[DECEMBER] What We Learn from Our Villains

This is a letter about cryptocurrency and blockchain industry that our chief editor publishes once a month.

We know the history books will pillory Sam Bankman-Fried, and that a pair of three-letter sequences—SBF and FTX—are forever toxified. We know that the spectacular collapse of FTX will be mentioned in the first sentences of the Wikipedia entries of all complicit parties as a permanent badge of dishonor. But we don’t yet know which unified explanatory theory will be presented in the history books. We don’t yet know which reason we will settle on along the spectrum that runs from evil to incompetence.

One-time golden child Bankman-Fried is incarcerated and currently within some unknown stage of extradition. Reports state he will make an appearance in an American courtroom in early 2023 to answer multiple criminal charges ranging from fraud to money laundering to campaign finance violations. The hero-to-zero trope is ancient and universally recognized, but rarely do we get to witness such a picture-perfect example. As this catastrophe continues to unfold, recall that it was but months ago that popular media bodies were reshaping the face of altruism in SBF’s image.

When the official proceedings eventually commence and the defense is asked to fill in the myriad blanks, SBF’s legal team will desperately steer the narrative away from willfulness. They will try to convince us that something—inexperience, miscalculations, high tides, dire wolves—were responsible for this unfortunate circumstance. Anything but willfulness.

The public will be rooting for the opposite because willfulness is a bedrock of criminal jurisprudence. Willfulness stiffens penalties for crimes, and people today are craving retributive justice for the round-faced wunderkind. There is a second motivation for proving willfulness, and that is to absolve ourselves from a measure of responsibility. Most people, if they had to be cheated out of $100, would rather tell the story of a skilled pickpocket than how they voluntarily sent gift card activation codes to a Nigerian prince.

Naturally, our priority should be the truth rather than whatever tale is comforting or expedient. We’ll need to accept truth, even if there is no supervillain at the end of the tunnel. Thus far, the evidence of actual criminality by SBF grows each week. When it’s all done, may accountability prevail.