CEO of FTX Sam Bankman-Fried (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The scammer in you

Sam Bankman-Fried is not unique

Artillery Row

If the late 2000s and early 2010s were the Age of the Lovable Sociopath, then the mid-2010s has been something of a cousin era: the Age of the Scammer.

In no particular order, take Fyre Festival’s Billy McFarland, fake heiress Anna Delvey or Silicon Valley’s own girl boss, Elizabeth Holmes. Then there are the quarterly waves of “micro-scammers”: fraudulent drop shippers, high school frenemies involved in various MLMs, grifting podcasters and hot take merchants, pseudo-scientist dietitians, the victims of Munchausen’s-by-Internet. It’s not that this type of duplicity is new. In the United States especially, there have always been con artists, snake oil salesmen and hustlers. Arguably much of America’s cultural heritage is built on it. 

A crypto-winter is always followed by a crypto-spring

Yet, something about today feels different — perhaps it’s how ordinary the scamming has become. There’s always another big reveal. Another pathological liar who sank this or that company, who stole XX hundreds of thousands or millions or even billions of dollars. 

I’m numb to it, though. It’s like American violence. Every day, there’s another mass casualty event, and every day there’s another massive, life-historical fraud being exposed — the inevitable fodder for a Netflix or Hulu mini-series, a companion podcast and at a minimum, a dozen think pieces. When people asked me for my take on the latest — the collapse of crypto-wiz-kid Sam Bankman-Fried and his exchange FTX — that’s all I could muster. 

Just a shrug and the famous words of Riva-Melissa Tez, “Everything is a scam.” I mean, isn’t it? 

Every scam has its own particularities, of course. I understand that the big takeaways from this one were supposed to be the corruption of the Democratic Party, the flimsiness of the crypto-economy and by extension Silicon Valley, and the silliness of Effective Altruism, the hardline utilitarian philosophy that SBF subscribed to. There were several interesting theories (I am not foreclosing on the possibility that they were more than just “theories”, by the way) about nepotism. There were several more interesting B-plots about polycules and Adderall dependency. Had this not happened in a post-COVID, post-GamerGate, post-Trump, post-Ukraine world, perhaps this would have been somebody’s “redpill” moment about corruption in media. Like I said, for me, it’s just another narrative universe waiting to be exploited. 

What changes? Sam enters the pantheon of American mythology — this one’s clearly durable enough for several media spin-offs. Crypto dies? I’m not so sure about that. A crypto-winter is always followed by a crypto-spring and then summer, even if it happens over the course of several years. Effective Altruism is wiped off the face of the planet, or at least driven out of Silicon Valley with pitchforks? So what? Silicon Valley is a petri-dish for these types of subcultures and has been since the late 60s. Effective Altruism was already competing with several other pop philosophies. Do we become more discerning about who we consider a genius? I mean, what do you think?

There’s a Sam Bankman-Fried in every one of us

If you have scammer burn-out like I do, here’s my take: a lot of people, maybe even most, meet a non-clinical definition for sociopath. Don’t misread me here. I don’t think that most people are capable of the type of unspeakable malice that would allow them to kill a man for the sake of inflicting pain.

But more of us are willing and able to operate beyond the bounds of acceptability than it might seem on the surface. I think that the gravity of, say, stealing several billion dollars of customer and investor money, wouldn’t register for most people if they were confident they wouldn’t get caught. I’m going to go a step further: I don’t even think most people would register that it’s unethical. “Wrong”, yes — but “wrong” in the sense that they’d get caught, not that other people might get hurt. 

What stops people from behaving this way en masse isn’t their “moral compass”. What stops them is a lack of confidence. Occasionally, maybe it’s not strategic, but it’s not “goodness”. People are good because they don’t believe they have the opportunity to be bad successfully. 

Sam isn’t some anomaly. There may be anomalous factors in his situation. He may very well be involved in a level of global corruption with an unfathomable scope — I’m not litigating that. But as far as what individual people are capable of? There’s a Sam Bankman-Fried in every one of us. 

We just haven’t had the chance to exercise it. 

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