The insider: how Michael Lewis got a backstage pass for the fall of Sam Bankman-Fried

48 Min Read

Right around the time the gales of the financial crisis were tearing up Wall Street in 2009, Meredith Whitney started her own financial research firm. Whitney, a stock market analyst, had predicted the crash of the previous year, and among the journalists who had sought her out had been Michael Lewis. When her new Manhattan office opened and she threw “a party for all the muckety-mucks”, she invited Lewis. He had just published a magazine article calling Wall Street’s titans greedy and stupid, so thrusting him into a gathering of those selfsame titans was like taking a Broadway heckler into the play’s dressing rooms. “But all these former heads of investment banks, all these current bankers – they ran, not walked, to the office, just to meet him,” Whitney said. “One hedge fund manager walked in with 15 copies of Lewis’s books. Michael signed them all.” Lewis enjoys a rare kind of celebrity among the moneyed men and women of the US. They believe he gets them, that he is the Hemingway of their bullring. He used to be one of them, after all: a Salomon Brothers bond trader in the late 1980s, and therefore part of the extravagant avarice that defined Wall Street in that decade. Then he quit to write a memoir about it, Liar’s Poker. It was the first in a series of blockbusters about the thin top slice of American society: the one in which Whitney and her muckety-mucks reside, alongside other mavens, savants and powerbrokers. They drive its commerce and politics, its sports and culture – and Lewis is their bard. He’s the kind of writer Vanity Fair will call upon to interview Barack Obama one day, Arnold Schwarzenegger the next. When a rumour surfaced that Vanity Fair used to pay Lewis $10 a word – while most journalists otherwise languish in the 50-cent range – it almost didn’t matter if it was true. (It was, it turned out.) The rumour merely confirmed what everyone knew: Lewis is the most prestigious narrator of American life. Strictly speaking, those profiles of Obama and Schwarzenegger are aberrations. Lewis’s ambition is to show how our world is revolutionised by nobodies – by clever people who are modestly known in their own fields but certainly not household names. He finds these people so unfailingly that it counts as his most brilliant skill. He tells their stories with verve, but he also makes a kind of implicit prediction every time. His oddballs may think about their work in deviant ways, Lewis argues, but hindsight will prove them right. And as the discoverer of such wise minds, Lewis himself acquires a similar reputation for sagacity – for seeing what others don’t see. So in The Big Short, Lewis’s book about the 2008 crisis, he wrote about a handful of investors who spotted the crash coming and made ludicrous sums of money by betting against the market. In The Premonition (2021), he wrote about disease specialists who had been composing pandemic responses for years – only to be ignored by shortsighted politicians in the teeth of Covid-19. Moneyball, in which a shrewd baseball manager used statistics to turn the underfunded Oakland Athletics into a competitive team, is an inspiring sports story but also a fable about the ongoing, never-ending quantification of our world. In fact, Moneyball has become a stand-in term for any drive towards quantification; campaign analytics teams do Moneyball for politics, school reform demands Moneyball for education. In any Michael Lewis book, someone is noodling through dense data to gain some sort of edge. Lewis seeks these people out. He is attracted, Whitney told me, “to the land of misfit toys”. He sees not just the drama but also the absurd comedy of their situations. In fact, he finds it impossible to be a grave or solemn narrator – even of grave or solemn tales, such as a financial meltdown or a pandemic. In Flash Boys, Lewis tracked the fortunes of Brad Katsuyama, the founder of an upstart stock exchange called IEX. Katsuyama wanted to break the grip of high-frequency traders, who were, in his view, using algorithms to manipulate the market. Serious stuff – except that, as Katsuyama told me recently, when Lewis accompanied him to his meetings, he would be “sitting with a brown leather pad with a yellow notepad inside, just scribbling and laughing to himself”. These books do such tremendous business that Lewis changes people’s lives merely by watching and writing about them. It doesn’t even need Brad Pitt to play you in the movie adaptation, as happened with Billy Beane, the baseball manager in Moneyball. The book causes commotion enough. Katsuyama, thrust into a circuit of CNBC appearances and Senate testimonies after Flash Boys came out, said with a grimace: “That variety of fame was not something I needed.” But it has its upsides. IEX received its licence to operate within two years, whereas without Flash Boys, he said, “I’m not sure we’d have ever gotten approved”. Surprisingly often, one of Lewis’s characters – as he calls them, and as they think of themselves – will put him in touch with more people to write about. I came to think of this as the Michael Lewis ecosystem – a rarefied, overwhelmingly male network within American society. All of which is to say that last year, during the spectacular fall from grace of the cryptocurrency entrepreneur Sam Bankman-Fried, when it emerged that Lewis had already been shadowing him for months to write a book, no one was shocked. Classic Lewis, everyone thought. Of course he was in the thick of it. Lewis met Bankman-Fried two years ago, when his crypto exchange FTX was valued at more than $25bn, and when even sober observers thought he might become history’s first trillionaire. They’d been introduced by Katsuyama, who was considering selling a stake in IEX to FTX. He asked Lewis for a favour: would he meet Bankman-Fried to get a read on him? (For his part, Bankman-Fried told Lewis that Liar’s Poker was one of the few books he’d ever finished.) Lewis came away impressed. In Going Infinite: The Rise and Fall of a New Tycoon – the book that was eventually born out of this meeting – Lewis quotes himself telling Katsuyama: “Do whatever he wants to do! What could possibly go wrong?” Lewis must have personally roused the fates. On 3 October, a Manhattan federal court begins hearing the US government’s case against Bankman-Fried, who has been charged with misusing his customers’ funds: stealing them to allay losses at his other firm, a hedge fund; funnelling them into his own purchases; and other sundry deceits. (He has pleaded not guilty.) When he was arrested in late 2022, Lewis had been following him for the better part of a year – sensing there was a book here, but undecided about what form it might take. As FTX crashed and burned, Lewis was allowed to stick around and take notes. It was such an incredible sequence of events that it ratified Lewis as a wildly lucky journalist, someone preordained to always happen upon the ideal character to carry the ideal story. Or as Beane told me with a laugh: “Michael’s got a horseshoe in his underwear.” Even the sketchy early details of Going Infinite, the chronicle of Bankman-Fried’s self-combustion, promised such an eyeball-scorching view of the inferno that Apple paid $5m for the TV rights without seeing a word of the manuscript. But the book is also unlike any other by Lewis, in how its narrative ambushed him. He’d set out to understand Bankman-Fried, but Bankman-Fried defeated his customary powers of perceptiveness. Lewis didn’t expect bankruptcy and scandal – and he definitely didn’t expect to have to figure out what to do if his hero abruptly turned out to be a villain. Lewis and his family live in the Berkeley Hills, on a slope so steep that his house, a guest cottage and a writing shed are all on different levels. The shed, where we spent several afternoons talking in mid-September, is the sort of space that any writer labouring away at his kitchen table instantly covets. Two walls are lined with chest-height bookshelves; there is a walnut desk, a well-padded armchair and a daybed by a window, through which the California sunshine pours in. Lewis has sufficient room in here to park two mountain bikes and a treadmill; a laptop perches on a board balanced on the treadmill’s handrails, so that he can respond to emails while on the move. In a little annexe: a shower and a kitchenette with a coffee maker. The shed felt like an excellent home for a writer to wait out the apocalypse without missing his daily cardio. Lewis and his wife, Tabitha Soren, a former reporter for MTV News, bought this house in 1998, when he was 38. They’d left New York, in part, because the city jangled his nerves, but also because he wanted to escape Wall Street’s fallout zone. For a while, he wondered if they ought to move to New Orleans, where he grew up, but then decided that it was unfair to pitch her into its stratified, ossified urban hierarchy. Lewis’s family sat at the very top of the Wasp aristocracy in New Orleans. “I was so inside,” he told me. “I was literally trained how to sit on a throne when I was 15 years old, because I was crowned the king of the carnival ball – an organisation that didn’t allow Black people, didn’t allow Jews … I would go from baseball practice to sceptre-waving lessons. I was born into that world.” Being an insider in New Orleans made him feel like an outsider everywhere else – and not always to his disadvantage. After studying art history at Princeton, Lewis dithered over a choice of a career. He wound up at the London School of Economics, then joined the bond desk in the British branch of Salomon Brothers, an American investment bank. Just around the time of the stock market crash of 1987, Lewis gave up his $225,000-a-year job and wrote Liar’s Poker, which is still so revered that when his eldest daughter’s friends recently interned on Wall Street, their firms advised them to read the book. In the new season of Billions, the HBO drama about high finance, Lewis makes a cameo, addressing a roomful of Wall Street types on the 35th anniversary of Liar’s Poker. He tells them: “The street has changed. It’s been cleaned up, sanitised … No one says ‘Fuck’ any more. They’ve taken the strippers off the trading floor.” It’s hard to tell if he approves or disapproves, which makes the Wall Street types love him all the more. Starling Lawrence, Lewis’s longtime editor, once proposed to him that all his books were about markets: about how people act in market-like situations, for instance, or about the market for baseball players. (“He was surprised to hear that his excellence and success could be so reductively described,” Lawrence said wryly.) To the financial markets themselves, Lewis has returned so often that his books map a quarter-century’s evolution of Wall Street – and his own disenchantment with it. In Boomerang, a book about the global effects of the 2008 collapse, he wrote that the financial system had become “a tool for maximizing the number of encounters between strong and weak, so that one might exploit the other”. Regulators ought to have helped. “I don’t think capitalism functions without referees,” Lewis told me. “Markets don’t work without rules.” Not that Lewis is a ready critic of capitalism. He believes that markets would work just fine – produce predictable results, be good for everyone – if only people didn’t turn greedy, or get blinded by instinct or other human foibles. Ira Glass, the host of This American Life and a sporadic collaborator with Lewis over the years, offered me another theory. So many of his books, Glass said, are about people who manage to behave rationally in the midst of irrationality, “about people who recognise something important that other people don’t recognise. That’s what he’s attracted to and finds over and over. Because that’s what Lewis does himself. That’s his gig.” At the frothiest crest of the crypto wave, around the first and second years of the pandemic, it was tempting to believe that the geeks were on to something. The price of a single bitcoin edged above $65,000, up from about $4,000 three years earlier. Perhaps crypto was a legit fountain of wealth and success – perhaps it was moneyball for money, in which a new gang of smart rationalists were outfoxing traditional investors. Which made Sam Bankman-Fried, the lord and saviour of these renegades, a perfect Michael Lewis character. For Lewis, who wasn’t otherwise drawn to crypto, Bankman-Fried exerted a magnetic appeal. His net worth was a part of it, although there were other, wealthier people out there, like Elon Musk, whom Lewis couldn’t imagine himself writing about. He did find himself intrigued, in particular, by effective altruism, the movement to which Bankman-Fried subscribed. Effective altruists believe in giving away most of what they make, to do the most good in the world; some of them commit to earning as much as possible, so as to donate more to their chosen beneficiaries. Having spent so long on Wall Street, Lewis wasn’t used to meeting a wealthy young man who claimed to have no interest in wealth. Unusually for Lewis, he couldn’t figure Bankman-Fried out. “Michael just said: ‘This kid is the richest and most interesting young person I’ve ever met,’” Lawrence remembered. “He didn’t claim to understand all the deep recesses of Bankman-Fried’s mind. But he knew it was a great story. And this was before the shit hit the fan.” Most of Lewis’s books have begun in this inchoate manner: loitering, trying to see where the story goes. When he first rang the Oakland Athletics, in 2002, Billy Beane didn’t recognise his name. Which was odd, because Beane had read Liar’s Poker, and because he and his staff were fashioning themselves after Wall Street maths whizzes. They wanted to be led solely by data, rather than by their gut or by baseball custom, in deciding which players to buy and sell, and Lewis thought this would make for a fine business story for the New York Times. His second daughter, Dixie, had just been born, so he really wasn’t planning to spend too long on the piece, he told Beane. Could he come to the club for a few quick interviews? “I was going to get rid of him in 15 minutes,” Beane told me. Then, within moments of sitting down in Beane’s office, Lewis said: “I know exactly what you guys are doing here. You’re arbitraging the mispricing of baseball players.” Beane, who’d worked out by now that this Michael Lewis was that Michael Lewis, exchanged looks with his colleagues. “It was like: ‘This guy gets it.’ In a weird way, he was validating us.” Among journalists, there are many ways of finding things out. “Joan Didion’s technique was to become invisible, so that people forget she’s there,” said Jacob Weisberg, the former editor of Slate and one of Lewis’s closest friends. “With Michael, it’s the opposite. He’s a big presence, but he’s fun, so you want him around.” Weisberg describes Lewis as “radiating total confidence and excitement”, and it’s true – it’s hard to imagine him at a loss for words. Glass, who has had the unusual opportunity of watching Lewis interview people, said: “He’d feed them his own analyses of them, like: ‘This is what I think you mean,’ or ‘Here’s where I think you’re wrong.’” Katsuyama found himself telling Lewis things that he’d only ever shared with his wife. “I remember that he once met all the members of our team for a bit,” Katsuyama said, “and then later he replayed to me what he thought their characters and motivations were. I’ve never seen someone nail people as accurately as he did. It was unreal.” Often, after Lewis publishes a book, his subjects get mad, unused to seeing themselves through a bystander’s eyes. (Beane was furious that Moneyball showed him swearing a blue streak; he was worried about what his mother would think.) That phase passes, Lewis told me. Nearly everyone he has written about has remained friends with him – which may have much to do with how Lewis’s books end up exalting them. “Michael finds these characters, falls in love with them a little bit, and makes them into heroes,” a former colleague of his told me. This must be why Lewis’s ecosystem so proficiently serves him new people to write about. Once he has been flatteringly interested in you, it appears, you start to recognise others of your species. Here, for example, is how Lewis hopscotched his way into Going Infinite. During the 2008 crisis, Meredith Whitney, the financial analyst, put Lewis on to Danny Moses, an investor who became one of the prescient few in The Big Short. A year or two later, Moses found himself in a meeting with Katsuyama, who told him about the perils of high-frequency trading. Before they had even finished, Moses ran out of the conference room, dialled Lewis, and said: “I have your next book right here!” That book became Flash Boys, and through Katsuyama, of course, came Bankman-Fried. Sometimes, Lewis even creates these ties himself, to the extent that he becomes a minor participant in the stories he’s researching. When he was following Katsuyama’s efforts to get his stock exchange off the ground, Lewis brokered an introduction to Jim Clark, the founder of Netscape and the central figure in Lewis’s The New New Thing. Clark went on to invest in Katsuyama’s company. To feature in a Lewis book is also to be inducted into a very select club – one whose members get invited so often to write books or to speaking gigs that Lewis sets them up with his own agent. Usually, it is the lot of the journalist to have your call ignored or your email deleted. Lewis is rarely spurned; people know by now that he can make you a star. The obverse of Lewis’s approach is that he doesn’t write about people he can’t befriend, or about stories that might cost him relationships. Among the few projects he has abandoned is a biography of George Soros, who was so unhappy with Lewis’s portrayal of him as a financier rather than an intellectual in a magazine profile that he refused to cooperate. Another is a book about New Orleans, which would have demanded a level of honesty about the city’s society, and about his family’s place in it, that might have hurt his parents, he said. “I adore my parents. I couldn’t write that part while they’re alive.” For all the unimpeded views he gets of the seamier sides of society, Lewis constructs his books along peculiarly uplifting lines. In The Big Short, a posse of investors makes money off lying, mercenary bankers; in The Premonition, doctors foresee pandemics and plan for them – only to see their advice being neglected during Covid-19. Lewis offers these stories as stirring rather than depressing – as triumphs against adversity, even as American life crumbles in the background. He can’t help it, Lewis told me. When he was a schoolboy, his principal once observed that Lewis was the happiest person he knew. “Once you identify yourself as happy, you’re always looking for happiness, and when things come along to grate on that happiness, you find ways to deflect them,” Lewis said. “You can force the narrative.” The most shocking blow to Lewis’s perpetual state of happiness came in the summer of 2021. His daughter Dixie – the second of his three children – died with her boyfriend in a road accident. Lewis was the last person Dixie saw before she left their house. Other parents who had lost children told him that he’d be overcome by anger and guilt, but he wasn’t, which was some kind of relief. The deep sorrow was hard enough, alien enough. “It’s been hard, very hard – like running a marathon with a 50lb backpack,” he said. “The one fear I had was that, because this was so different and dramatic from anything I’d experienced, was: am I still going to be me? I always associated writing with joy, pure joy. And I thought: will I ever feel that feeling when I write again?” On our third day together, Lewis took me to Memorial Stadium, to watch the universities of Auburn and California face off in a game of American football. For the occasion, he changed into a slightly more formal pair of sweatpants than he otherwise wears. His son, Walker, brought along a friend; the four of us sat high up in the gunwale of the stadium, where Lewis had managed to get us box seats. He pointed to a tiny figure prowling the sidelines, wearing white headphones: Hugh Freeze, Auburn’s coach. Freeze had been one of Lewis’s characters in his book The Blind Side, but it was pure coincidence that Auburn happened to be in town when I was visiting, Lewis assured me. “I don’t want you to think all my weekends are like this,” he said with a laugh – populated, that is, by members of the Michael Lewis ecosystem flitting in and out of town. In the Bay Area and New York, he told me, “people know me for The Big Short or Liar’s Poker. But in middle America, and in the south, I’ll be talking to the guy next to me on a plane, and it’s The Blind Side that he’ll know.” This summer, The Blind Side suddenly became the most controversial thing Lewis has ever written. The book, published in 2006, told the story of Michael Oher, a poor Black teenager in Memphis who was invited to move in with a white family, Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy and their two children. Oher was built like a telephone booth, but he was also astonishingly quick, which made him a hot pro football prospect. First, the Tuohys had to help send him to college, though – not easy for a kid with a fitful education. Lewis heard about this story from the Tuohys themselves, old friends of his, and wrote The Blind Side well before Oher fulfilled his athletic promise by playing in the National Football League. In 2009, The Blind Side became the first of Lewis’s books to be made into a movie: a $35m production that has earned around half a billion dollars to date. This past August, though, Oher sued the Tuohys, claiming that they’d made millions off the film while he had received nothing. He also accused the Tuohys of lying about having adopted him, claiming that they’d actually brought him into a conservatorship when he was in school, giving them the legal right to make business deals on his behalf. (Oher did not respond to an interview request. The Tuohys have called his allegations “hurtful and absurd”.) In his own 2011 book, Oher had wondered why the movie showed the Tuohys explaining the basics of football to him, even though he knew the game well. Oher’s allegations in his lawsuit made the film out to be that ugliest of things: a white-saviour project that actually screws over its Black protagonist. Lewis’s book is more nuanced than the dreadful film, but by the time I met him, The Blind Side had been so thoroughly pilloried that I thought he’d be reluctant to talk about it. In fact, he kept bringing it up himself. Over lunch a couple of days after the Auburn game, we sparred cordially over whether he’d given Oher short shrift in the text – in continuing to call him “Big Mike” even though Oher hates that name, for instance, or in quoting him so little that the story is told almost entirely through the Tuohys. Lewis said that Oher spoke so sparingly that “he was not a strong voice on his life – he didn’t tell his story. I had to go dig out his story, and I did it all with his permission.” As a writer, Lewis turned Oher’s reticence into “literary virtue”, he said – into a narrative framework in which we see Oher through the eyes of those around him. Lewis defended the Tuohys, saying that they’d only earned a few hundred thousand dollars off The Blind Side, rather than the millions that Oher claimed. (He admitted that this was complicated somewhat by the fact that the Tuohys’ daughter is married to the son of the film’s financial backer.) But he insisted that Oher wouldn’t have made it to the NFL without the Tuohys’ support, and that Oher did not, in fact, know much about playing football when the Tuohys first met him. On a football field, “he was not useful”, Lewis said. “And the person who’s authoritative on this is Hugh Freeze, whom we saw on the sidelines two nights ago.” Freeze, Oher’s old coach, had recently spoken up for the Tuohys, and Lewis thought him brave. “It’s this cancel culture thing. It takes an act of courage to stand up to the mob.” Lewis recalled Oher as a shy young boy and found it hard to square that memory with the Oher behind the lawsuit. “What we’re watching is a change of behaviour,” he told me. “This is what happens to football players who get hit in the head: they run into problems with violence and aggression.” It wouldn’t surprise him, Lewis said, if we were seeing some confluence of Oher’s history in football with other campaigns that stoke claims and lawsuits like his. Perhaps some lawyer of Oher’s figured the time was ripe to sue the Tuohys, Lewis speculated, or perhaps Oher realised people would “get behind him if he makes these accusations”. It’s critical to the allure of Lewis’s narratives that his characters are little-known; on a clean slate, they can be rendered more easily as mavericks and heroes. His work is less effective, his former colleague told me, when he writes about people who are already famous. But writing a character along neat, heroic lines is also fraught with hazards. Their feats have to be amplified or ennobled, the colleague said, particularly if “they’re not really heroic – like, were the guys who made a lot of money in The Big Short heroic?” And heroes require other stock characters: an antagonist, say, such as an investor named Wing Chau, who complained he’d been unfairly portrayed as a villain in The Big Short; or a wide-eyed beneficiary of generosity, as Oher claims to have been depicted. With Bankman-Fried, too, the colleague said, “Michael was following that tried-and-true pattern, because Bankman-Fried was well known in crypto but not to the world at large. He’d have been a great Michael Lewis hero – if he didn’t turn out to be a fraud. So the question I’m interested in is: does Michael know how to handle the dark side of someone?” One afternoon, Lewis and I drove to Tilden Regional Park, not far from his home, for a ramble. He is a keen cyclist and hiker, but his choice of activity for us was a seasoned piece of journalistic theatre: we were walking the same trail that Lewis and Bankman-Fried did in the autumn of 2021, when they’d first met. They followed a gently inclined path, winding between knots of Ponderosa pines and coast redwoods, Bankman-Fried in his sack-like T-shirt and cargo shorts, talking Lewis’s ear off about his billions and what he planned to do with them. The route ordinarily took just over an hour; Bankman-Fried needed two. This was not a man accustomed to being outdoors. After that initial conversation, Lewis began spending more time with Bankman-Fried the following spring. In its first two acts, Going Infinite reflects the astonishing intimacy Lewis enjoyed. He was permitted into the heart of the FTX world, so he is able to narrate, in minute detail, the fabulous events of Bankman-Fried’s life circa 2014-2023. Over this period, Bankman-Fried went from being a poorly dressed dweeb to a billionaire burnished by his ties to effective altruism, courted by heads of state and CEOs – all before he was 30. Lewis has all the receipts. He discovers Bankman-Fried’s inability to lead a regular life – one involving sleep and clean clothes – and his imposition of the same kind of existence upon his employees. (One employee went 30 days without leaving FTX’s Hong Kong office.) He learns how, after starting a crypto trading firm called Alameda Research, Bankman-Fried misplaced $4m worth of a token called Ripple, only to find it again. He knows precisely what sort of romantic squabbles Bankman-Fried had with his girlfriend, whom he’d installed as CEO of Alameda when she was still in her mid-20s; in fact, Lewis even saw the notes that Bankman-Fried wrote her, taxonomising their relationship. Last year, after FTX’s valuation swelled and made Bankman-Fried breathtakingly wealthy, his money exerted its own gravitational pull on the rich and powerful in the US – and Lewis documented this, too. He hovered out of view on a Zoom call as Bankman-Fried, playing a video game called Storybook Brawl on the side, half-listened to Anna Wintour court him for a Met Gala sponsorship. When Mitch McConnell, the leader of the Republicans in the Senate, invited Bankman-Fried to dinner, he in turn urged Lewis to tag along, and had to be persuaded that McConnell probably wouldn’t like a journalist at the table. During a whirlwind trip, for which Bankman-Fried packed just a laptop and a change of underwear, he met Shaquille O’Neal, the Kardashians, Hillary Clinton and the CEO of Goldman Sachs – and Lewis was at his elbow. At one point, he even learned that Bankman-Fried wanted to pay Donald Trump to not run again for the presidency. Through an uncorroborated back channel, Trump’s team allegedly let on that he did indeed have a price – but it was $5bn, too steep even for Bankman-Fried. Still, Lewis felt he couldn’t write a book without an ending. Helpfully, Bankman-Fried supplied one. As crypto prices tumbled through 2022, a run on FTX revealed that its customers’ deposits had been diverted to Alameda – and from there into risky investments, political donations and lavish property purchases. (Bankman-Fried denies having known about these misuses of funds.) The run was triggered by Changpeng Zhao, the head of a rival crypto exchange that has run into its own troubles with government agencies. (Lewis told me a Hollywood agent had called him and, on Zhao’s behalf, offered millions of dollars to buy and bury the movie rights to Going Infinite. Being cast as a louse in a Lewis story is a very public indignity. Zhao did not respond to a request for comment.) In an echo of Alameda’s Ripple fiasco, billions of dollars seemed to have evaporated. Both Alameda and FTX filed for bankruptcy last November, employees fled FTX’s compound in the Bahamas, and the US had Bankman-Fried extradited to stand trial for fraud. For the better part of three months, towards the end of 2022, Lewis stayed in the Bahamas, unable to quite believe what he was suddenly privy to: a corporate implosion, an exodus so swift that the abandoned cars of FTX employees filled the airport parking lot, and a CEO seemingly so oblivious that one of Bankman-Fried’s executives yelled at him: “Will you please fucking stop playing Storybook Brawl?” Other journalists may declare that they sat in front-row seats for the FTX meltdown – for what may end up being the greatest crime of the crypto age. But Lewis was backstage before the curtain went up, having heart-to-hearts with the lead actor – and he never left. The crux of the case against Bankman-Fried is that he gambled with other people’s money – a neat coincidence, because Other People’s Money was one of the alternative titles that Lewis considered for Liar’s Poker. In several ways, Going Infinite is an analogue of that first book. Lewis hasn’t had this kind of access to a finance saga since his memoir. And as with Liar’s Poker, Lewis noticed “just how much I laughed when I was writing ‘Going Infinite”. It was the first sign he’d had since his daughter died that working on a book could still bring him pleasure. “I felt like my old self,” he said. While reading the book, though, I found myself itching for Lewis to abandon his amused-ethnographer approach. The drama he was witnessing was so outrageous that he seems to have satisfied himself with relaying it, rather than picking its truth and meaning apart. I wondered if he’d spent so much time within the technocratic echelon of American life that when Bankman-Fried embodied some of its worst traits – when he thought of people as “probability distributions”, or ran his companies with deliberate opacity, or chased an obscene level of wealth – Lewis could only see him as an especially quirky character, rather than a product of terrible dysfunction. “He hadn’t been warped by money in the ways people often are,” Lewis writes – an odd remark about a man who thinks there should be more money influencing politics. Lewis’s habit of falling in love with his characters is so ingrained that he really doesn’t judge them. In Going Infinite, that can make him seem credulous – and that’s even before we know if Bankman-Fried has committed any crimes. Lewis was keen to investigate this response of mine. He thought Bankman-Fried hadn’t lied to him at all – or at least, that he’d only lied by omission, not commission. (Late in the book, Lewis asks Bankman-Fried: what would you have done if I’d asked you specifically about FTX customers’ funds being used by Alameda? Bankman-Fried admits that he would have changed the subject or rustled up a word salad.) And whatever the facades erected by other effective altruists, Lewis considers Bankman-Fried to be enigmatic but essentially genuine – and certainly not out to enrich himself, because he has no desire for the things that money can buy. (What Bankman-Fried hates most about prison, his lawyer told Lewis, is that it only permits a few hours of internet a day.) Most curiously, though, Going Infinite leaves open the possibility that FTX’s deposits aren’t missing at all – that the billions will be found, and that this will turn out to be another instance of Bankman-Fried’s sloppiness. This isn’t just Lewis’s legal cover in writing about a man on trial; he genuinely considers this a possible outcome. But, to Lewis, whether Bankman-Fried is innocent or guilty is, in a sense, moot. What narrative purpose would it have served, Lewis asked me, to be harder on him in the book? We were still walking what Lewis called, in jest, the Sam Bankman-Fried Memorial Trail, and were in single file on a narrow stretch, so I answered over my shoulder. Perhaps his comic tone risked diminishing the greed and dishonesty he was observing? He considered this. The only time he’d felt really angry mid-book, he said, was in writing Flash Boys, when he concluded that high-frequency trading had rigged the markets against ordinary investors. (Ironically, more than any of his other Wall Street books, it was Flash Boys that has drawn bevvies of faultfinders and nitpickers, all claiming that Lewis had over-dramatised the dangers.) With Going Infinite, Lewis said he primarily wanted to unpick the perplexing nature of Bankman-Fried’s character. “I do hear it in the air – around Walter Isaacson’s book [on Elon Musk] and probably around mine – this kind of suspicion-slash-hostility towards the journalist who really gets to know their subject, that it’s access journalism, or you got too close or whatever,” Lewis told me. But that was the price of immersive reporting, he argued. Besides, he said, “I could never see this story as anything but comic. Maybe it’s a moral failing in some way, but that’s what it is.” The publishing date of Going Infinite, 3 October, had been picked carefully – to surf the publicity of Bankman-Fried’s trial, scheduled to begin the same day, while also preventing the trial’s participants from reading it. (In theory, the jury is supposed to sequester itself from any press coverage of Bankman-Fried.) I asked Lewis which lot of lawyers, the prosecution or the defence, was more likely to read his book and find it useful for their case. The prosecution “might get more out of the little, teeny pieces”, he said – the indiscretions, the shortcuts, the hubris. “But the humanisation of Sam works for the defence, right?” he added. “I’d bet the defence more than the prosecution would rather that the jury read the book.” Lewis isn’t done with Bankman-Fried yet. When I met him, he was sorely tempted to cancel his book tour and cover the trial instead. He’d already planned a season of podcasting around the trial, and he planned to ask Bankman-Fried’s lawyers if a prison visit was possible. “Sam’s mother told me it was a bad idea – that Sam got sent to prison precisely for talking to the media, and the judge doesn’t want that,” Lewis said. “But I want to tell him I might be at the trial. And I want to tell him about the podcast.” Much about his Bankman-Fried project still feels incomplete to him. There’s the truth about FTX itself, of course, and the fate of its missing billions. But there is also Lewis’s own mission to decipher Bankman-Fried – and then possibly, pending the trial’s verdict, to work out why he got him so very wrong.

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