The S.B.F. Pandemic

Sam Bankman-Fried
Sam Bankman-Fried’s global crypto exchange, FTX, has declared bankruptcy. Photo: Craig Barritt/Getty Images
Theodore Schleifer
November 11, 2022

The world of philanthropy and politics is fighting a five-alarm fire right now. Because billions of dollars that were theoretically going to flow to lobbying operations, super PACs, scientists, newsrooms and data forecasters just went poof as Sam Bankman-Fried’s global crypto exchange, FTX, declares bankruptcy. The man who once said, only a little hyperbolically if you talk to the right people, that he could spend $1 billion on the 2024 election, who was dispensing hundreds of millions of dollars a year on his philanthropic giving, who seemed to hire the entire industry of donor-advisers, has gone up in flames. All that money, all those promises, have evaporated in what is possibly the fastest personal wealth extinction event in history.

To understand the jaw-dropping developments of the last week, you first have to understand the gravitational pull that S.B.F. has exerted for the last two years, ever since he was shot out of a cannon into the world of Democratic big money. The son of Stanford professors—his mother founded the hot donor network Mind the Gap; his dad, ironically, taught tax law—Sam and his younger brother Gabe hired aggressively for their sprawling empire of influence, creating a Bahamas-shuttling network of consultants and lobbyists and donor-advisers who tried to help the 30-year-old create his dream world in media, pandemic-prevention policy, and nuclear nonproliferation alike. More important than the hundreds of millions a year that he appeared ready to spend to achieve his vision, S.B.F. epitomized something at a symbolic level—a new, younger generation of “effective altruism”-inspired donors intent on blending politics, philanthropy and data science, with little genuflection to the political or philanthropic establishment and a larger-than-normal appetite for risk.