Time Article Discussion—“Effective Altruist Leaders Were Repeatedly Warned About Sam Bankman-Fried Years Before FTX Collapsed”

Link post

  • There is a new Time article

  • Seems certain 98% we’ll discuss it

  • I would like us to try and have a better discussion about this than we sometimes do.

  • Consider if you want to engage

  • I updated a bit on important stuff as a result of this article. You may disagree. I am going to put my “personal updates” in a comment

Excepts from the article that I think are relevant. Bold is mine. I have made choices here and feel free to recommend I change them.

Yet MacAskill had long been aware of concerns around Bankman-Fried. He was personally cautioned about Bankman-Fried by at least three different people in a series of conversations in 2018 and 2019, according to interviews with four people familiar with those discussions and emails reviewed by TIME.

He wasn’t alone. Multiple EA leaders knew about the red flags surrounding Bankman-Fried by 2019, according to a TIME investigation based on contemporaneous documents and interviews with seven people familiar with the matter. Among the EA brain trust personally notified about Bankman-Fried’s questionable behavior and business ethics were Nick Beckstead, a moral philosopher who went on to lead Bankman-Fried’s philanthropic arm, the FTX Future Fund, and Holden Karnofsky, co-CEO of OpenPhilanthropy, a nonprofit organization that makes grants supporting EA causes. Some of the warnings were serious: sources say that MacAskill and Beckstead were repeatedly told that Bankman-Fried was untrustworthy, had inappropriate sexual relationships with subordinates, refused to implement standard business practices, and had been caught lying during his first months running Alameda, a crypto firm that was seeded by EA investors, staffed by EAs, and dedicating to making money that could be donated to EA causes.

MacAskill declined to answer a list of detailed questions from TIME for this story. “An independent investigation has been commissioned to look into these issues; I don’t want to front-run or undermine that process by discussing my own recollections publicly,” he wrote in an email. “I look forward to the results of the investigation and hope to be able to respond more fully after then.” Citing the same investigation, Beckstead also declined to answer detailed questions. Karnofsky did not respond to a list of questions from TIME. Through a lawyer, Bankman-Fried also declined to respond to a list of detailed written questions. The Centre for Effective Altruism (CEA) did not reply to multiple requests to explain why Bankman-Fried left the board in 2019. A spokesperson for Effective Ventures, the parent organization of CEA, cited the independent investigation, launched in Dec. 2022, and declined to comment while it was ongoing.

In a span of less than nine months in 2022, Bankman-Fried’s FTX Future Fund—helmed by Beckstead—gave more than $160 million to effective altruist causes, including more than $33 million to organizations connected to MacAskill. “If [Bankman-Fried] wasn’t super wealthy, nobody would have given him another chance,” says one person who worked closely with MacAskill at an EA organization. “It’s greed for access to a bunch of money, but with a philosopher twist.”

But within months, the good karma of the venture dissipated in a series of internal clashes, many details of which have not been previously reported. Some of the issues were personal. Bankman-Fried could be “dictatorial,” according to one former colleague. Three former Alameda employees told TIME he had inappropriate romantic relationships with his subordinates. Early Alameda executives also believed he had reneged on an equity arrangement that would have left Bankman-Fried with 40% control of the firm, according to a document reviewed by TIME. Instead, according to two people with knowledge of the situation, he had registered himself as sole owner of Alameda.

Bankman-Fried’s approach to managing the business was an even bigger problem. “As we started to implement some of the really basic, standard corporate controls, we found more and more cases where I thought Sam had taken dangerous and egregious shortcuts,” says one person who later raised concerns about Bankman-Fried to EA leaders. “And in many cases [he] had concealed the fact that he had done that.”

“We didn’t know how much money we actually had. We didn’t have a clear accounting record of all the trades we’d done,” Bouscal says. “Sam continued pushing us more and more in this direction of doing a huge number of trades, a huge number of transfers, and we couldn’t account for that.” At the same time, she adds, Bankman-Fried was spending enormous amounts of money because “he didn’t have a distinction between firm capital and trading capital. It was all one pool.”

The meeting was short. Mac Aulay and the management team offered Bankman-Fried a buyout in exchange for his resignation as CEO, and threatened to quit if he refused. Bankman-Fried sat there silently, according to two people present, then got up and left. The next day, he came back with his answer: he would not step down. Instead, the other four members of the management team resigned, along with roughly half of Alameda’s 30 employees. Mac Aulay, an Australian citizen, was forced to leave the country shortly afterward, because her work visa was tied to Alameda.

edit: text added

Bouscal recalled speaking to Mac Aulay immediately after one of Mac Aulay’s conversations with MacAskill in late 2018. “Will basically took Sam’s side,” said Bouscal, who recalls waiting with Mac Aulay in the Stockholm airport while she was on the phone. (Bouscal and Mac Aulay had once dated; though no longer romantically involved, they remain close friends.) “Will basically threatened Tara,” Bouscal recalls. “I remember my impression being that Will was taking a pretty hostile stance here and that he was just believing Sam’s side of the story, which made no sense to me.”

But one of the people who did warn others about Bankman-Fried says that he openly wielded this power when challenged. “It was like, ‘I could destroy you,’” this person says. “Will and Holden would believe me over you. No one is going to believe you.”

Sometime that year, the Centre for Effective Altruism did an internal investigation relating to CEA and Alameda, according to one person who was contacted during the investigation, and who said it was was conducted in part by MacAskill. Bankman-Fried left the board of the organization in 2019.

“You vouch for him?” Musk asked MacAskill.

“Very much so!” MacAskill replied. “Very dedicated to making the long-term future of humanity go well.”

None of the early Alameda employees who witnessed Bankman-Fried’s behavior years earlier say they anticipated this level of alleged criminal fraud. There was no “smoking gun,” as one put it, that revealed specific examples of lawbreaking. Even if they knew Bankman-Fried was dishonest and unethical, they say, none of them could have foreseen a fraud of this scope.

Some thoughts on how to hold a good discussion here:

  • Please lets both write how we feel and how we think about this but clearly seperate them.

  • Many senior figures just aren’t likely to respond to this. Personally I both believe they have good reasons and take it seriously but am confused as to why there has been so little comment. But I don’t think we should expect responses

  • Note that downvotes and disagreevotes are a way of people expressing their views without having to spend the effort to type them and that is a good thing. It makes the discussion more representative, not less. In particular, in my anecdotal experience from discussion on facebook, if you give people the ability to vote, you see a much more representative set of participants than if poeple just write.