I keep finding myself writing the wrong kind of book review.
Or at least, I keep finding myself writing the kind of book review that I do not think is entirely fair to the author. Because I should be recommending Number Go Up by Zeke Faux (who, by the way, has the single best name in reporting) unreservedly. It is really well written about an important, ongoing, relevant topic. But I cannot escape the nagging voice at the back of my head that the book misses the really interesting stories that it should have told instead.
I do not mean to imply that the story Faux (if that is his real name) tells is not interesting. Uses his search for whether or not the so-called stablecoin Tether (a stablecoin is a crypto coin that is allegedly backed one for one by a real currency. This alleged peg allows for all sorts of financial activity that would be difficult to perform without that backing.) actually had the reserves of dollars it claimed it did to track the rise and fall of the latest crypto bubble.
It is a distressing story, filled with the worst sorts of human beings and the wildest of scams, told extremely well. Faux is an excellent storyteller, not afraid to let his own mix of jealousy that these lunatics are making real money, disgust at their excesses and immorality, and ‘I want to believe’ cautious hopefulness at the grand philanthropic plans of people like Sam Bankmen-Fried. He is open about the frustrations of reporting on such a slippery subject filled with what appear to be conmen, and not afraid to let us now when he failed to properly follow threads that he should have. The fall of Bankman-Fried and the immorality of the crypto ecosystem provide the most compelling threads in the story and show Faux at his best and worst.
Faux discovers, essentially by accident, that crypto has enabled a world-wide network of slavery dedicated to committing telemarketing scams of one form or another. Not only have these scams financially ruined countless lives, they have also literally made it possible to enslave countless human beings to perpetrate those scams. Faux’s reporting here is chilling, compelling, dogged, and makes absolutely clear both that crypto makes this kind of criminality much, much easier and that no one he talked to in the crypto world at any level gives a tinker’s damn.
His chapters on the fall of Sam Bankman-Fried, or SBF, highlight, conversely, how his reporting instincts failed him. Faux is open about how he missed the real story and how his soft-focused feature about whether or not SBF would actually give away the money he claimed he would drew focus away from all the questions about how his companies were actually run. Faux was nowhere near the worst offender, of course. One of the most interesting aspects of the book was how deeply corrupting Effective Altruism — the “ethical” framework that SBF claimed to follow and claimed to be concerned with making the most effective use of charity — was on so many rich, powerful and famous people. Whatever the philosophy claimed in theory, in practice it turned into an excuse to make as much money as possible today in order to focus on longer term problems of the far future, a kind of prosperity gospel for atheists (not my phrase, but I cannot find the originator). The climax of the book is the collapse of SBF’s businesses in what appears to be a comically obvious fraud and the subsequent fallout. And this is where the questions about what story Faux should have been telling come to the fore.
To his credit, Faux himself recognizes these shortcomings. The fallout from what appear to be massive, obvious frauds appears to be very limited. A few small players outside of SBF face charges. No one seems to even attempt to deal with the slavery operations or crypto’s role in them. No one seems to question why Tether, which appears to be almost as shady as SBF’s companies, is allowed to continue to work. No one in power seems to wonder why it took the SEC so long to take the limited actions it did. Those, to me, seem to be the real stories. Why was this bubble of fraud and criminality allowed to grow so large for so long? And even now, as it collapses in on itself, why are there so few consequences for so few people, and why are the deep and dangerous criminals given so little attention?
I feel bad asking these questions. Faux spent years reporting the stories in this book, and it is not his fault that the tack he took was not the most interesting he could have taken in retrospect. Hindsight is twenty-twenty. And much of the reporting he did was revelatory and fascinating. His work on the slavery enabled by crypto is legitimately life altering or could be if anyone in power would give a damn. The book itself is a great read and I recommend it.
Just know that it’s not the most important part of the story. As much as you are going to enjoy it, when you close the covers, you are going to be left with as many questions as you open the books with, even if they are different questions than you started with. Hopefully, Faux is hard at work on the sequel.