After growing up amid upper-middle-class affluence in Silicon Valley as the children of two Stanford Law School professors, as a super-smart kid who went to MIT to study physics, Sam Bankman -Fried decided as a teenager that he wanted to save the world in the worst possible way.
That’s exactly what he did.
The young, and by all accounts idealistic, Bankman-Fried attended a college lecture where he learned about and came to embrace an idea called “effective altruism” – that emerging geniuses like him won’t improve humanity through mundane drudgery like organizing peasants. No, they should use their brains and some mathematical calculations to maximize the amount of money they make in modern capitalism and then donate their millions or maybe billions of dollars to their favorite social causes.
“If what you’re trying to do is donate, you should do as much as you can and give as much as you can,” said Bankman-Fried, whose mission has become his calling card to the point where he there’s a podcast episode called “Sam Bankman-Fried Wants to Save the World.
Bankman-Fried became the best disciple of effective altruism, because he went to Wall Street and turned out to be very, very good at the “do as much as you can” part. He used a business trick in the new frontier of cryptocurrency to get rich and – still in his twenties – launch a small empire based around his crypto exchange, FTX. But while his net worth peaked at an estimated $16 billion, Bankman-Fried hadn’t gone very far on the “give as much as you can” part — possibly a few hundred million dollars — before. his Jenga empire from collapsing.
It turns out you can’t be a very effective altruist if your money disappears, which started happening this spring alongside a global cryptocurrency crash. It may take investigators months or years to unravel the FTX mess, but by his own admission, Bankman-Fried engaged in risky and unethical practices to prop up a branch of his crypto empire. , including exploiting the accounts of FTX customers. These duped investors may have lost as much as $8 billion.
Now 30, the prodigy of effective altruism wasn’t just ineffective in saving planet Earth. He has obviously made things worse, for his shocked investors and perhaps for all of us as FTX’s losses ripple through the economy. Sure to be the subject of podcasts and biopics for the rest of our lives, the rise and fall of Sam Bankman-Fried is a remarkable story indeed, but it’s just the latest twist on what’s without doubt becoming the history of the 21st century – and the disease of late capitalism.
Messianic billionaires – and we all know who they are… Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Howard Schultz, Bill Gates and even arguably MBS in Saudi Arabia – have become the ultimate winners in a winner-takes-all economy. exaggerated income inequality to levels beyond the famous golden age. And they’re now spending a lot of those billions on what they think makes the world a better place – but often marred by the same sociopathy that made them so rich in the first place.
Indeed, the Bankman-Fried saga probably isn’t getting all the attention it normally would because journalists and various self-proclaimed opinion leaders are busy obsessing over another billionaire, Musk, and his $44 billion scheme. dollars – apparently rooted in a personal obsession with the social. the Twitter media site he now owns – which has the bluebird gasping for air within days.
The erratic and mercurial leadership of Musk – the electric car and space mogul and still the world’s richest man, though his Twitter setbacks have reduced his net worth to just $189 billion – has brought a site that seemed to survive long before it was bought off the brink. Issues over a spike in unmoderated hate speech or bizarre changes in verification have Twitter users, its embattled employees and bewildered advertisers scrambling for exits — and that was before Twitter’s reprehensible decision. Musk on Saturday night to overturn Donald Trump’s lifetime ban on using Twitter to promote his violent coup attempt on January 6, 2021.
Fittingly, it’s Trump – who dove into his own overstated wealth as a maybe-not-billionaire in 2016 for arguably the worst vanity project of them all, electing himself US president – who established the mantra of these Billionaire Boys Clubs. (and it’s almost all boys) when he said, “Only I can fix it.
Indeed, the richest people in the world today – despite all their differences in style or subject matter – seem to share a surprisingly similar philosophy. It looks like this: “Let’s maintain this status quo where I can run my business in a way that maximizes my own wealth – including historically low taxes and underpaying my workers – and I swear I’ll use that wealth to better the world.” . The problem? I alone decide what this better world is and how to get there.
Just last week, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos – who was the world’s richest man before his messy divorce – laid out this model’s plan when he promised to give away the bulk of his net worth of $124 billion over his lifetime. In an interview with CNN, Bezos admitted that it was easier said than done, that “there are many ways, I think, of doing inefficient things.”
Here’s what’s so maddening about it: It would actually be easy for Jeff Bezos to be a true ‘effective altruist’ – using his power as founder of Amazon to improve the lives of 1.1 million people. who work there, not only through a living wage, but by spending to make its workplaces safe and comfortable for those currently describing hellish conditions. Instead, Amazon de Bezos is spending untold millions fighting to keep these workers from organizing.
Imagine: he could make the world a whole lot better by donating his wealth before it goes through his wallet, instead of after. But it would also mean sacrificing what really matters to a Bezos or a Musk: total control.
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The commonalities about how these billionaires think we can achieve a better world are strikingly similar – a society where an individualistic, technocratic form of market libertarianism solves everything, and where unions and other forms of communal organizing disappear. This is why so many billionaires like Microsoft’s Gates persist in donating money to the failed charter school project that is crushing teachers’ unions, conveniently forgetting the role thriving public schools once played in building of an American middle class. That’s why Starbucks’ Schultz came out of retirement to wage an anti-working class crusade against the barista organization, because their work shatters the dangerous myth of modern, socially responsible business.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
Of course, the battle cry at a time like this is usually, “Tax the rich! — and, yes, we absolutely should. The historically low tax rates on the super rich – enacted by politicians who run their campaigns on the wealth of these billionaires – should be reversed. And given our ridiculous levels of wealth inequality, we should explore additional measures like a wealth tax. (Senator Elizabeth Warren proposed this as a way to pay for free public universities, which is a much better system than billionaires writing giant checks to their favorite elite school.)
But the fact that our billionaires devote so much of their energy to fighting unions should be telling: What they fear even more than a higher marginal tax rate is the idea that we, the 99% of ordinary people will work together, collectively, for our own good instead of begging for the crumbs of their largesse. The best, and perhaps easiest, way to reduce the grip of a Musk or a Bezos is to strengthen organized labor.
I would argue more broadly that we need to rethink what is a public good and should be supported – financially and morally – by society, rather than spinning the wheel of billionaire philanthropy. A social media site like Twitter – which, for all its flaws, has also given voice to social movements as diverse as the Arab Spring, Black Lives Matter and #MeToo – should exist more as a semi-public service than a entity than a man with 44 billion dollars in reserve, it can just catch fire. Ditto for things like community media and higher education
We should never have left everything from our neighborhood schools to our favorite websites in the clutches of these crazies posing as altruistic visionaries. And sorry, Sam and Elon, but the path to a better world isn’t rocket science, after all.
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