Crypto’s Political Megadonor Has Shut His Wallet
The billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried isn’t putting his money where his mouth is.
Sam Bankman-Fried, a 30-year-old co-founder of the cryptocurrency exchange FTX, is a $15 billion enigma. As one of the richest and most powerful men in crypto, “SBF” is already a political megadonor in the vein of Peter Thiel and George Soros: He spent millions in support of Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, and was one of the biggest Democratic donors in the country in the lead-up to this year’s midterm elections. Among his PAC’s expenditures was a whopping $10 million donation to a virtually unknown Oregon House candidate who lost his primary badly. Still, his political ambitions have had Democrats salivating: In a podcast interview earlier this year, SBF suggested that he would be willing to spend up to $1 billion on political donations before 2024.
And then he went quiet—the donations he so generously doled out during the primaries have slowed significantly as the general election nears. Last week, he reneged on that $1 billion figure, in what one writer called a “political rug pull.”
It’s not that we don’t know what Bankman-Fried cares about. The son of two Stanford law professors, SBF is a devout follower of effective altruism, a philanthropic movement that tries to sort out the most rational ways to do good in the world, and he has oriented his political giving around preparing for the inevitable onslaught of future pandemics. Yet he has also donated to the National Republican Congressional Committee, which is backing candidates who do not seem to share his concern about pandemics. He claims to care deeply about the science, and the facts—but at a moment when he could be using his considerable wealth to help stop the vaccine-skeptical from coming into power, he has decided to hold off.
But then, nothing about SBF has ever made total sense. He’s one of the richest men in the world and he still drives a Toyota Corolla. (He has said that his ambition to accumulate wealth is ultimately about his desire to give it all away.) And while he’s known for his mop of a hairdo and his nerdy demeanor, he also communicates in a way that’s unsettlingly casual for someone at the helm of a $32 billion firm. When I texted him on Monday evening, asking if he’d be up to chat about the fact that he and his company are under investigation by Texas securities regulators, he replied with an obliging “Yup!”
I spoke with Bankman-Fried about how he wants to shape American politics, why his donations have dried up, and what the future of the crypto industry might look like as regulators continue to close in.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Will Gottsegen: Let’s start with your political goals. Why do you no longer want to spend a billion dollars on American politics before 2024?
Sam Bankman-Fried: The underlying truth is I don’t know what I’m going to do. It’s going to depend on the specifics of exactly what’s going on, and there’s a broad range of what that could end up being, both in terms of the amount of money and in terms of what it goes to. And I want to make sure that I continue to see it that way, because otherwise I’m walking myself into an answer before I know the thoughts and know the questions. That’s how you end up with blind partisan reactions, rather than more thoughtful decisions based on the actual underlying facts.
Gottsegen: You mention partisanship—I think part of the reason there’s a market for headlines about your political donations is because people don’t totally get what you’re about. What would you say your agenda actually is?
Bankman-Fried: I’m likely to be most active in primaries, because I basically think that rather than viewing things as a partisan battle, the thing that I care about at its core is good, constructive policy makers who have thoughtful beliefs—and specifically, people who are willing to really take the lead on pandemic prevention. And that’s a bipartisan thing. I care much less what party someone is from than I do what their beliefs are.
This is a thing that I think people have a hard time understanding—figuring out what it is I care about. That’s true even when I’m pretty explicit about it. A conversation that I’ve had a number of times is: I will say something like what I just said, and what I’ll hear is, “Yeah, that’s cool, Sam, but seriously, what are you doing in the general election?” And I’ll say, “I don’t know, probably nothing.” And they’re like, “That’s fucking weird.”
Frankly, the underlying problem is partisanship. When things become too fraught from a partisan perspective, people will start to have positions on important issues for the world that have nothing to do with underlying facts and truth, and are completely predicted by partisanship. I wish more people were expressing opinions like “I like vaccines more than masks.” It’s important to say things like “One of these two is both more effective and less intrusive than the other.” I think that’s using common sense! But almost fucking no one was pushing for that with COVID. You just had this situation where it got immediately so polarized that you could not express something that sounded positive about one and negative about the other, because then you were defined by your partisan allegiance with one of those two.
Gottsegen: I can think of a couple of Republicans who stand to gain serious office who are, if not exactly anti-vax, not the most focused on pandemic preparedness. Why haven’t you donated in those general elections? If there’s a chance to stop them, then why not?
Bankman-Fried: You have a decent point. And in some cases, I think that’s the right thing to do.
Why might it not be? First of all, when you look at the scale of impact and attention on general elections, it’s such that there’s a lot less obviously left there to do. You have an electorate that is highly informed relative to primaries, that has strong preferences, often based on partisan allegiances, and doesn’t care what you say about one of the candidate’s policies. So I can sit there until I’m blue in the face saying, “Hey, candidate A is really bad on pandemic prevention; you should care because this is an important issue.” But a lot of people are like, “Okay, fine, but that’s not enough to move me.” There’s just a limit to how much, realistically speaking, I can do in a general election. There’s so much engagement in general elections, so much marketing, you just get drowned out real quickly.
The final thing that I’ll say here is that it needn’t necessarily be the case that someone’s policy position on COVID reflects—in the way you would intuitively guess—their policy position on future pandemics. Given the polarization in the country, and given that some parts of COVID policy became polarized, you can see a case where someone has a partisan, scientifically inaccurate response to COVID. But with future pandemics, which haven’t been polarized in the same way, there’s more freedom to take the right policy response. The other factor is that COVID was not the most lethal pandemic ever. There is a potentially consistent stance where you could think that the correct policy reaction should be much stronger to future pandemics than to COVID, just because future pandemics have the risk of being more of an outlier in the bad direction.
Gottsegen: There’s a wave of MAGA acolytes vying for office, many of whom are not exactly for the kind of civilized debate and complex conversations that it seems like you’d like to see happen.
Bankman-Fried: There are nonconstructive people on both sides of the aisle, and there are constructive people on both sides of the aisle. And I don’t necessarily want to make a claim that those are exactly equal or anything like that, but that is the case. It’s not just which party that matters—it’s who within each party is setting the tone that matters. And of course you could imagine duking that out in a general election. You see races in the general election where you have a constructive candidate running against a constructive candidate; you see cases where it’s nonconstructive against nonconstructive, and everything in between. And the same thing is true in primaries. I think that there are opportunities in both to push things in the right direction—and then we’re back to the question of where can you do so more effectively? And my sense remains that on average, it is more frequently the case in a primary than in a general election that you can do a lot of that pushing.
Gottsegen: How do you tread the line between non-crypto donations and crypto donations? Especially as FTX has been on a spending spree during the crypto downturn, you are maybe the person with the most influence over how crypto will be regulated in this country going forward.
Bankman-Fried: Yeah, it’s fucking weird.
When it comes to policy, I’m not very active on the campaign-contribution side, but I am very active on the engagement side. I think it’s important that we get the word out about pandemic prevention. And I’m not an expert on it. When it comes to crypto policy, there are plenty of people on Capitol Hill who care about crypto policy. Getting more people in D.C. who are aware of crypto and thinking about it—that’s not the big thing that matters. But I do happen to be a subject-matter expert on that. And so I’m thinking about crypto policy from the perspective of my time, not my money. And so I do spend a lot of time engaging day-to-day with people in D.C. on crypto policy.
Gottsegen: You say you’re a subject-matter expert, but you’re also the head of a massive crypto business. Do you feel like there’s ever a tension between advocating for the regulation that you feel would be best for the industry and for businesses, versus what’s best from a consumer-protection perspective?
Bankman-Fried: It is absolutely the case right now that there are not nearly enough guardrails, and not nearly enough customer protection. Having a real regulatory framework by which good actors can help build out the ecosystem while getting rid of a lot of the scams: All of those can be super-healthy things for the crypto ecosystem, and ultimately for the world, and for consumers.
I think it is also simultaneously the case that it’s weirdly difficult for the industry to operate in the United States. Are there times when those conflict with each other? Absolutely. I try my best to be in a position where I’m recommending good policy, rather than thinking about it narrowly, from FTX’s perspective. There will come cases where our instinct on how to analyze some piece of some situation is different from someone else’s, and that person might be a regulator.
Gottsegen: You and FTX are currently under investigation in Texas over certain kinds of yield-bearing accounts that regulators say may violate state laws, and I know you denied wrongdoing. Has this influenced your approach to working with regulators on the whole?
Bankman-Fried: There are a lot of regulators, and if you look at it globally, we’re interfacing with hundreds of different regulatory bodies. There’s a lot of engagement to do, and that’s on us to do it. And we are cognizant of that, and we accept that responsibility. But it means that we’re not going to be as able to catch all the places where we should be proactively communicating things. And sometimes there are things where we get caught off guard, and then have to go engage with a particular regulatory body to resolve something. And that can certainly be frustrating, but regulators have to do their job, and they have to remain cognizant of what’s going on, and I don’t begrudge them that.
Gottsegen: Do you find that crypto is becoming more partisan on the policy side? My sense is Republicans have been more amenable to what you might call “pro-business” crypto regulations than Democrats. Do you find that working with Republicans on crypto runs up against your broader donation goals, in terms of trying to keep things bipartisan?
Bankman-Fried: I was very much worried that this would become a hyper-partisan issue—I think it has not yet happened, and that it has remained fairly bipartisan. And I don’t want to claim that it’s perfectly bipartisan; I don’t want to claim that you get exactly the same readout on average from both parties or anything like that. If you look at the Stabenow-Boozman bill, it’s co-sponsored by the chair and ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, who are from opposite parties. I do think that it has been, to an impressive extent, fairly bipartisan, and I just hope it can stay that way.
Gottsegen: I know fellow effective altruist Will MacAskill introduced you and Elon Musk around the question of getting in on the Twitter deal. I was struck by the casual nature of that text exchange among you, Will, and Elon: “Hey, here’s introducing you both, Sam and Elon. You both have interests in games, making the very long-run future go well, and buying Twitter.” Were you serious about wanting to buy Twitter?
Bankman-Fried: It’s something I thought about. I think that there is a lot that can be done with Twitter to make it better, to make it better for the world. And it’s something that I talked through with the relevant parties here. I remain very interested in this issue, and potentially open to finding ways to work on some changes that could potentially be quite healthy for social media. Super excited to stay aware and involved, and super excited to help out anywhere I can there, but ultimately, I’m busy, everyone here is busy, and it probably wasn’t the thing that it made sense for me to throw myself into.
One dumb thing about social media right now is that nothing’s interoperable; we have all these different platforms that have nothing to do with each other. And that means that you (a) have this terrible user experience, and (b) you get this monopolistic situation where, if you have a billion users, or even hundreds of millions of users on your platform, it’s obviously huge and worth a ton. And then if someone else comes along and is looking to start their own social-media platform, there’s just this giant wall that they’re gonna start off behind. I think creating interoperability could potentially help with that. All of which is to say I’m potentially excited about things to do there. But I also think they already have a legendary operator who is taking charge here. And that probably decreases the amount to which I am necessary there as well.
Normally my life is normal, and doesn’t have anything to do with conversations like that. Occasionally, that happens and I’m just like, “Oh boy. This doesn’t feel like reality.” And then that passes and I’m back to day-to-day life. It’s a weird interaction style sometimes, but whatever.