William MacAskill still isn’t answering (very good) questions from his own community about involvement with FTX and SBF
On November 10, William MacAskill’s name appeared on a joint statement with the other four members of the FTX Foundation’s Future Fund team, announcing that they had all “resigned” earlier that day from the (already effectively defunct) organization.
“It looks likely that there are many committed grants that the Future Fund will be unable to honor,” they said.
The next day, FTX filed for bankruptcy, and William MacAskill posted a thread on Twitter addressing the news. He reposted the same basic thing on the Effective Altruism Forum the following day.
This is a thread of my thoughts and feelings about the actions that led to FTX’s bankruptcy, and the enormous harm that was caused as a result, involving the likely loss of many thousands of innocent people’s savings.— William MacAskill (@willmacaskill) November 11, 2022
That MacAskill would speak on the collapse of FTX was highly appropriate, considering the outsized (yet under-appreciated) role that he played in the career of its disgraced CEO, Sam Bankman-Fried.
MacAskill said that it seemed to him, based on publicly available information, to be “more likely than not that senior leadership at FTX used customer deposits to bail out Alameda,” which was, he noted, contrary to the company’s terms of service and a public statement by SBF.
If that was the case, he said, then he is “outraged” and full of “sadness and self-hatred” for “falling for this deception.”
“I had put my trust in Sam, and if he lied and misused customer funds he betrayed me, just as he betrayed his customers, his employees, his investors, & the communities he was a part of,” wrote MacAskill, before detailing why this apparent “fraud” was against the “principles of the effective altruism.”
Near the end of the statement, he says the EA “community”—of which he is a co-founder and primary spokesman—will “need to reflect on what has happened, and how we could reduce the chance of anything like this from happening again.”
“We must make clear that we do not see ourselves as above common-sense ethical norms, and must engage criticism with humility.”
While it may have appeared to some that MacAskill was being forthright by issuing a statement, his actual words left a lot to be desired. In short, he essentially paints himself as a naive dupe, while seemingly downplaying his own role in creating the monster that he was condemning.
Some of the most articulate and fervent calls for answers came from within his own “effective altruism” community.
The top-voted reply to MacAskill, with 265 upvotes as of this writing, was from a user named Milan Griffes. “It’s fair enough to feel betrayed in this situation, and to speak that out,” Griffes said. “But given your position in the EA community, I think it’s much more important to put effort towards giving context on your role in this saga.”
As “jumping-off points,” he specifically asked MacAskill:
Did you consider yourself to be in a mentor / mentee relationship with SBF prior to the founding of FTX? What was the depth and cadence of that relationship?
After linking to an article containing some key details about MacAskill’s relationship with SBF and providing a few quotes, he continued:
What diligence did you / your team do on FTX before agreeing to join the Future Fund as an advisor?
- Were you aware of the 2018 dispute at Alameda re: SBF’s leadership? If so, how did this context factor into your decision to join the Future Fund?
- Did you have visibility into where money earmarked for Future Fund grants was being held?
- Did you understand the mechanism by which FTX claimed to be generating revenue? Were the revenues they reported sanity-checked against a back-of-the-envelope estimate of how much their claimed mechanism would be able to generate?
What were your responsibilities at the Future Fund? How often were you in contact with SBF and other members of FTX leadership in your role as an advisor?”
Great questions. Speaking of which: Notice what he says about “the 2018 dispute at Alameda re: SBF’s leadership.” The link he provides goes to a post by a forum member named Gideon Futerman, who is a researcher and Oxford student, according to his LinkedIn and bio on the forum.
Futerman prefaces his post with some interesting insight into the hierarchical structure of “EA,” saying in part:
The recent FTX scandal has, I think, caused a major dent in the confidence many in the EA Community have in our leadership. It seems to me increasingly less obvious that the control of a lot of EA by a narrow group of funders and thought leaders is the best way for this community full of smart and passionate people to do good in the world. The assumption I had is we defer a lot of power, both intellectual, social and financial, to a small group of broadly unaccountable, non-transparent people on the assumption they are uniquely good at making decisions, noticing risks to the EA enterprise and combatting them, and that this unique competence is what justifies the power structures we have in EA. A series of failure by the community this year, including the Carrick Flynn campaign and now the FTX scandal has shattered my confidence in this group. I really think EA is amazing, and I am proud to be on the committee of EA Oxford (this represent my own views), having been a summer research fellow at CERI and having spoken at EAGx Rotterdam; my confidence in the EA leadership, however, is exceptionally low, and I think having an answer to some of these questions would be very useful.
An aside: maybe I’m wrong about power structures in EA being unaccountable, centralised and non-transparent. If so, the fact it feels like that is also a sign something is going wrong.
After a few more disclaimers, including a note that this is “neither exhaustive nor meant as an attack,” and even a preemptive apology to anyone who might “take offence,” Futerman rattles off a list of some more excellent question. A number of them were about MacAskill, SBF, and/or FTX, specifically. Here are a few of them (lightly edited):
- “Why did Will MacAskill introduce Sam Bankman-Fried to Elon Musk with the intention of getting SBF to help Elon buy twitter? What was the rationale that this would have been a cost effective use of $8-15 Billion? Who else was consulted on this?”
- “Will MacAskill has expressed public discomfort with the degree of hero-worship towards him. What steps has he taken to reduce this? What plans have decision makers tried to enact to reduce the amount of hero worship in EA?”
- “The image, both internally and externally, of SBF was that he lived a frugal lifestyle, which it turns out was completely untrue (and not majorly secret). Was this known when Rob Wiblin interviewed SBF on the 80000 Hours podcast and held up SBF for his frugality?”
- “FTX Future Fund decided to fund me on a project working on SRM and GCR, but refused to publicise it on their website. How many other projects were funded but not publicly disclosed? Why did they decide to not disclose such funding?”
Others were about the EA’s apparent top-down decision making structure, and the lack of transparency and accountability mentioned in his preface:
- “Who is invited to the coordination forum and who attends? What sort of decisions are made? How does the coordination forum impact the direction the community moves in? Who decides who goes to the coordination forum? How? What’s the rationale for keeping the attendees of the coordination forum secret (or is it not purposeful)?”
- “Why did Will MacAskill choose not to take on board any of the suggestions of Zoe Cremer that she set out when she met with him?”
- “The EA community prides itself on being an open forum for discussion without fear of reprisal for disagreement. A very large number of people in the community however do not feel it is, and feel pressure to conform and not to express their disagreement with the community, with senior leaders or even with lower level community builders.Has there been discussions within the community health team with how to deal with this? What approaches are they taking community wide rather than just dealing with ad hoc incidents?”
- “A number of people have expressed suspicion or worry that they have been rejected from grants because of publicly expressing disagreements with EA. Has this ever been part of the rationale for rejecting someone from a grant?”
- “What sort of coordination, if any, goes on around which EAs talk to the media, write highly publicised books, go in curricula etc? What is the decision making procedure like?”
This post got well over 200 upvotes on the forum, and over 100 replies. Noticeably missing from the list of respondents: William MacAskill. (Likewise for Milan Griffes post quoted earlier.)
Elsewhere on the forum, EA and former-Alameda insiders came forward to fill in details of the real story of the founding of Alamenda, such as:
- It was not soley founded by SBF as widely reported
- It was co-founded by Tara Mac Aulay, a top executive at the Centre for Effective Altruism (CEA)
- The fledgling company was overwhelmingly staffed and funded by EAs
- Many of the EAs that worked there ended up quitting over SBF’s “risk management and business ethics,” described using phrases like “ruthless, immoral backstabbing”
- Top leadership within EA and the CEA were well aware of this, yet covered it up, while some (like MacAskill) continued to empower, promote, and work closely with SBF for years after that as he went on to form a multi-billion dollar fraud called FTX.
(You can read much more about this here.)
This could go on, but you get the idea: MacAskill has a lot of explaining to do.
After over two weeks of silence, here is what he posted on November 28:
Note the reply from “Kristen,” posted the same day. After not replying to that, nor posting anything else at all for another full a week, MacAskill finally said on December 5:
And with that, he disappeared again.
What MacAskill’s posts ignore seems fairly obvious: people are not simply, or even primarily (or even at all in some cases) asking him to “process the new information that comes in every day,” share his “views” on things like how “the EA community could and should respond,” etc.
Instead, they are observing that he was heavily involved “creating” and enabling SBF, and they want to know some specific factual, historical information about what he knew and when, and why he took certain actions.
So do a lot of other people, Decensored News included (obviously).
Considering that the “mainstream” press is showing approximately zero interest in any of these questions after largely lionizing MacAskill and SBF for years, it’s probably not worth holding your breath for any further comments any time soon.
See you “in the new year”—maybe.