Book Review: Infinite Number Going Up

Daniel YergerFinancial Planning 1 Comment

I’ve found the time recently to read two books on the subject of the FTX crypto scandal in the past few months and wanted to take some time to shed some light on the story. I wrote at the time about the preliminary examination of what caused FTX to implode, but the two books on the subject lay out the story in much greater detail. The books of interest are diverse in their quality; the first, “Number Go Up” by Zeke Faux, is a multi-year safari through crypto culture in pursuit of a story about “Tether”, a stablecoin that attempts to provide the crypto-equivalent of a dollar. The second, “Going Infinite” by Michael Lewis, is a cautionary tale about credulity and how to ruin your hard-earned journalistic reputation overnight. Mind you, that second one wasn’t the intention of its author. So today, we’re talking about these two stories of crypto-grifting, and how the perspective of the storyteller can provide both unique insight and also cause more than a bit of a blind spot.

What is Objectively True

Or rather, what has been proven in the court of law. In the case of United States v. Bankman-Fried, the government charged Sam Bankman-Fried (“SBF”) with conspiracy to commit wire fraud on customers, wire fraud on customers, conspiracy to commit wire fraud on lenders, wire fraud on lenders, conspiracy to commit commodities fraud, conspiracy to commit securities fraud, and conspiracy to commit money laundering, and successfully proved beyond a reasonable doubt that SBF was guilty on all charges, and finally on March 28th, 2024, was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

As a quick refresher as to the nature of the crimes and the harms thereof, FTX deliberately built a custodial platform for crypto trading that allowed them to borrow crypto from their customers without their informed consent for use in the trades their proprietary hedge fund, Alameda Research, was performing. When Alameda borrowed too much money and made a string of bad bets on the crypto market, the exchange found itself with significantly less money than its customers had actually invested with them. This might not have been a problem, except for a few key problems: First, FTX had received and was pursuing investment from venture capital and private equity firms, and was misrepresenting its financials to those investment firms. Second, that a tweet by a competitor informing the public that they were withdrawing their financial interest in FTX caused  a “bank run” on FTX, leaving the account holders suddenly demanding money back that FTX didn’t have. The estimated amount of money stolen added up to as much as $10 billion dollars, which was spent on political donations, celebrity endorsements, stadium naming rights, oodles of Bahamas luxury real estate, and a remarkable amount of other self-indulgences.

An Unfortunately Credulous Book’s Review

The story above as told by Michael Lewis in “Going Infinite” is one of a remarkably credulous author. Michael Lewis made his chops as a best selling author with books such as “The Big Short” and “Moneyball,” which have subsequently been turned into films. With a reputation for simplifying the complex and pulling at the corners of corrupt organizations and questionable business practices, but also for examining the character of famous “weirdos,” Michael Lewis’ book was expected, before its publishing, to be a remarkable insider’s take on the FTX debacle. You see, by sheer happenstance, Michael Lewis had embedded with SBF for months prior to the FTX implosion. Anyone familiar with the ark of a good story could tell you that building up a narrative in which you see someone who is lauded as a wunderkind who steadily is revealed to be a bad guy, only to get caught in the act, would make for a great novel. Yet, here, Michael Lewis utterly failed to deliver.

From Michael Lewis’ insider perspective, SBF was simply “one of those weirdos” Michael Lewis likes to write about. Socially awkward, viewed as a savant with an eye toward effective altruism, SBF made a great character for a Michael Lewis novel. However, in all the time Michael Lewis spent with SBF, and as he relates it in his book, he never caught a whiff of wrong-doing. Thus, surprised as anyone, Michael Lewis watched the FTX implosion play out without any expectation that it was coming.

Yet, in the time since the implosion of FTX, the publishing of “Going Infinite” is written more as a gushing biopic of a misunderstood genius. Michael Lewis has since described “Going Infinite” as a letter to the jury for SBF’s trial, imploring them to see SBF as he did: not as a thief, but as a man who got out over his skis and made mistakes. Yet, as we noted at the top of this section of the blog today, this is an incredibly credulous view for an author with a reputation for sniffing out misanthropic characters with a penchant for wrongdoing. Therein, we find our other “book of the week” to be a much more honest view of the situation.

Number Go Up – Reasonably Skeptical

Named for the overly simplistic cultural statement of “number go up” in the crypto community, this book didn’t start out as a book, nor did it start out as being about FTX per se. The author, working for multiple main stream reporting publications over the years, was attempting to track down the shady characters behind the dominant stablecoin, “Tether,” which was previously stated exists to provide a form of “USD” in the cryptospace. While he went on to figure out that Tether was essentially set up by an Italian ex-plastic surgeon and one of the child actors from “The Mighty Ducks,” he never did get his Tether scoop. However, in his journeys he had a front row seat to the absolute insanity of crypto culture.

Every chapter of Number Go Up is a wild ride, not by design, but by simple merit of the underlying events of the stories it follows. The author finds himself traveling to Malaysia to see how Tether and cryptocurrencies are used to fund human trafficking and slavery, while also being used as a popular medium for “pig slaughtering,” in which con victims “invest” their money in fake cryptocurrency exchanges. His first span of time within the FTX ecosystem is in FTX’s latter hayday, mere months before the implosion in 2022, at a conference in Nassau where attendees float nine-figure crypto business ideas on the back of ugly procedurally generated art minted into NFTs, which also serve as passes to exclusive parties held on Yachts.

The exposure to FTX leads the author to two highly contrasting experiences with SBF and the FTX organization as a whole: one day spent months before the collapse in which he watches SBF eat pre-packaged curry and sleep in a beanbag chair after investor meetings held while SBF plays videogames. The other day, spent mere days after FTX’s imminent collapse, taking the “behind the scenes tour” of SBF’s luxury penthouse in an exclusive closed resort where SBF and many of his employees (and future Federal prosecution’s witnesses) cohabitated in the equivalent to a frat house for erstwhile billionaires.

Ultimately, by the end of Number Go Up, you can only come to a single result: To live in the Cryptoverse is to willingly live with a perpetual suspension of disbelief and a complete surrender of incredulity in favor of a straightfaced acceptance of blatant grifting, so long as the money from the desperate and exploitable keeps rolling in. It’s not to say that crypto hasn’t made people money; it has made a certain set of people an incredible and unbelievable amount of money, and the entire ecosystem and economy built on the back of slavery, human trafficking, prostitution, and arms dealing that surrounds it simply a feature, not a bug. Yet, the entire ecosystem and its incredible investment returns hinge entirely upon fear of missing out. The enterprise crumbles under strict scrutiny, as even the most devout crypto-bull has to admit that what they’re obsessed with is merely the scent of their own greedy bullshit, at any expense, at any cost, whether they personally bear it or it’s borne by enslaved people in 3rd world countries and ripped off seniors.

Comments 1

  1. Such ugliness!
    Cryptocurrency is still going strong – does it still feed on the unfortunate of the world?

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