MoneyWeek book and theatre review: 17 November 2023

The latest book and theatre reviews from the expert team here at MoneyWeek.

Each week MoneyWeek takes a look at the books, theatre and cultural highlights that you need to know about.

Book of the Week: Going Infinite: The Rise and Fall of a New Tycoon

Going Infinite: The Rise and Fall of a New Tycoon, £25
Michael Lewis

In Timon of Athens by Shakespeare, a seemingly rich person lavishes gifts on all and sundry until it turns out that he has been doing so with borrowed money. Unable to get any more credit, he invites his friends to a dinner, where, instead of the expected banquet, he serves them a dinner of water and rocks. 

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Recently convicted fraudster Sam Bankman-Fried may have hated the Bard – famously, he claimed that the odds of Shakespeare being a genius were small, basing his reasoning on population sizes – but he was a modern-day Timon, splurging countless millions in political donations and gifts until large sums of money were discovered missing from the accounts of FTX, the crypto brokerage that he ran. Going Infinite, by Michael Lewis, tells his story.

The turning point in Bankman-Fried’s life came at university, where he became a fan of the “effective altruism” (EA) movement. This utilitarian philosophy argues that the best way to improve society for most people isn’t to get a “worthy” job, but one that earns as much as possible, which you can then give away. As Lewis puts it, even a “mediocre banker” could earn enough to pay for several doctors in Africa “and thus would save several times more lives than any one doctor”. This led Bankman-Fried to ditch academia for finance, setting him on the path to FTX. 

Lewis has an established reputation for books that bring the world of finance and business to a mass audience, and his Moneyball and The Big Short have both been made into successful films. Going Infinite isn’t quite up to his usual standard, but he is effective at putting the audience right into the action and highlighting comic moments, such as the intense backbiting and infighting that took place between the supposed “altruists”.

The book suffers from the abruptness of FTX’s implosion – which occurred in a matter of days and took everyone (including Lewis) by surprise. Lewis tries to find out where all the billions still unaccounted for went but is forced to give it up. Bankman-Fried’s aloof and cold personality also makes it hard for either author or reader to understand the motivation for his behaviour, though effective altruism may have helped create a “means justify the ends” mentality that led him to bend – then break – the rules.

The ultimate irony is that, just as Shakespeare’s Timon ends up discovering hidden gold, the rebound in crypto markets as well as some early artificial intelligence investments, mean that FTX’s creditors may ultimately get more of their money back than originally expected. Indeed, there is even talk about relaunching FTX in some form. Bankman-Fried now faces a lengthy stay in jail. His successors may be just getting started.

Book in the news: The Women Who Made Modern Economics

The Women Who Made Modern Economics, £20
Rachel Reeves

Books by politicians are usually either ghostwritten or poorly written – or both. It is now generally acknowledged that John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1957 and helped speed him on his road to the presidency, was largely written by his speechwriter. Boris Johnson’s Churchill biography infamously claimed that Germany captured Stalingrad. The Women Who Made Modern Economics, by shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves, has already run into controversy for alleged plagiarism. This is a pity because it is a readable book that highlights interesting stories that even those who have studied economics or economic history may be unaware of.

As the title suggests, Reeve’s book looks at major female economists and economic thinkers, most of whom have been neglected. Some of them, such as Beatrice Webb and Mary Paley Marshall, were the wives of already famous thinkers who were overshadowed by their more famous spouses, even though they made major contributions in their own right. Anna Schwartz was neglected in favour of her long-time collaborator Milton Friedman, leading him to half-joke that she “did all the work and I got a lot of the credit”. Others played such major roles in popularising and developing the work of earlier thinkers, such as Joan Robinson with Keynes and Rosa Luxemburg with Marx, that they should be regarded as major thinkers in their own right.

The book loses momentum when it reaches the modern day, as the emphasis shifts towards figures such as US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and European Central Bank head Christine Lagarde, who are important for their roles as decision-makers rather than as theorists. The author’s attempts to use the stories as springboards for policy pledges also starts to sound a little artificial. Still, the earlier parts of the book are informative and her anecdotes give us a glimpse into the pragmatic left-of-centre policies she will pursue if she eventually becomes chancellor.

Play of the week: Newbie By Emma Griffiths

Newbie By Emma Griffiths, directed by Neil Sheppeck 
Available on-demand at The Space website until 5 December

Food security, agriculture’s impact on the environment and the impact of automation are all hot topics at the moment. Newbie, a play produced by Rising Tides as part of the Good COP, Bad COP 28 Festival at The Space in the Isle of Dogs, is a satirical comedy that deals with all these themes. The play is set in a dystopian future where the apparent extinction of bees means that society relies on artificial pollination by swarms of drones to enable a sustenance level of food production.

The play centres on a team of four drone pilots (played by Skevy Stylia, Aurea Williamson, Sebastian Senior and Benedict Esdale). On his maiden flight, newbie Jackson (Esdale) loses contact with his drones while they are over the skies of France, only for the subsequent search to shock everyone by uncovering an actual living bee. When this, in turn, enables the discovery of a lost underground colony, it looks like the solution to food shortages is at hand. It soon becomes clear that things aren’t as simple as they seem.

Political plays risk focusing too much on the message at the expense of drama. Griffiths’ funny writing, and strong acting from the ensemble cast, avoids this trap and keeps the focus on the action and comedy, only indirectly referring to real-world issues. The production team make good use of props and video clips (designed by Andy Straw and with Gabriel Thomson appearing in multiple roles) to bring the cosy theatre space alive in an entertaining production that delivers an important moral.

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Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @DrMatthewPartri