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Sam Bankman-Fried’s Folly Is A Tale As Old As Time, But He Doesn’t Read

SBF and his ilk are just the harvest after decades of planting pragmatic and relativistic seeds throughout American public schools.

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The image below is going around the internet as an “I told you so” moment for supporters of a liberal arts education — i.e., one that actually values reading books.

On the poster is FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried, his hair and dress as unruly as his organization’s account books. Surrounding Bankman-Fried is his take on the value of reading: “I’m very sceptical of books. I don’t want to say no book is ever worth reading but I actually do believe something very close to that.” At the bottom of the image reads, “The future of investing is FTX. You in?” (SBF also hated Shakespeare for his predictable plots.)

No one is “in” anymore — not after FTX’s customers lost their savings in the biggest fraud case, post-Covid. On Nov. 2, Bankman-Fried was found guilty on two counts of fraud and five counts of conspiracy by a jury that took only four hours to decide his fate. For a time, Bankman-Fried was the world’s wealthiest individual under 30 until interest rates started rising. As investors tried to pull their money from FTX, they realized their savings had disappeared, either lent to FTX’s sister firm Alameda to cover losses or to fuel a wild shopping spree where multimillion-dollar expenditures were approved via text with emojis

Bankman-Fried’s fall proves Theodore Roosevelt’s old maxim true: “A man who has never gone to school may steal from a freight car, but if he has a university education, he may steal the whole railroad.”

The fact that Bankman-Fried, former crypto darling and the face behind effective altruism (the use of data and statistics to maximize profits to then maximize donations to the causes likely to do the most good), was convicted of defrauding customers upwards of $8 billion shows how an education founded on practical utility but lacking timeless wisdom results in nothing but a terrifying fall. After all, the wonderboy who dismissed the value of books now faces decades in prison. 

Such folly is a textbook example of hubris, a kind of extreme arrogance directed toward the gods. This arrogance serves as an object lesson for things the reader should not do found in the works of Homer, Sophocles, and Milton. Yet lessons on hubris work both ways: directed to the individual who has displayed the character trait and suffered the fall and to those who watch the fall as a warning not to make the same mistakes. Chief among the classic flaws is assuming the rules and norms regarding human nature do not apply to you. 

The tale of Oedipus the King is most relevant to the fall of Bankman-Fried. In that great play, the title character Oedipus pridefully assumes he may dodge his fate, which no human being can do, and save Thebes from a devastating plague. Oedipus’ great error in judgment, his hamartia, was not knowing himself. In the play, written by the Athenian playwright Sophocles, Oedipus becomes king by saving the city from the Sphinx, a monster who poses a riddle to passersby and devours them if they do not answer it. The riddle: “What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs in the evening?” 

The answer is man, man in his stages of life from infancy (four legs) to his prime (two legs) and into old age (the third leg being a cane). The sad irony is that Oedipus knows some truths about mankind — the answer to a riddle — without recognizing what is in man and what man himself is capable of doing. After all, Oedipus is the one ultimately responsible for the plague and for the misfortune that befalls him, which he tragically could not avoid. 

Likewise, Bankman-Fried inspired investors and politicians alike to buy into a future facilitated by crypto. Yet, either he did not recognize what he was capable of under the right circumstances, or — knowing what he was doing to be wrong — he believed he could escape the fate reserved for white-collar criminals running Ponzi schemes. He provided no safeguards for a system into which tens of millions of dollars poured every day — no chief financial officer and no human resources department. Nor did he envision a day when the good times would stop rolling and FTX’s cash flow dry up.

Bankman-Fried knew certain things about man but not what was in himself, for man is a creature capable of doing anything under the right circumstances — a creature who should be on guard against such temptations. 

The same reasoning applies to the other movement Bankman-Fried represented: effective altruism. As opposed to just normal altruism, effective altruism focuses on maximizing profits to support certain causes (notably environmental causes) with maximum donations. The movement is another iteration of the same prideful themes — with enough data and the progressive, forward-thinking mindset of men like Bankman-Fried before his demise, we can solve the problems that have plagued humanity since the biblical fall of man. 

As readers who stand within the tradition and worldview rejected by Bankman-Fried and his ilk, we should take the warning to heart. We may fall in a similar way — perhaps not after stealing $8 billion in customer assets, but in doing something for which we think we could never get caught.

Beyond that, we should be more circumspect of the latest iteration of the Silicon Valley tech guru, dressed down in sweats with unruly hair. Bankman-Fried spoke of his attire as part of his image, his “brand” — the image that prosecutors in his trial connected to his guilt and not just sloppy accounting. If a banker is so unconcerned with his appearance, he’s probably unconcerned with delivering a high return on your investment.

But the biggest lesson? Bring back the classics, take advantage of any opportunity to read them with students, and encourage them to internalize the ideas contained in such works. 

Bankman-Fried and his ilk are just the harvest after decades of planting pragmatic and relativistic seeds throughout American public schools. Bankman-Fried may have found Shakespeare’s plots boring, but this assumes he at least read them. Tens of thousands of students will never get that chance after years of canceling the likes of Homer, Dante, and Milton from high school literature classes. 

In canceling them, we have silenced the wisdom of the ages that urges us to take heed, lest we fall. 


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