Review of “Going Infinite” by Michael Lewis: The Allure of the Antihero.
Michael Lewis’ book about Sam Bankman-Fried’s journey from billionaire to bankruptcy is even more captivating due to an underlying sense of suspense. As readers familiar with the downfall of the crypto mogul may know, the author’s initial plan to profile a successful young billionaire quickly changed as Bankman-Fried’s empire crumbled. Now facing fraud charges in court, the main question in “Going Infinite” is not whether he is guilty, but if Lewis will ever stop being enamored with him.
I am a huge fan of Michael Lewis, and I must say that Going Infinite is incredibly engaging, just like all of his writing. The only exception was a not-so-great profile he wrote about President Obama for Vanity Fair 11 years ago. I devoured the book, amazed by Lewis’s skill in pacing, structuring, and humanizing a story about something as complex and intimidating as cryptocurrency. However, even after finishing the book, I couldn’t explain how bitcoin actually works. But that doesn’t matter. Similar to his previous works such as Moneyball (nerdy baseball stats), The Big Short (credit default swaps), and Flash Boys (high-frequency trading), Going Infinite showcases Lewis’s unique talent for making complicated information as captivating as fantasy literature.
There is a distinction between the concept of Going Infinite and Lewis’s previous works, and that is the dependability of the main character in the book. When the writer meets Bankman-Fried in late 2021, he is a 29-year-old individual with a net worth of billions, and according to one Silicon Valley investor, has the potential to become the world’s first trillionaire. At the time, Bankman-Fried is residing in the Bahamas, managing FTX and a hedge fund called Alameda Research, while also trying to find ways to use his wealth for the betterment of the world. He fits perfectly into Lewis’s idea of a hero – a gifted young man with exceptional mathematical abilities, but also facing social awkwardness. In the initial pages, Lewis affectionately portrays him as scruffy, unpretentious, and “a little peculiar”. “His aspirations were grand,” Lewis writes, “but he was not.” This becomes the book’s main conflict. Throughout the next 250 pages, I couldn’t help but question if Lewis’s favorable portrayal of Bankman-Fried was the right decision.
Going Infinite is composed of two distinct parts – the first one takes readers on a captivating journey through the life of Bankman-Fried, providing pure entertainment. His parents are both Stanford law professors, known for their academic rigor and unconventional ways of celebrating occasions, such as birthdays. As a child, Bankman-Fried struggles to fit in at school, but eventually finds his tribe at summer math camp, MIT, and later at Jane Street Capital – a secretive and elite trading company. His talent for high-stakes trading is evident, and after just six months on the job, his superiors predict that with dedication, he could be making $75 million annually within a decade.
It appears that this prediction is cautious. In less than a year, Bankman-Fried has surpassed traditional trading and left Jane Street to establish his own hedge fund, Alameda. He enlisted a small team of former colleagues from math camp and MIT. When he recognizes potential in the unregulated world of cryptocurrency trading, which is not accessible or approved by traditional banks, he creates FTX in the Bahamas and starts generating profits that far exceed his previous salary at Jane Street.
This section of the book is particularly lively, filled with interesting details that highlight Lewis’ skill in gaining the trust of those he writes about. When Bankman-Fried chose the Bahamas as the location for his business, he casually considered paying off the country’s $9 billion national debt to improve its infrastructure and attract FTX employees. During Elon Musk’s potential purchase of Twitter, Bankman-Fried even messaged a financial adviser to offer a $5 billion investment if Musk were to move the platform onto a blockchain (although this did not come to fruition). He also contemplated offering Donald Trump $5 billion to not run for president. As Bankman-Fried’s wealth and fame grew, he found himself in increasingly bizarre situations, such as being approached by Katy Perry in LA one night to discuss cryptocurrency – causing the reader to question if perhaps he has already faced enough challenges without the added stress of potential jail time.
Lewis recounts the tale of Bankman-Fried’s remarkable ascent with his usual energy, but there is a more complex aspect to the story that he struggles to capture. He attempts to address the lingering doubt surrounding his subject’s character by sharing a cryptic fable about a man named Bob – the underlying message being whether we truly know our friends. However, it is evident that Lewis cannot bring himself to cast any doubt on Bankman-Fried. In the beginning of the narrative, Bankman-Fried becomes influenced by a group of young philosophers from Oxford who advocate for a concept known as Effective Altruism. One member, William MacAskill, poses a question that deeply impacts Bankman-Fried’s subsequent actions: “What if I pursued a high-paying career solely for the purpose of donating my earnings?” Embracing this philosophy, Bankman-Fried becomes a vegan and dedicates himself to amassing wealth in order to make a significant impact on the world. This is the version of events as recounted by Bankman-Fried, and Lewis wholeheartedly accepts it.
Based on the information given, it appears that Bankman-Fried’s motivations are not driven by personal or material gain. He is not interested in enriching himself, but rather in the satisfaction of winning against the odds and defeating his competitors. However, the lack of extravagant spending does not necessarily prove that his motives are as simple as Lewis suggests. Bankman-Fried believes in utilitarianism as the only rational philosophy for life, which he claims frightens many because it requires selflessness. Yet, from what is presented in the book, Bankman-Fried does not appear to be exceptionally selfless.
Unfortunately, it seems that a majority of the time, he presents himself as a terrible person whose money and celebrity status allow for actions, both in his professional and personal life, that would not be accepted otherwise. On two occasions, Bankman-Fried relocates to different countries in order to avoid a girlfriend who simply wants a bit more commitment from him. “I apologize for being a terrible partner,” he admits in a message to her. It does not seem to cross the minds of either Bankman-Fried or the author that one solution to being a better partner could be to make an effort to behave in a less negative manner.
The individual, who is 31 years old, displays poor conduct in the business world. He consistently fails to follow through on significant promises, causing embarrassment for his team. In establishing Alameda, he refuses to distribute equity to others in the company. Additionally, when $4 million goes temporarily missing, he neglects to inform customers. The funds are eventually found, as it was due to a software malfunction, but not before his coworkers have accused him of subpar management, making conceited choices, and essentially deceiving customers.
Bankman-Fried maintains that he is not being dishonest, whether it be in this particular situation or any other. (During the legal proceedings, he has pleaded not guilty to all charges). He believes that the concept of “fault” is simply a construct created by society. In a later part of the book, he confesses to a colleague that when faced with a question he does not want to answer, he tends to deflect by using a “word salad” or changing the subject entirely. The fraud charges, which were filed last year, revolve around $8 billion of customer funds that were supposedly transferred from FTX to Alameda and only came to light after the collapse of cryptocurrency led to a panic on the exchange. It is understandable that Lewis would have to reevaluate his opinion of someone he clearly admires and respects. One may wonder why he initially viewed Bankman-Fried with such leniency. As I continued reading, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between Bankman-Fried and Michael Oher, another of Lewis’s subjects who was featured in his bestselling 2006 book The Blind Side and later adapted into a Hollywood film. Oher, a Black American from a disadvantaged background who went on to achieve success in American football, is currently embroiled in a dispute with the white couple who “adopted” him and claims that The Blind Side misrepresented and demeaned him. Both Oher and Bankman-Fried are portrayed as somewhat childlike by Lewis, but only one of them is depicted as having a charming immaturity that stems from their brilliance.
Actually, Bankman-Fried frequently behaves in a manner that can be described as “dumb,” using a term he often applies to others. In his pursuit of altruism, he made a deliberate effort to prioritize data over human emotions, as Lewis notes approvingly, believing that “math” was the most important factor. However, it has since been discovered that this was not always a reliable measure, as other factors proved to be more significant.