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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Harrop: The bros are sorry for mistakes, so they say

By Froma Harrop
Published: January 15, 2023, 6:03am

Sam Bankman-Fried perfected the poses, uniform and attitude of the bro, the boy-man who gets away with it. He sucked billions into his FTX cryptocurrency platform by convincing the public that he was touched with supersized genius at making fortunes. His claim to want the money for higher things than simply amassing luxury only burnished the legend.

Bankman-Fried has been likened to Bernie Madoff, who some years ago famously defrauded supposedly sophisticated investors. Both ran Ponzi schemes, whereby early investors were enriched with money collected from later suckers. Bankman-Fried appears to have also engaged in old-school embezzlement.

The public couldn’t figure out how they manufactured the kind of wealth that most Wall Street professionals could only dream of. Their modest demeanor promoted the idea that they didn’t have to advertise, leaving it to a wide-eyed press to do it for them.

Bankman-Fried took the imagery further by appearing in baggy cargo shorts, rumpled T-shirts and bird’s nest hair. He conveyed the idea that “a life of the boundless mind was reflected in a life freed from petty concerns like clothing,” fashion critic Vanessa Friedman wrote. Not for him “the physical cage of a suit and tie.”

A red flag that many Bankman-Fried admirers overlooked was his decision to incorporate FTX in the Bahamas, where there is scant regulatory oversight.

“It’s the ultimate billionaire white boy tech flex,” marketing professor Scott Galloway said. “I’m so above convention. I’m so special I am not subject to the same rules.”

One doubts that a Black man in scraggly hair and shabby shorts would succeed in getting the investing public to hand over sacks of money. Nor would a modestly dressed woman have succeeded, though Elizabeth Holmes got pretty far.

Holmes did manage to invoke unmerited confidence in her secretive blood testing invention. And she traded the tailored corporate uniform for the black turtleneck trademarked by the visionary Steve Jobs. She was at a disadvantage, however, in making extravagant claims for a physical thing, whose utility could be easily debunked. Bankman-Fried was basically marketing zeros and ones in a decentralized database. His cover was complexity.

When caught in the net, the bros go into their boyish shrug and frame their misdeeds as a these-things-happen excuse. They like to say, “I’m sor-ree,” as though they had accidentally stepped on the teacher’s foot.

Bankman-Fried tweeted, “I’m sorry. That’s the biggest thing.”

When George Santos, the new Republican representative from New York, was found to have lied about virtually every aspect of his biography, he said, “I’m embarrassed and sorry for having embellished my résumé. I own up to that. … We do stupid things in life.”

Live and learn, right?

As for the patter, “Saturday Night Live” couldn’t have done it better. Santos claimed to have made his (nonexistent) millions through “deal building” and “specialty consulting.” Suddenly, the guy who had been evicted from his apartment in Queens for not paying rent was said to be juggling hedge funders.

Say a client wanted to sell a plane or a boat, Santos explained in an interview. He would work his “network” of super rich contacts. “If you’re looking at a $20 million yacht, my referral fee there can be anywhere between $200,000 and $400,000,” he actually said.

Where had Santos worked earlier? He cited the financial powerhouses of Goldman Sachs and Citicorp.

That and all the above was untrue — except for the eviction part.

The bro ultimately hides behind the boy. “I know I screwed up,” Santos said. “Look, I screwed up,” Bankman-Fried said.

As they say, bros will be bros.