The amateur online sleuth who brings down crypto scammers in his spare time

Charlie Warzel, the guy behind The Atlantic’s column Galaxy Brain, talks to James Block, the amateur online sleuth who helped bring down Sam Bankmam-Fried (styled “SBF”) and his FTX/Alameda empire. Block followed the money and eventually figure out that FTX was likely commingling investor deposits in ways that it should not have been doing.

On Nov. 4 Block did a post titled “Is Alameda Research Insolvent” that helped create a run on FTX by investors after everyone started realizing that it was all a house of cards.

But, then again, much of crypto is one big Ponzi scheme, pumped and dumped by ultra-wealthy investors like Elon Musk while the little guys lose their life savings.

These parts of the James Block interview caught my eye most:

Warzel: There’s this idea that crypto is supposed to be decentralized and deeply transparent, that it’s supposed to be so easy to see where all the money is going at all times. And some of your work speaks to that promise. But it also strikes me that these centralized entities like Alameda or FTX play in the crypto world, and yet their balance sheets are not transparent. FTX is not a decentralized entity.

Block: There’s always stuff going on the blockchain, but these companies also have agreements off of the blockchain, right? Everything they have inside these exchanges is not on the blockchain. It’s using regular old database technology, and it’s not traceable at all. So yeah, a lot of the most important economic activity in crypto has nothing to do with blockchain at all. Huge percentages of people who do this kind of retail crypto trading, they don’t even know how to take what they bought off the exchange and put it in their own wallet.

Warzel: Post-FTX, I’ve heard a lot of chatter from crypto true believers about what needs to happen to the ecosystem. But what’s always struck me as a foundational problem in this space is that decentralized finance seems to have no real utility behind it. So much of what is created is just financial instruments and speculative assets. Can you speak to that part a bit?

Block: The AMC-meme-stock thing is a good example of how this can happen. People buy the stock of a semi-worthless company because they have this idea about short squeezing, or whatever. They are not financial experts and have a loose or maybe even wrong understanding of how finance works, and want to try to move the market. Crypto takes this abstraction a step further, because there’s nothing linked to it at all. There’s no economic activity in this space. There’s nothing produced by these companies. In fact, it’s a negative-sum game because of the cost of running the blockchains alone—the computational cost is tremendous. The amount of time and money people put into just running these things is tremendous. And they produce nothing of value. There’s a reason these massive companies aren’t all using blockchain for their processes: It is incredibly inefficient. And realistically, who actually wants their financial information public and visible to everybody?

The vast majority of people who got involved in this have no interest related to the technology or in the political or ideological aspects of crypto. They just see an opportunity to get rich. And a lot of those people end up absorbing and parroting some of the crypto ideals back to you, but they don’t really care to understand what’s going on. It’s just their excuse for what they’ve already done, which is gamble on something they thought was going to make them wealthy.

Warzel: Do you think most entities in the crypto space are insolvent and know it, and are just pretending right now, post-FTX?

Block: Absolutely. That’s because of what I said earlier about crypto. There’s no value created by any of these companies. It’s all just moving money from Person A to Person B. And look at the economic conditions. You have interest rates rising; people and companies are being squeezed economically and not willing to gamble. The fact is that there are fewer suckers aping into this system, and Ponzi schemes rely on new money to survive. I think most crypto companies are, like FTX, just borrowing from customer deposits to keep things afloat. And even the companies that aren’t doing that—I think Coinbase, for example, isn’t doing anything illicit, but their business model is based on this ecosystem where new money comes in. And that’s stopping.

Warzel: By that logic then, what is the future for crypto? Do you see this ecosystem existing in a few years?

Block: I mean, Beanie Babies still exist. Pogs still exist. Will bitcoin still exist? I think it’ll be like owning a ham radio, with hobbyists doing their niche thing together. I mean, who knows. But you know if they were to really regulate the industry, it couldn’t work the way it does. It would look unrecognizable.

Just another way for the mega-rich to get even wealthier by screwing retail investors. But yet there are still untold people out there who worship Elon Musk and the ground he walks on.

Here! Take my money!

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