Amid all the bombshell revelations about fallen crypto king Sam Bankman-Fried, a seemingly trivial bit of information might tell us everything we need to know: He doesn’t read books.
Now, there are plenty of people who don’t read. This does not indicate that they are likely to end up accused of having robbed thousands of others of their fortunes in a speculative adventure that is part financial experiment, part Ponzi scheme. Some prefer to listen; some prefer to do something else altogether. The thing is, the reason counts.
Behold, then, SBF’s reason: “I don’t want to say no book is ever worth reading, but I actually do believe something pretty close to that. … If you wrote a book, you f---ed up, and it should have been a six-paragraph blog post.”
Now, this is paragraph five of this column, so we’re running short on worthwhile words. But this means-to-an-end worldview might be the key to understanding SBF’s character, and his career. The point for SBF, it seems, isn’t the book itself but what he takes away from it — the instrumental knowledge that, presumably, he can gather more efficiently from a SparkNotes version of any opus than from the work itself.
Part of the problem might be an unspoken focus on nonfiction versus fiction, and maybe highly technical nonfiction in particular. After all, it’s easier to argue that you can learn everything you really need to know about the history of securities regulation from a cleverly constructed issue brief than it is to insist that if someone tells you Elizabeth Bennet ends up marrying Mr. Darcy, you’ve absorbed the sum total of “Pride and Prejudice.”
But no matter the type of book he’s talking about, what SBF is missing is the experience. You’re supposed to read not in spite of the digressions and diversions that stand between you and the denouement, but because of them; the little things aren’t extraneous but essential. And what you come out of a book with isn’t always supposed to be instrumental at all, at least not in any practical sense. You read to read; you don’t read to have read.
Which brings us back to SBF and FTX — the bookkeeping that, according to the company’s bankruptcy lawyer, was less sloppy than nonexistent; the big bets that executives figured were only a liability if they lost; the lending of investors’ funds to prop up a trading firm SBF also owned. You could argue these things are immoral in their own right. Yet to SBF, they would only count as wrong if the ultimate outcome of them was likely to be wrong, too. What happened along the way, just like with those books not worth reading, didn’t appear to carry much water.
All this stemmed not simply from an inclination toward reckless management, but from something more deeply rooted: philosophy. SBF is a believer in effective altruism. This school of thought seeks to, by its own definition, use “evidence and reason to figure out how to benefit others as much as possible.” More specifically, SBF had devoted his life toward “earning to give.” You pick a career not because you care about the career itself, or even think it’s good for the world on its own merits. You pick a career because it will make you a massive amount of money, and you can spend that money on something that is good. So SBF picked finance, and after that he picked crypto.
Earning to give, in other words, is at its most extreme all about the end, means be damned.
The trouble is, if you don’t care about what you do, if part of you disdains what you do, your only concern is what the work gets you. That’s the case whether your aim is to keep all the riches for yourself or to do precisely the opposite. SBF was also immersed in a type of effective altruism known as longtermism, where that ultimate outcome you’re seeking is hundreds of thousands or even millions of years away, so instead of buying bed nets for children dying of malaria today, you’re trying to prevent the hypothetical next pandemic or the overheating of the earth. The risk, of course, is that this obsession with the future further disconnects you from the present. Why not scam a few bucks today to save a few billion lives in the 23rd century? That’s not just skipping to the end of the book — it’s skipping to the end of the entire series.
The effective altruism movement was already grappling with the question of whether it had become too tied up in ethical bean-counting. Now that one of its preeminent acolytes has plummeted from grace, those efforts are even more urgent. People can, as many in the movement already recognize, do the right thing today and the right thing tomorrow at the same time. They can pursue just ends without forgetting to pay attention to the means that take them there. Figuring it out, however, might require reading a book or two.