I say to him, “I just want to watch. I don’t know what there is here.” And he says, “Fine. Come on down to the Bahamas. And here are the keys.” And so I spend a year doing that. At no point did Sam Bankman-Fried ask me what I was doing. At no point did he say, “I can’t answer that question,” or “Why are you asking that question?” It was an unguarded-ness that was shocking. And it wasn’t just with me. I think other reporters found that when they pushed a little bit, doors just opened there.
DUBNER: Some of the scenes in the book are just comically bizarre, like when he’s on a Zoom call with Anna Wintour, from Vogue magazine, who wants him to participate in, maybe fund, the Met Gala, the very high-profile fashion event at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York.
DUBNER: In that instance, where are you? Are you in the room with him when he’s on that call?
DUBNER: Where is that?
LEWIS: It’s in the Beverly Hills Hilton hotel.
DUBNER: And he’s in L.A. why?
LEWIS: He’s in L.A. because he’s gone to the Super Bowl. It was the day he was leaving to go back to the Bahamas. And I was going to join him. He says, “I got a call.” And I said, “Who you got a call with?” He says, “I don’t know. Anna Wintour.” And I said, “Oh, really? And so I sat off to one side, and it was just — there was no one else in the room. Just him. And I watched, and I scribbled furiously notes as he spoke. And realized in the moment that I was watching a microcosm of Sam Bankman-Fried’s relationship with the outside world, especially the outside world that organized itself around piles of money.
DUBNER: And how would you describe that relationship?
LEWIS: Sycophantic towards him. There was a certain obliviousness on his part to who these people were, and why they wanted what they wanted. He knew they wanted money. But beyond that, he didn’t pay that close attention to who they were. He’s trying to figure out just how much attention he should pay to these people. Because they were constant. It was, like, brunch with Shaq. And dinner with the head of Goldman Sachs. A lot of this was completely new to him.
DUBNER: So on this Anna Wintour call, he agrees to what she’s asking for — to maybe sponsor, attend, something the Met Gala. But then in the end, he cancels on her at the last minute.
LEWIS: Much more complicated than that. Because he seems to agree to everything she says. Everything. Because he’s actually not really listening. He’s playing a video game when he’s talking to her. He just turns her picture off when she’s talking and plays the video game. And only when he hears, like, “Oh, Sam, what do you think of that?” does he wake up, turn her picture back on, stall, get the question again, and answer it. She would have understandably left that conversation thinking that he was all in on the Met Gala, that he was going to go, maybe even pay for it, but he hasn’t actually said very much except “Yup.” And then when he’s done, I ask him, “Like, really? You’re sitting here in your cargo shorts and your t-shirt and your limp socks, you have no interest in fashion. You don’t even know who she is. Like, you’re really going to go to that?” And he goes, “I never really thought about it,” you know? By the time I met him, he had figured out that the best way to navigate the world of the rich and famous was just to agree with everything they said. He actually says this, he says, “I’ve discovered —” It’s like an A.I. program. “I discovered people like you if you agree with them.”
DUBNER: What would you say that Sam Bankman-Fried is, or was, exceptionally good at and exceptionally bad at?
LEWIS: He was exceptionally bad at understanding how people would feel about his behavior. Like even now, I think, he doesn’t understand why people are so angry. When he moves from childhood, which — his childhood is completely isolated and he has no real relationships with anybody — into adulthood, and he starts to figure out he wants to have relationships with people, he learns how to kind of fake his emotions, and kind of signaling his inner life so that people aren’t so freaked out by him. There is this sort of absence in his imagination of what other people are feeling. What was he exceptionally good at? He was interesting in his attempts to quantify the unquantifiable. To me, what made him, when I first met him, such an interesting character, was the way he was moving through the world was so weird. He was essentially moneyball-ing life. Everything was an expected-value calculation. And in some ways you can think of him as having replaced principles with probabilities. There were no fixed rules. Everything was: we’re going to try to measure the expected value of this decision or that decision and do the thing that’s the highest expected value — and doing things like making decisions about whether to get married and have children this way.
Sam Bankman-Fried grew up in California; both his parents were legal scholars at Stanford. Sam went to college at M.I.T., where he studied physics and math. It was during college that he met a young philosophy professor from Oxford named Will MacAskill, who made him think about his life differently. Here’s a passage from Going Infinite:
EXCERPT: The argument that MacAskill put to Sam and a small group of Harvard students in the fall of 2012 went roughly as follows: you, student at an elite university, will spend roughly 80,000 hours of your life working. If you are the sort of person who wants to “do good” in the world, what is the most effective way to spend those hours? Put bluntly: Should you do good, or make money and pay other people to do good? Was it better to become a doctor or a banker? MacAskill made a rough calculation of the number of lives saved by a doctor working in a poor country, where lives were cheapest to save. Then he posed a question: “What if I became an altruistic banker, pursuing a lucrative career in order to donate my earnings?” Even a mediocre investment banker could expect sufficient lifetime earnings to pay for several doctors in Africa — and thus would save several times more lives than any one doctor.
MacAskill and his associates called their movement “effective altruism.” My Freakonomics friend and coauthor Steve Levitt interviewed MacAskill on his podcast, People I (Mostly) Admire, in August of last year. This was just a couple months before Sam Bankman-Fried was arrested. Here’s a piece of that interview with MacAskill, talking about the earning-to-give model.
Will MACASKILL: The biggest success story from earning-to-give is Sam Bankman-Fried, who’s now the richest person in the world under the age of 35. And he’s publicly stated he’s giving away 99 percent of his wealth or more, and is already ramping up his giving. I think part of what helps here is that we’ve just built this community. It’s much easier to live up to your ideals if you’ve got a bunch of people around you who will praise you for living up to them. And maybe you’ll feel shunned or less welcome if you’re claiming that you want to do enormous amounts of good and give enormous amounts, but actually aren’t.
When Bankman-Fried heard MacAskill’s pitch back in 2012, he was sold. He ultimately decided to make as much money as possible — his personal goal was “infinity dollars,” thus the title of Michael Lewis’s book. And that’s why, after he graduated from M.I.T., he took a job in New York doing high-frequency trading at Jane Street Capital.
LEWIS: The people on Wall Street who hired him would have told you that he was extremely good when you gave him games to play that required these expected-value calculations. He was a wizard. That he was really, really good at dealing with sort of messy, semi-chaotic environments and making the smart decisions in them. Here’s an example. If you asked him to sit down and play chess with a grandmaster, he would have been okay, but not great. But if you changed the game — it was speed chess, and you had five seconds to make a move, and every minute you changed the rules of the game, so that, you know, all of a sudden the bishops have to be pawns and the pawns have to be bishops, he might have beaten the grandmaster. In that kind of environment, where it’s almost impossible to know what the right answer is, but you can make some quick judgments and act on them, he was especially good.
DUBNER: When you say he replaced principles with probabilities — it strikes me that that’s a good way of describing the fear that’s going on right now of what A.I. is going to do.
LEWIS: That’s funny you say this. When I was thinking about what this story was a parable for, when I was writing it, one of the things that kept popping in my head was a parable for A.I. It was like a foreshadowing of what happens when you let an artificial intelligence loose in the world with a goal — telling it what to do, but not telling you how to do it, right? So, you tell it to get a reservation at your favorite restaurant tomorrow night, and it goes out and finds that the restaurant’s fully booked and starts to kill the people who have reservations to get you a table. That’s Sam Bankman-Fried. That’s Sam Bankman-Fried. He’s programmed himself to make as much money as possible to then spend to defray existential risk to humanity without any instructions about what he can’t do in order to do that. I felt at any given moment, when he’s making his decisions, he was always on pretty shaky ground in his calculations. Like, I don’t know what the probability of A.I. wiping us all out, or some pandemic wiping us all out, or an asteroid hitting the Earth. But neither does he. And yet he’s putting very confidently numbers on these things and acting on these numbers.
Many of the people Bankman-Fried recruited to work at Alameda and FTX also considered themselves effective altruists, or E.A.s. And they talked about the expected value of their actions the same way he did.
LEWIS: It was quirky, and it was weird watching people think they could be precise about things that you just couldn’t know. But I actually quite liked the fact that there were people who were worrying about these things. And to their credit, right? The effective altruists get to the fear of A.I. before all of us. They weren’t all wrong. My God, we may look back and say they were all right.
DUBNER: I’m curious what impressions you walked away with of the effective-altruist crowd, especially Will MacAskill, the ringleader. I’m curious whether you think he and the core movement are sincere, are they a little bit griftery, are they both?
LEWIS: I think they’re completely sincere. But on the other hand, the best con men believe their own con. But I don’t think of them as con men at all. They’re academics. There’s a kind of blindered quality to them. The whole movement — it has this cult-like quality, in that it attracts a certain kind of person, and then they get their meaning of life from the thing. But it’s a kind of anti-cult cult, in that unlike most cults — well, what it is? It’s a cult of reason, right? It’s a cult where, if you have a better argument inside the cult, you win, and the cult changes. So, it’s a little different from most cults. And it has had this capacity to kind of phase-change in a way that cults normally don’t. They start out trying to save poor children in Africa and they end up worrying about human beings a trillion years from now living on Mars. I think of them as completely sincere, generally, pretty sweet-natured, devoted to logic and reason and argument, and somehow it has the capacity still to run off the rails.
DUBNER: Did they respect Sam, or did they just love him for his money?
LEWIS: I think they felt about Sam the way Sam’s parents felt about Sam. They were scared both for and of him. And they were, interestingly, even in good times, a little worried about him being too closely identified with the movement. Because he became kind of the face of the movement. I think they smelled the existential risk to the movement. He became too important to them.
DUBNER: How bad has his downfall been for them?
LEWIS: I don’t know what the recruiting numbers in the Stanford and Princeton and Harvard and M.I.T. math and physics departments are looking like these days — can’t have been good, can’t have been good. My guess is it causes a bit of a retrenchment in how they think about what they’re doing. I think that back in the day when it was just being more intellectually rigorous about what you did with charitable dollars, it was pretty unobjectionable. Where I find the whole thing jumps the shark is the earn-to-give idea. I’m not quite sure why I feel this way. But the whole idea to stop trying to do good yourself and maximize the dollars you make and pay someone else to do good with them, there’s something about divorcing charitable acts from human sympathy that feels a little weird to me.
DUBNER: There’s this concept, I think it’s mostly in psychology, but others use it, called moral licensing. It’s this idea that if you’re doing something, you know, great for people or the world in one corner of your life, you give yourself license to lie or cheat or steal, whatever, in another corner. Do you think that he felt that because he’s making money in the service of effective altruism, which is going to use money to solve potentially existential problems, that that just trumped everything else, and that if he needed to be deceitful or withhold information, etcetera, that he’s still kind of in the plus-column because of the big one?
LEWIS: Yes. I think so. He wouldn’t put it that way. I’m trying to think how he would put it. But the effect is the same. This is the whole business of replacing principles with probabilities. There are no firm, fixed rules that he will obey. So why does he allow himself to move through the world without obeying firm, fixed rules? It’s because he thinks this larger goal justifies it. He figures out as a kid, or as a pretty young person, that he has the ability to do harm, because he doesn’t feel what other people feel. It’s a bit like if you didn’t feel pain, you’re more likely to, like, put your hand on the stove and burn it off. He’s lacking some essential human equipment that would constrain his behavior —
DUBNER: And he knows it.
LEWIS: And he knows it. And so when he discovers a rule, he can give himself, a goal he can give himself, and the goal seems noble — lower the existential risk to humanity, save human lives — in a way, he’s trying to put some constraint on the harms he creates. But I do think moral licensing will do as an explanation.
DUBNER: I’m curious to know what the effective altruists make of someone like Bill Gates. He’s spent the past 10, 15 years spending billions of dollars trying to do what looks to me like a version of what they want to do. And there have been people throughout history trying to do similar things. What do you see as the biggest distinction between Gates and the effective altruists?
LEWIS: Degree of fanaticism and rigor? I mean, I think Gates does a lot of things other than just try to maximize the lives saved with his dollars. But I think the E.A.s would tell you that Gates is the closest thing to an E.A. who’s not an E.A. There are probably dollars that Bill Gates has given to museums that would disturb them.
DUBNER: Because they’re —
LEWIS: A dollar given to a museum is a dollar wasted, in their minds.
Coming up: another way to waste dollars:
LEWIS: If you give Donald Trump $5 billion not to run for president, what do you think he’s going to do?
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Sam Bankman-Fried didn’t buy a yacht or have expensive tastes on most of the normal dimensions. But he did spend a lot of money in the political arena. Some of this went toward influencing cryptocurrency regulation in the U.S., which would have let his FTX exchange expand its business. But his political spending went in other directions, too. Here, again, is Michael Lewis, author of Going Infinite:
LEWIS: So, he spends $10 million in an Oregon Democratic primary on a candidate named Carrick Flynn. Sam identifies him because he is an effective altruist who’s an expert in pandemic prevention — without paying any attention to his viability as a candidate. And Carrick Flynn has, among other traits, fear of public speaking, deeply, deeply insecure and upset when people say something critical about him. Lots of things that would be red flags in a political candidate.
DUBNER: Was he from Oregon at least?
LEWIS: He was a carpetbagger. I think he’d spent time there, but he’d basically been living in Washington for a long stretch. And Carrick Flynn ends up winning, I don’t know, 20 percent of the vote? So that’s one bucket of Sam-Bankman-Fried’s spending, is trying to get candidates into Congress, or encourage actual elected representatives, to take more interest in things like pandemic prevention.
DUBNER: How would you rank on a scale of 0 to 10, how much Sam actually cared about that issue?
LEWIS: A lot. Nine and a half.
DUBNER: And this was happening during Covid already, correct?
LEWIS: Well, it just seemed like the one thing that’s obvious to do is to build some equivalent of the National Weather Service for disease. Global pathogen prediction and detection. And he was interested, not only interested in that, he was actually putting money into it. And I thought, that’s interesting. Alongside that, Sam had decided, all by himself and much to the chagrin of other effective altruists, that Donald Trump presented a threat to democracy; democracy was the most likely tool for addressing existential risk to humanity; so, therefore, Donald Trump needed to be stopped. And so he poured lots of money into anti-Trump stuff. And he did it, I think, mainly through Mitch McConnell-influenced PACs. And the idea there was to find, especially in Republican primaries, candidates who were not real Trumpers. Everybody was seeming to be a Trumper, and McConnell had distinguished between the people who really thought the election was rigged from the people who were just saying it. And the latter were maybe more likely to govern responsibly.
DUBNER: And what’s your sense of efficacy in that realm, if any at all?
LEWIS: You know, it’s funny, I don’t know how influential the money was, though I think it was some tens of millions of dollars. But I did have a glimpse of Sam Bankman Fried-style meddling, his kind of gamey meddling in this process. At the moment we had this conversation, he was taking an interest in the Missouri Senate primary. There were two candidates at that time who seemed especially viable. Both were named Eric. Eric Schmitt and Eric Greitens. Eric Greitens was a full-throated Trumper. Eric Schmitt seemed to be faking it, at least so said McConnell’s people. And Sam told me, this is in a private conversation, that his political operation had been having conversations with the Trump political operation because they were afraid Trump was going to jump into this race and endorse Eric Greitens, the real Trumper, and that that would actually put Greitens over the top. So they were trying to think of ways to stop this from happening. And they came up with this idea that they would tell Trump to just come out and say he was “for Eric,” without specifying which Eric, because both the candidates were named Eric. And that the argument to Trump was — one, it would be funny and be a meme, and everybody would talk about it, and the second was he didn’t care which Eric won, all he cared was that he backed the winner. So Sam’s telling me this, and I said, “How real could this be?” In the same breath, he’s telling me that he’s offering Donald Trump $5 billion not to run for president. And two days later, Trump comes out on Truth Social and says, “I’m for Eric.” And indeed, it was a meme. And indeed, everybody thought it was funny. And indeed, it defused Trump’s influence. And indeed, Eric Schmitt won.
DUBNER: Now, you glossed over the plan to pay Trump directly $5 billion to not run again in 2024. How real was that?
LEWIS: I don’t know. I could tell you where it was when I talked to him about it. It’s funny in retrospect that he was worried it was illegal. The question was, is it legal to pay Donald — anybody — not to run for president?
DUBNER: Did you ever learn the answer to that question?
LEWIS: I haven’t learned the answer to that question. Is it a bribe? But the practical point — and this is the point I actually made to Sam — I said, this is insane. If you give Donald Trump $5 billion not to run for president, what do you think he’s going to do? You know what he’s going to do? He’s going to take the $5 billion, and he’s going to run for president. This is not like an enforceable contract. And it never — I know that they had the conversations.
DUBNER: Do you know at what level of the Trump organization or campaign he was speaking with?
LEWIS: If I had to guess — we got to qualify that I’m guessing — that the C.E.O. of FTX Digital Markets was a fellow named Ryan Salame. And Ryan Salame was a Republican, and apparently very friendly with Donald Trump Jr. And I had the impression that the conversation was happening between those two. But I don’t know if that’s true. Whatever channel it was, it was the same channel that got Trump to say, “I’m for Eric.” So we know the channel exists. The question is, could that ever have happened, in real life? And I’m not sure it could ever have happened in real life, but it was a really good example of Sam Bankman-Fried addressing a problem. It’s like, pretty original thought, pay him not to run.
So, would it have been illegal for Sam Bankman-Fried to pay Donald Trump $5 billion to not run for president? The U.K. has a law that forbids “payment or promise of payment” to get a candidate to withdraw from an election. In the U.S., it’s less clear. People have been sent to prison for paying candidates to drop out; but in those cases, the crimes were violations of campaign-finance disclosure requirements, not the payments themselves. It is also against U.S. law to bribe a public official to influence a, quote, “official act,” but it’s not clear that running for office counts as an official act. Whatever the case, it’s pretty clear that Sam Bankman-Fried didn’t have the chance to pay Donald Trump $5 billion not to run. It’s also worth noting that his mother, Barbara Fried, may have inspired this idea.
LEWIS: Before Sam got rich, she had built a political operation. They were trying to find smarter ways to give money away, and it was pretty explicitly anti-Trump. So Sam’s first donations are through her.
DUBNER: So, you’ve said a couple things about Sam’s parents that I find really interesting. They’re in the book very — you know, they’re kind of often there, but below the surface. Can you just draw out that relationship and tell me, you know, which directions the emotions flow these days, and what those emotions may be?
LEWIS: I think one of the unusual things about the relationship between the parents and the child was the parents pretty quickly gave up on the idea he was a child. I remember Sam’s mom, Barbara, telling me that he was, I don’t know, eight years old, and she had just written some abstruse paper for some academic journal, and he asked her what it’s about, and she sort of humors him, but he pushes and presses and she actually tells him what it’s about. And she says his responses were smarter than the responses she got from a peer review. Coupled with — they made some brief pass at doing childish things with him. She took him to an amusement park and she was kind of hauling him from ride to ride. And at some point she sees he’s looking at her and just observing her. And he says, “Are you having fun yet, Mom?” They both had the story in their head — again, even in good times back when Sam was a billionaire — that he just wasn’t suited to childhood. He didn’t connect with other people.
What scared them, I think, was he didn’t fit into the world. They were really worried he would find no place for himself in the world. They thought his little brother was going to be fine and might be a shining star. They thought Sam was never going to work out, because he was so socially maladjusted and indifferent. He was indifferent to any kind of social interaction. They were then bewildered when this child of theirs is discovered by Jane Street and high-frequency trading as God’s gift to trading. And all of a sudden is endowed with a new identity — “I’m made for the new financial markets.” And then further perplexed when he quits that and becomes a crypto billionaire, like they just find it completely implausible. Just preposterous that he was in the position he was in. But accepted it. You know, that’s what happened to Sam. Now I mean, obviously, they’re devastated. If I had to guess, they have slightly different views of the situation, but the mother is more vocal about her views. And I bet right now that she views Sam as chiefly a victim, that she thinks he’s completely innocent of all wrongdoing, and she hasn’t asked him what he did, so she doesn’t — you know, she hasn’t really pushed him on it.
The truth of the relationship — and this is what I think the media generally in the commentary gets wrong — is that it, from Sam’s point of view, was not that close. If you talk to the person who ran Sam’s scheduling, she’d say, “The hardest part of my week is when one of his parents calls and wants 15 minutes with him and I have to lie to them because I know Sam doesn’t want to do it.” That Sam kept them really at arm’s length and didn’t welcome their intrusion into his life. And the exception being is when he gets in trouble, like when he gets in trouble and there’s no one else there. But I think it probably drives him crazy that, first, he’s back in his parents’ home under house arrest. And now the only people who visit him in jail are his parents. I don’t think he welcomes parenting. He’s never engaged with that relationship. So they’re sort of imposing their parenting on him still, and are heartbroken because he’s their child and they love him.
DUBNER: A listener wrote in to ask, “When do Sam Bankman-Fried’s parents get indicted?”
LEWIS: I don’t think the parents had a whole lot of insight into the — in fact, I know they didn’t. I would go from an interview with Sam or spending the day at the FTX headquarters, occasionally having dinner with the parents. And they were desperate for any kind of information about what was going on because they had no idea. Like, no idea. What looks probably more damning than it is, but in retrospect, is that he bought this house in the Bahamas and put it in their name, but they were like — I promise you, they were only vaguely aware that they owned it, they didn’t furnish it, they didn’t care about it, and they gave it back right after it all fell apart. They couldn’t get rid of it fast enough. What the dad was doing, was he was mainly involved in the philanthropy. He was doing things like working with the Bahamas government to make sure that people who were in the psychiatric hospital had more contact with human beings outside the psychiatric — he was really working-full time as a do-gooder. But I don’t think either one of them were meaningfully involved in the business.
We should say, Joe Bankman and Barbara Fried currently face a civil lawsuit alleging that they are not as innocent as Michael Lewis claims. The suit argues that they quote, “exploited their access and influence within the FTX enterprise to enrich themselves.” In any case, I did wonder what might have happened if one of Sam Bankman-Fried’s parents had been more involved in FTX — or, if not them, some other potentially competent people who might have served as the adults in the room. Bankman-Fried had big plans for FTX and for himself; I asked Michael Lewis if, with the right help, Bankman-Fried could have achieved those plans and avoided the lawbreaking.
LEWIS: Yes. What stops it from happening, right from the get-go, is Sam Bankman-Fried’s hostility to grown-ups, including his parents. He took the view that basically everybody over the age of 35 was a waste of time. And it’s a very funny view he had. He sort of, in his mind, in his judgment of people, he sort of punishes them for having any experience. He prefers people without experience who are just thinking about problems from the ground up, because he thinks of experience as kind of almost polluting their judgment. And what do older people have? They have experience. But yes, if you twist the dial on Sam Bankman-Fried’s risk tolerance just a little bit? Yes, there’s like an army of accountants who are there at the beginning and the money is put in the right place, and so he’s never tempted to use it. And he was pursuing a strategy which was probably viable, which was to be the legit crypto exchange. Acquiring licenses left and right. They were growing fast. There was $1 billion in revenue even the year they collapsed.
One of the few adults in Sam Bankman-Fried’s life was a man named George Lerner. He had been Bankman-Fried’s psychiatrist in California. Here’s a passage from Going Infinite:
EXCERPT: Sam had long since decided that any discussions about his inner life, and its consequences for others, were futile. “The social stuff was basically unsolvable,” he said. He didn’t need a therapist to deal with his problems — though he did need someone who could prescribe his medications. The problems that interested Sam were other people’s problems. He soon figured out that George could be extremely useful with these.
And so Bankman-Fried hired George Lerner and imported him to the Bahamas, where he took on a new role as a sort of internal consultant at FTX.
EXCERPT: A few months into his new job, George had seen 100 of FTX’s 300-something employees. He enjoyed maybe the single-best view of its corporate architecture, with a clarity not available to its investors, its customers, its employees, and, possibly, the person who had created it. … In the end, George drew up the only internal org chart ever made of Sam’s sprawling creation. By the time he was done, he’d discovered many interesting things. Twenty-four different people thought that they were reporting directly to Sam, for example. This group did not include the chief financial officer, because FTX did not have a chief financial officer. There was no chief risk officer or head of human resources, because they had none of that, either. … Then there was Caroline Ellison. Caroline was apparently alone in charge of the 22 traders and developers working inside Alameda Research.
DUBNER: I wanted to ask you about George Lerner. I realize that his medical license wasn’t valid in the Bahamas, so he wasn’t acting officially as a psychiatrist when he was talking to all these people, and therefore these conversations may not have been protected under doctor-patient confidentiality. Still, I’m curious why he was willing and able to tell you so much about these private conversations.
LEWIS: I would be a very poor journalist if I asked people why they were talking to me. But I will tell you that I knew I had a gold mine because he’s very smart. He was very insightful. His first effective altruist patient was Sam’s little brother, then Caroline Ellison. And only after a while did Sam become a patient. But by the time I meet him, he is serving as essentially the psychiatrist to the entire company in the Bahamas. They’re rolling through his office, lying on his couch, and complaining about the company. The Bahamas didn’t give him a license, so at that point, he really was just a — whatever — professional coach. And so he wasn’t bound by any laws of confidentiality, but I never asked him.
Caroline Ellison, who by 2022 was running Alameda, was also Sam Bankman-Fried’s on-again, off-again girlfriend. During the collapse of FTX, they were off, and barely speaking. It’s tempting to wonder how things might have unwound differently if either a) they had been speaking at the time; or b) if Sam Bankman-Fried had built an operation that didn’t revolve around himself and just three other people who were the closest approximation he had to friends: Caroline Ellison, Gary Wang, and Nishad Singh. All three of whom, by the way, would testify against him at trial. It took the jury just four hours to convict him on seven counts of fraud and conspiracy. Michael Lewis attended the trial. It was — how to put this? — it was no Moneyball.
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The trial of Sam Bankman-Fried began on October 3, in the U.S. District Court in lower Manhattan. The lead-up to the trial felt a bit like the lead-up to a Super Bowl: two teams ready for a tense and exciting battle. Instead, it was a blowout. Every day, it got a bit less exciting, a bit sadder. Bankman-Fried’s closest colleagues turned against him. The jury heard a steady stream of obviously incriminating evidence. And when Bankman-Fried himself took the stand — there just wasn’t much there there. He frequently said he couldn’t recall saying things that others had said he said; and that he couldn’t recall doing things that wouldn’t seem at all hard to recall if you were the person doing them. Michael Lewis attended this portion of the trial.
LEWIS: I knew that Sam Bankman-Fried marched to the beat of his own drum, that he was his own peculiar person with his own peculiar motives for doing these peculiar things that he did. And this is what made him such an interesting character to write about. I thought, if he was going to take the witness stand, he would have some strategy, some reason for doing it. And that was a big mistake.
DUBNER: So, you were not called as a witness in the trial — which, I’ll be honest, surprised me a little bit. Did it surprise you?
LEWIS: My sense is that lawyers are risk-averse, and they don’t like to put on the witness stand people they can’t completely control.
DUBNER: And why can’t you be controlled, Michael?
LEWIS: The problem is the prosecutors could ask me some questions, and I’d say some things that were pretty damning about Sam. But it would open me up to the defense, and they’d say, I don’t know, “When you met him, did you think he was dishonest?” “No, I didn’t think he was dishonest when I met him. I thought he was curiously forthright.” You know, whatever it was. And I saw this with another witness. The prosecution had teed up a person whose title was head of product. His name was Ramnik Arora, who was actually Sam’s right-hand man in making lots of the venture-capital investments. He didn’t have anything to do with the product. But he had his plane ticket, he had his hotel room, he thought he was testifying right after Nishad Singh, and they canceled him last-minute. And I think — I could be wrong about this, it’s possible they canceled him because they just decided they didn’t need him. But I think between the time they teed him up and the time they called him, they read my book, and they saw that he presented the same kind of problem I would present. Because, yes, he could tell you about how Sam continued to spend lots of money even after he should have been aware that he was spending the customers’ money. But there’s this moment in the book that I think is very revealing, and that didn’t get any attention in the trial. When it all blows up in early November of last year and Caroline Ellison, and Sam Bankman-Fried, and Nishad Singh, and Gary Wang are in a room trying to figure out how much money they have to give customers their deposits back, and they call Ramnik over, and Ramnik walks into the room and he says they are literally like trying to figure out which exchanges they have accounts on, where do they have bank accounts. And Ramnik’s phone rings. And it’s from a bank, Deltec in Bahamas, and the guy is on the other end of the line, says to Ramnik, he says, “I see you guys are in trouble. You should know you have an account here with $300 million if you need it.” And Ramnik says this to them and none of them have any idea of it. And the pure chaos of the thing — again, it’s like a witness who has — when you’ve been that close, you have evidence for both sides and neither side wants you to hear both sides.
DUBNER: So as you’re describing it, it strikes me that what you have is just a different category of information than the kind of information that is useful at a trial for either side, let’s say.
LEWIS: Yes, I think that’s true.
DUBNER: But it also just makes me wonder what it’s like for you. You’re sitting here watching a live criminal trial that is essentially based on a book that you wrote. We’ve all heard what it’s like to write a book and then see the movie based on it — and you’ve had more experience with that than most people — and the expectation is that the movie will of course be very different from the book. But this was differently different. So what was the experience like?
LEWIS: It’s funny you draw that analogy, because it was similar in this way. When someone takes one of your books and turns it into a movie, they compress it. They distort it and they compress it. And you just hope they don’t lose the spirit of it, right? They’re turning 100,000 words into an 8,000-word script. So they’re bound to leave all kinds of stuff out. And you hope when you watch it, it feels the way you felt when you wrote the thing.
DUBNER: And the movies that have been made from your books, like The Big Short, Moneyball, The Blind Side — I gather that from your perspective, those were successfully done, yes?
LEWIS: I felt in each case that more or less the spirit of the thing was preserved. And the movies weren’t boring. In the trial, I felt the spirit of the thing was more distorted than the movies distorted it. And also, the thing that was striking in the trial — we take it for granted in our legal system, these plea-bargaining agreements. They’re essentially corrupt. I mean, they’re very useful tools for prosecutors. But essentially the prosecutors are able to pay people with years of their lives to say stuff on a witness stand, so long as it’s not falsifiable. If it serves the purpose of the prosecutors, they get rewarded for it.
DUBNER: What’s a for-instance here?
LEWIS: A for-instance here is — and it was a pretty common pattern in the three principal witnesses — was how they felt at the time. Nishad Singh was telling a story about how dark and miserable he was a year ago, and that he was aware that they were doing wrong things. And I interviewed this person up and down. He was giddy with how things were going. And he would say things to me — I mean, in the book, he says, back in 2018, when he’s 21 years old and joining Sam Bankman-Fried in the crypto trading firm, he says how quickly he figures out that the law isn’t what’s written, the law is what you can get away with and what you can’t get away with. He’s saying things to me that you don’t say if you’re feeling at all worried that people are going to suspect you’re doing a bad thing. So they were able to misremember their states of mind. And the states of mind they described themselves having been in were alien to anybody who observed them at the time.
DUBNER: Were you really surprised that there is that tradeoff or sort of bribing as you’re describing it?
LEWIS: Well, I knew it existed, right? It was just watching the effects of it. You know, we get our legal system from the English, and the English are shocked we allow this. It’s not obvious that we should. It was viewed as corrupt until not that long ago. It’s now just been woven into the texture of our criminal justice process. If I was sitting in the jury box, I would certainly have convicted. But when you back away from it, and you see just how uneven the playing field is between the prosecutors and the defense — prosecutors have unlimited resources, they have power to scare people into testifying, they can cut plea deals with people. You see why the stats are as shocking as they are.
DUBNER: You mean the conviction stats.
LEWIS: Last year, 99.6 percent of the people who were charged with federal crimes either pled guilty or convicted.
DUBNER: So why did Bankman-Fried testify, himself, when so many of his answers were, essentially, “I don’t recall”?
LEWIS: It’s a great question. Go back even further. Knowing what he supposedly knew, why did he stay in the Bahamas when it all fell apart? If he’d just gone to Dubai, he’d still be there.
DUBNER: Did you ask him that, why he stayed?
LEWIS: Yeah. I mean, I can tell you what he said. He said, “Because I didn’t do anything wrong.” I mean, if you want the answer to all those questions, it’s because he thinks he did nothing wrong. He thinks that his error was not paying attention. That’s the story he’s told himself. The prosecutors, I think, were maybe a little surprised by just how well their case went, because there was, in the summing-up, when they were making the argument to the jury about why they needed to convict, they said, “Even if you believe this guy, believe that he just wasn’t paying attention to this $8 billion that he took from the customers and used in his private fund, there’s this idea called conscious avoidance, and it doesn’t let you off the hook if you just didn’t pay attention.” But I think Sam — I think the simple way to explain all his behavior is, he is adamant in his own mind that he didn’t do anything wrong.
DUBNER: I’m curious to know what you learned, if anything, at the trial. But especially I want to know what you thought you might learn at the trial and whether you did or didn’t.
LEWIS: There were a couple of things that I really wanted to know, that in retrospect, maybe the trial wasn’t the best way to get it. But if you can’t get at it through the trial, I don’t know where you’re going to get at it through. I really did want to know the moment when the sum total of liquid assets in Sam’s World — combination Alameda and FTX — was less than the customer deposits. Like, when did he go negative there?
DUBNER: Is that a knowable fact?
LEWIS: It could be figured out. The bankruptcy people might know already. When should have everyone had alarm bells ringing in their heads? Because I didn’t see any sign of alarm bells ringing in anybody’s head until it blew up. There’s another thing. When it all fell apart, I was doing this crude exercise of figuring out all the money that had come in to Sam’s World and all the money that had left it, in the form of customer deposits, or venture capital investments, or expenditure on political campaigns. And to this day, there still seems to me several billion dollars that I can’t figure out where they went. There’s been some hand-wavy explanations about how it might have been lost. I’m not sure it has been lost. It’s possible the bankruptcy people are still finding — literally finding money the way you find Easter eggs.
These “bankruptcy people” are being led by John Ray, who was installed as the emergency C.E.O. of FTX by the law firm Sullivan & Cromwell. We had Ray on the show earlier this year, talking about the singular challenge of taking over FTX. That was episode 560; we called it: “Is This ‘The Worst Job in Corporate America’ — or Maybe the Best?” Here’s what Michael Lewis wrote about John Ray and the process by which he came to replace Sam Bankman-Fried as C.E.O.:
EXCERPT: The wild and wonderful world of U.S. corporate bankruptcy was increasingly dominated by big law firms, but there were still a few of these lone actors, like Ray, who played the role of wildcatters. The law firms brought in the wildcatter to take over as C.E.O. of the failed firm, and the wildcatter in turn hired the law firms. As a legal matter, at 4:30 in the morning on Friday, November 11, 2022, Sam Bankman-Fried DocuSigned FTX into bankruptcy and named John Ray as FTX’s new C.E.O. As a practical matter, Sullivan & Cromwell lined up John Ray to replace Sam as the C.E.O. of FTX, and then John Ray hired Sullivan & Cromwell as the lawyers for the massive bankruptcy.
LEWIS: I mean, the problem with the bankruptcy process is that it’s designed to maximize the number of billable hours. It’s designed to go on forever and ever and ever. And it’s going to cost $1 billion. It’s crazy.
DUBNER: Is that more on Ray or more on Sullivan & Cromwell, or just the way the system works?
LEWIS: The way the system works. The system’s nuts.
DUBNER: What would you propose instead?
LEWIS: I think there needs to be a regulator. At the moment, there’s no oversight. There’s someone called the bankruptcy trustee who’s an employee of the Department of Justice who has no teeth. He has ability to write angry letters to the judge. And he has, saying it’s outrageous how this is being run, but the judge can just ignore it.
DUBNER: Now that you’ve seen the trial, if you had to write the book over again, what would you do different?
LEWIS: The one thing I would have loved to have known — I love the idea, in their pillow talk, of Sam saying to Caroline that there was a 5 percent chance he would be president of the United States. I feel like I was robbed of material.
DUBNER: One more reason I’m just thinking now about why the book got a different reception than one might have anticipated, is because it came out around the same time as Walter Isaacson’s bio of Elon Musk. And Walter gets to spend a lot of time with his subjects also — living subjects, at least. I haven’t read Walter’s book, but my read of the reviews is that he praises Musk’s accomplishments while laying out the ways in which, personally, he’s kind of an a**hole. And Musk is still the richest guy in the world, and at the top of his game. Sam had been defenestrated by the time the book came out. And I wonder if maybe, I don’t know, it’s the right kind of target for the right kind of times, and you didn’t shoot an arrow through that target.
LEWIS: Well, I can’t write it any other way than it was. It would have been bizarre to try to pretend that Sam Bankman-Fried was obviously evil to everybody around him. It would have failed to grapple with why all these people — God, the smartest venture capitalists, the important politicians, celebrities — are enthralled by him. How stupid would it be not to create some of the charm that led to him finding himself in the position he was in?
There is a particularly revealing scene — a particularly sad scene — toward the end of Lewis’s book. This happens after FTX had cratered but before Bankman-Fried had been arrested. And even though most of his employees had fled the Bahamas, he stayed on. And so did Constance Wang, the chief operating officer of FTX. She had been Bankman-Fried’s eighth hire. Michael Lewis was also in the Bahamas then; here’s what he writes:
EXCERPT: For the better part of the month, I watched Constance return from her encounters with Sam. … Over and over, she’d confronted Sam with the suffering he had inflicted upon the very people who had been most loyal to him. Most FTX employees had lost their life savings. Some had lost their spouses, their homes, their friends, and their good names. There were Taiwanese employees of FTX still in Hong Kong who couldn’t afford plane tickets home. “I asked Sam,” said Constance, “‘when you were doing this, have you ever thought how much this event will be hurting people?’” Even here, however, she found herself talking past Sam: in his telling, he hadn’t realized how much risk he’d subjected others to, without their permission. Constance nevertheless sensed that he didn’t really register the damage he’d caused to other people in the way that, say, she might have. “He has absolutely zero empathy,” she said. “That’s what I learned that I didn’t know. He can’t feel anything.”
DUBNER: So, did Sam read your book?
LEWIS: I have not spoken to him since he was hauled off to jail on August the 11th. I was told by his lawyers that they snuck it into him on a drive that had all of the legal documents. But I don’t know what he thought about it. He’s the one person who hasn’t ventured an opinion about my book.
What’s your opinion? Our email is firstname.lastname@example.org. The book is called Going Infinite: The Rise and Fall of a New Tycoon, by Michael Lewis.
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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Ryan Kelley. The excerpts from Going Infinite were read by the author, Michael Lewis, from an audiobook produced by Audible Studios. We had recording help in Chicago from Shane McKeon. Our staff also includes Alina Kulman, Eleanor Osborne, Elsa Hernandez, Gabriel Roth, Greg Rippin, Jasmin Klinger, Jeremy Johnston, Julie Kanfer, Lyric Bowditch, Morgan Levey, Neal Carruth, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Sarah Lilley, and Zack Lapinski. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music was composed by Luis Guerra, Michael Reola, and Stephen Ulrich.
- Michael Lewis, author.
- Going Infinite: The Rise and Fall of a New Tycoon, by Michael Lewis (2023).
- “Column: In Michael Lewis, Sam Bankman-Fried Found His Last and Most Willing Victim,” by Michael Hiltzik (Los Angeles Times, 2023).
- “Even Michael Lewis Can’t Make a Hero Out of Sam Bankman-Fried,” by Jennifer Szalai (The New York Times, 2023).
- “Michael Lewis Goes Close on Sam Bankman-Fried — Maybe Too Close,” by James Ledbetter (The Washington Post, 2023).
- “What You Won’t Learn From Michael Lewis’ Book on FTX Could Fill Another Book,” by Julia M. Klein (Los Angeles Times, 2023).
- “Michael Lewis’s Big Contrarian Bet,” by Gideon Lewis-Kraus (The New Yorker, 2023).
- “He-Said, They-Said,” by John Lanchester (London Review of Books, 2023).
- “Downfall of the Crypto King,” by Jesse Armstrong (The Times Literary Supplement, 2023).
- “FTX Debtors vs. Joseph Bankman and Barbara Fried,” in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware (2023).
- Federal Prosecution of Election Offenses: Eighth Edition, by Richard C. Pilger (2017).
- “Pay Candidates to Drop Out? That Should Be Legal,” by Stephen L. Carter (Bloomberg, 2016).
- “The History of the Term ‘Effective Altruism,'” by William MacAskill (Effective Altruism Forum, 2014).
- “Is This ‘he Worst Job in Corporate America’ — or Maybe the Best?” by Freakonomics Radio (2023).
- “A Million-Year View on Morality,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2022).
- “Did Michael Lewis Just Get Lucky with ‘Moneyball’?” by Freakonomics Radio (2022).
- “The Only Covid-19 Book Worth Reading,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2022).
- “The Men Who Started a Thinking Revolution,” by Freakonomics Radio (2017).