Michael Lewis’s ‘Going Infinite’ Goes In Circles
2:49 PM EDT on October 10, 2023
A common thematic thread, perhaps the common thread, wending throughout Michael Lewis's bibliography is the limits of conventional wisdom. His oeuvre is stuffed with stories about the moments at which certain bedrock ideas—ones about finance, or baseball, or electoral politics—crumble under their own contradictions. This is helped along, often, by visionary seers—like Michael Burry, Billy Beane, or John McCain—who put themselves in position to take advantage of those who are either too blinkered or too afraid to see the unfamiliar future taking shape in front of them.
When news broke last November that Lewis had spent more than a year shadowing FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried before, during, and after his company's spectacular downfall, for a book, it created a frenzy of anticipation so tumescent that Lewis sold the adaptation rights for $5 million before he even wrote his first word. The assumption was that this was a case of the exact right person happening to have worked himself into the ideal position, getting in with the author of one of the largest-scale financial meltdowns since the Great Recession just in time to bear witness to the catastrophe and sift through the wreckage. Maybe Lewis would even find that missing $10 billion!
I didn't expect that part, but I absolutely assumed that Lewis had gotten that ass. But like batting average-enjoyers in 2002, or housing market acolytes in 2006, I fear I may have fallen victim to the siren song of conventional wisdom—in this case, the exaltation of Michael Lewis. Going Infinite reads less as the autopsy of an outrageous work of fraud and more like a pair of conjoined, mildly cautionary tales about the perils of being a misunderstood genius and what happens to an author when he falls under not just his subject's spell, but his own.
Lewis begins by recounting the story of how he was introduced to Bankman-Fried on accident, by a friend who was in the process of cutting a large deal with him but didn't really know anything about him. After their first meeting, Lewis admits that he's totally taken with Bankman-Fried, though he frames this against the unanswered question that he'd set out to look into at that first meeting: "Who was this guy?" That question, and not any of the more interesting questions that swirled out in the wake of the FTX collapse, animates the entire book.
While any serious examination of the story of FTX must necessarily have some biographical bearing—even more than, say, an analogous book on Enron would, since the separation between SBF and FTX is minimal, if it exists at all—Lewis's focus on Bankman-Fried as a character dissipates any of the more taut narrative possibilities. So the reader misses any consideration of FTX's place alongside the other colorful fraudsters that populate the crypto world, and the degree to which their missteps differ from, say, those made by Three Arrows or Voyager. Though I suppose that to diagnose those missteps as such an observer would have to agree that they exist, and were actually mistakes. Lewis does none of that. He doesn't seem particularly interested in crypto.
Instead, Going Infinite is the story of how a lonely young boy overcomes his aversion to emotions and inability to connect with other people to realize a beautiful vision, only for those other people to let him down in the end. A lonely 30-year-old boy, that is; Bankman-Fried is repeatedly infantilized and cast as a child throughout the book, and it's hard to interpret this as anything other than exculpatory on Lewis's part. It's as if his bold, novel ways of thinking about the world's problems must necessarily spring from an untainted and untaintable, childlike cleareyedness. Lewis calls his subject a "baby" and refers derogatorily to bankruptcy lawyers as "grown-ups," and does this after the collapse in which Bankman-Fried immolated billions in investor dollars. I learned early on in the book that Bankman-Fried and I are weeks apart in age, which lent this Lewis fixation an uncanny cast. It would be weird if people talked about me like I were a baby.
Going Infinite's strength is the incredible access Lewis had. Lewis discovers exactly how much FTX was paying its celebrity endorsers, obtains internal memos where Bankman-Fried writes, "No one cares if Coinbase gets Russell Wilson as a spokesperson after we get Brady." Lewis also found himself in the Bahamas last November, when FTX customers made a bank run that the exchange couldn't cover. Lewis conducted extensive interviews across all phyla of FTX employees; my favorite were the two architects who were handed an essentially unlimited budget and zero design principles and just sort of went for it despite getting only one tiny, vestigial piece of input from Bankman-Fried himself. "For the first time, Sam thought about it. 'Badminton courts,' he said. That was it. That was all he wanted. Badminton courts." Lewis reports an anecdote where Caroline Ellison, former head of Alameda Research and current cooperator with the U.S. government, is trying and failing to keep the company from taking on more water.
After her talk, Caroline approached a female employee and said brightly, If you want to stay and help, I’d really appreciate it! "Fuck you," the woman had said.Going Infinite
That's the sort of insider dirt only Lewis has, along with some electric stuff on Bankman-Fried's early days at Jane Street, details on how much he was really gaming during meetings, a snapshot of what every employee's desk looked like after they'd fled ("On his desk remained a half-eaten package of oil-fried noodles. His toothbrush was still on the bathroom counter. He appeared to have prepared to leave, changed his mind, stayed for a few days and lived as if he planned"), and the play-by-play of former COO Constance Wang's post-collapse effort to ensnare Bankman-Fried.
But there's a faintly synesthetic quality to Lewis's writing. He will harvest juicy nuggets, get what should be damning quotes about and from Bankman-Fried, and elucidate some alarming internal FTX mechanism or other, all of which leads the reader to think that what will follow will be, if not a condemnation, then an account of what went wrong. And then, time after time, Lewis instead works to undermine his own evidence and twist himself into puzzling rhetorical knots to defend Bankman-Fried. He had so much access and he did so little with it. Lewis digs into Bankman-Fried's utilitarianism early on in the book and accepts the uncritical frame that the transgressions inherent to building a multi-billion dollar crypto empire are, if not worth it, then at least defensible because Bankman-Fried was an effective altruist. Bankman-Fried, he repeatedly mentions, had "no particular interest in money"; the book suggests that this justifies his rampant drive to make billions, money that Bankman-Fried would later, per the tenets of Effective Altruism, use to save humanity.
Nowhere is it more clear in Going Infinite that Lewis has lost a step than the way he treats EA. There's nothing incisive on the philosophy's flimsy definition of "effective," no reflection on the limits of applying blanket moral claims about humankind's duty to itself without considering for one second political economy, no skeptical eye cast toward the downsides of, say, disappearing billions of other people's dollars to fund vanity charity projects. FTX's crime, to Lewis, was that they just went too hard trying to be effective; it's never really considered whether they actually did anything wrong. That's an odd claim, and it feels disconcerting to read Lewis making it, though Lewis primed the world for this ass-showing by wondering, just before the book came out, whether Michael Oher's legal campaign against the Tuohy family may have been brought on by brain damage-induced psychosis.
Going Infinite is not exactly the Sam Bankman-Fried Innocence Project hagiography that it's been occasionally portrayed as online; it might have been more interesting if it were. Still, Lewis is certainly interested in redeeming Bankman-Fried. He went on 60 Minutes last week and said FTX was a "great real business," mounting the rare and impressive three-word argument that's triply wrong. Bankman-Fried's sins, and Lewis has enough damning quotes from Wang and others to frame them as such, are mostly interpersonal; his coldness toward Ellison as they navigate a protracted breakup, his inability to listen to people, his general frazzled distance. The focus on Sam Bankman-Fried: Person is too narrow for Lewis to consider the more interesting story of Sam Bankman-Fried: Alleged Big-Time Fraudster.
The core defense that Bankman-Fried offers is that the missing billions in FTX customer money—somewhere between $8 and $10 billion—were not hoovered up and misappropriated, so much as they were simply spread around in thousands of oddball accounts, tied up in various investments, and placed in inaccessible cloud accounts that only Bankman-Fried controls. Again, Lewis paints the sin as being too weird with it, as opposed to doing shell-game shit with billions of dollars—even though his framing acknowledges the shell game. In this telling, the money is not gone or even really missing, but rather merely at the center of hundreds of mazes. "Where did all that money go?" he asks. "The answer was: nowhere. It was still there."
Lewis buys this claim, and in the most bizarre chapter of the book, portrays the failed company recovery expert John J. Ray as a guileless doofus, a dinosaur too ideologically committed to TradFi and too determined to find evidence of fraud that he can't see Bankman-Fried's ersatz, labyrinthine system of spreading his money around for what it is. Lewis characterizes Ray as an "amateur archaeologist [who] had stumbled upon a previously unknown civilization," and spends pages detailing what he sees as caustic recklessness.
The timing of this book is incredible; Gary Wang, the sole architect of FTX's technological outlay, testified in federal court earlier this week that he "inserted code into FTX’s operations that would give Alameda Research the ability to make nearly unlimited withdrawals from FTX." Caroline Ellison, cast as a tragic figure in Lewis's book (he gets John J. Ray on the record calling her "an obvious complete fucking weirdo"), also testified that Bankman-Fried "directed her to commit crimes." The forensics on Wang's code also shows that FTX's much-vaunted "insurance fund" that would insulate customers from bad trades was totally made up.
Lewis doesn't spend much time on Bankman-Fried's legal troubles with the U.S. government, other than wondering whether he should even be prosecuted in the country instead of the Bahamas. This is odd, given that the book dropped right in time for Bankman-Fried's trial. I don't know that much about the mechanics of book publishing, though for whatever reason, the rollout of Going Infinite was a bit odd. Reviewers got their galley copies just hours before the book's digital release in many cases; three local bookstores told me on release day that they'd ordered tons of copies but hadn't gotten them yet.
One of the more bizarre sentences toward the end of the book, as Lewis feints toward a conclusion that he never reaches, is the following, which is about the press reporting that Bankman-Fried was still somewhat liquid after the collapse: "Once that happened, lots of people who should have known better but who’d fallen into the habit of speaking without thinking took to Twitter to say that Sam’s ability to fork over $250 million made up their minds about his guilt."
This is pure crank shit, an uncritical eye-roll toward people who lack the nuanced perspective to see through the propaganda campaign against Sam Bankman-Fried. Maybe Lewis is attracted to the heterodox position on FTX because it's a better story. It is, in some ways, a more Michael Lewis story—what if the world was wrong? What if Bankman-Fried actually was the genius he says he is? And it would be a great story, although there's no indication in this book or anywhere else that it's a true one. Lewis tries to thread the needle all the same, but Going Infinite doesn't lay out the case so much as show what happens when someone who should know better falls in love with his own brilliance.