Bankman-Fried and the Rise of Shtickbait
Here’s my new business model: I’m going to meet with venture capitalists wearing only a Speedo and a monocle and ask for a billion dollars. I don’t know what my product is yet, but that’s not important now.
Because this is where commerce is headed — a construct where business is anchored in exquisitely crafted tics and as little clothing as possible. Along this evolution, we began with robber barons like Morgan and Rockefeller donning top hats, capes and bench-made lace-up boots inlaid with patterns that looked like parquet floors.
Later came Steve Jobs in his black turtleneck, round glasses and headsets and his not-really-twin Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos. Then onto the mop-topped charisma- shpritzer with the statement T-shirts, WeWork’s Adam Neumann. And now, the latest master of shtickbait, Sam Bankman-Fried who sat between two world leaders (Clinton and Blair) wearing a ratty T-shirt, ratty shorts, and ratty sneakers and socks. And, of course, the headset. Always with the headsets.
For the better part of forty years, I’ve been in the crisis management business, taking on the roughest cases in the discipline. My clients have faced withering scrutiny, often deservedly. They’ve become cultural villains, sometimes deservedly. The problem isn’t how much scrutiny my corporate clients have encountered; it’s how little others — who know how to operate a good affinity scam with the press — have.
If my clients give a few grand to a think tank to write a white paper, they’ve got a multi-reporter investigative team calling everybody they know, plus some congressional subpoenas. Careers are ruined. Journalism prizes are won. How dare anybody besides us exercise their First Amendment rights?
Meanwhile, Bankman-Fried (I refuse to buy into “SBF”) has spent millions of dollars funding media outlets like ProPublica, which received a $5 million grant for a research project on the US Covid response. He was the second largest donor to Democratic politicians this election cycle behind George Soros and coastal causes such as his funding for a California ballot initiative backed by his lobbying group Guarding Against Pandemics. After this massive spending, he is blown valentines from supposedly the most aggressive investigative reporting media we have. Big media continue to soft-peddle the FTX collapse. Wrote Bari Weiss, “As the NYT put it this week: “His ambitions exceeded his grasp” and he was just super “overextended.” The same thing happens when I make too many work commitments—I end up in the Bahamas with a billion dollars.”
Much of the financial press swallowed and trafficked in Bankman-Fried’s song-and-dance that he is:
a pioneer in heartfelt philanthropy and, of course,
the LOOK, the young-Einstein hair and the schlubby minimalist clothes.
He took the late-for-class college freshman look that’s been around since the dot-com bubble burst and minimalized it at warp speed in front of a US president and British prime minister, no less.
The casual dude hustle, naturally, is a fraud. In a bankruptcy court filing by FTX’s new CEO, John Jay Ray III (who previously oversaw the liquidation of Enron), Ray listed in great detail the abuses of customer funds that fueled the personal spending spree of FTX’s former executives. These include personal loans totaling over $3 billion to Bankman-Fried and other entities he owned and corporate purchases of private residences.
The capitalism-as-philanthropy bit is a scam, too. Bankman-Fried admitted in a messaging exchange with a Vox reporter that it is all mostly “a front.”
The press and many in the investment community (Sequoia Capital said Bankman-Fried would be “the first trillionaire”) continue to line up for the affinity scam because Vaudevillians like Bankman-Fried and Holmes know precisely which gang tats to flash: The Che Guevara vibe, the incessant self-celebration of one’s goodness and, as always, the backdrop of ALL. THAT. MONEY. Being off-the-charts rich is only praiseworthy if it can be counterbalanced by box-checking political pronouncements and a head fake toward being oblivious about money.
All of this begs the question, who is better, a billionaire who lives like one but who created something of value or a jive artist who looks like Abbie Hoffman but made untold fortunes vanish overnight?
Bill Maher once said that people want to be lied to by the smoothest guy. Bankman-Fried’s smoothness is that he isn’t smooth at all. Nevertheless, his lack of smoothness is, in fact, a form of smoothness. A move. Shtick. The fact that nobody knows what he’s talking about is part of the hustle because, at some level, we all are secretly afraid that we’re stupid and it’s easier to nod along at a complicated pitch than raise your hand like a nimrod and grunt, “Whuhh?”
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote in The Great Gatsby, “If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away.” It’s a great definition, but as we knew in eleventh grade, Gatsby didn’t get the girl and ended up dead in a pool. The knuckle-dragger with the real money (that his dad gave him) got the girl and lived on to play more polo.
The racket of cultivating “successful gestures” is growing, not shrinking, and with Bankman-Fried, we don’t know where he falls on the spectrum of P.T. Barnum to Bernie Madoff. The crisis management industry, which used to be about simultaneously fighting back while trying to solve challenging problems, now defaults when under fire to ad campaigns immediately about how much they love transparency and accountability.
I will repeat what I’ve said often: The enemy of truth is not lies. It’s bullshit. Shtickbait is viral bullshit, and not only are many journalists not questioning it, but they’re also demanding it.
As for crypto itself, I haven’t a clue. I’m not a financial sophisticate and have to ask my younger colleagues how it works because I honestly don’t know. But the merits and drawbacks of crypto are beside the point. Anything sustainable proves its worth by showing that the thing can last independently of whoever is peddling it at a given moment.
In the meantime, I’m dreaming of the day when I can sit on a stage with a headset in my Speedo and monocle between Obama, Bono, and Zelensky and sell you whatever I’m cooking up with a little world peace on the side. These guys know a quirky, complex genius when they sit next to a practically naked one.