It’s a fantastic social history piece on crypto, hampered by the circumstances of its release.
I picked up “Number Go Up” since it was touted to be the counterbalance to Michael Lewis’ much-derided “Going Infinite”. The “real story” of FTX, given in the appropriate context. I think this is misleading, and an unfortunate marketing tactic, taking away from what is otherwise a wonderful piece of long-form reporting.
It’s clear to me that from the get-go, this was supposed to be a book on Tether. There’s a clear through-line of every sub-investigation - of which there’s a dizzying number in the book - starting, or ending up, on Tether. Its shady bosses, its weird business practices of never getting a proper audit, its somewhat involuntary connection to human trafficking, drug trade and other unsavory ventures.
There aren’t any smoking guns to be found in “Number Go Up”. Mr Faux did not catch anybody red-handed and wasn’t shown any empty bank vaults. What he did - and what is perhaps more important - was focus on the human aspect.
What happens when number go down
Mr Faux went to the Phillipines to speak with people stiffed hard on the Axie Infinity collapse. He paints a gut-wrenching picture of people who went all-in because there was nothing else for them. He got them to speak about their hopes and dreams, dashed by the Ponzi-like nature of the “game”. He also doesn’t shy away from pointing out the exploitative aspect of Axie’s “scholarship” system - the euphemistic description of a setup in which the haves mooch off the have-nots.
I must commend Mr Faux for comitting to his reporting. I don’t think the fraction of investigative journalists who would buy a $20,000 link to a picture - ahem - Non-Fungible Token, simply to get into a party for crypto bros. I especially resonate with the air of incredulity permeating his reporting of the Ape Fest arc. The question of “who in their right mind would commit significant assets to monkey pictures” remains largely unvocalized, but instead looms large in the background.
This incredulity is present throughout. I can tell that Mr Faux can scarcely believe what he’s reporting. He always goes the extra mile to try and see the crypto believer arguments. It’s an earnest disposition that’s repeatedly met with the same circular argument: number go up, so number will continue to go up. All the instances where number not go up are FUD.
Number stay same
Tether isn’t supposed to go up. Quite contrary - it’s supposed to stay exactly the same: $1. Tether the company argues that’s possible because it has enough collateral that every Tether can be redeemed at the same time for $1 exactly. It also says that it will work with law enforcement agencies to block accounts, cancel transactions and so on.
What Mr Faux’s book points out, though, is that once Tethers leave the company’s possession, they can be resold anonymously. While Bitcoin was all but relegated to a speculative asset, Tethers have succeeded at becoming currency for the type of people who like an easy-to-move across borders, fully online currency. While there are legitimate reasons to want such features - as someone who works across borders and tax systems I can sympathize - “Number Go Up” focuses on an unfortunate side effect to Tether’s features. It’s the currency of choice for human traffickers in Cambodia and elsewhere, which doubles as a vessel for scams.
Reporting on what the people forced into working for those traffickers endure hits hard. Again, Mr Faux follows the human aspect of crypto. If for no other reason, I think you should pick up this book to read about the real-world impact of crypto. Even as a crypto maximalist, that impact is worth pondering - perhaps a future currency can be devised that will have less potential to hurt these disadvantaged people.
“Number Go Up” opens and closes with SBF, though he is conspicuously absent from the picture for most of it. In fact, my reading notes - at about three-quarters in - state simply: “will this ever turn into the SBF doc I was marketed?”
It doesn’t. I will venture that that’s a good thing. It shouldn’t. It’s important in its own right - there’s ample reporting on the “boy genius of crypto”, currently allegedly headed to the clink. As Michael Lewis’ book makes painfully obvious, reporting on him only allows his reality-distortion field to expand further. Selling on the SBF craze actually sells the book way, way short of what it is.
After finishing the book, I listened to Mr Faux’s interview on Patrick Boyle’s podcast. It all but confirmed my suspicions: “Number Go Up” was supposed to be about Tether, with SBF in the picture almost by accident - FTX was a major Tether user. Via crypto’s interconnectedness, it grew to be this social history of crypto.
It closes without much of a resolution, perhaps leaving more questions open than it started with. That too, I think, is for the best: the final chapter in crypto’s history hasn’t been written yet. It may be written in courthouses, or it may be written in some math geek’s bedroom. We don’t know yet. I hope Mr Faux, with his unflappable focus on the people, rather than the money, will be there to report on it. I will gladly read “Number Went Somewhere”.