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Brothers behind Democrats' 'crypto PAC' say they're actually pandemic-focused

Critics see a cynical ploy to boost the crypto industry, but Gabe Bankman-Fried says time will show they are really focused on preventing pandemics.
Sam Bankman-Fried
Sam Bankman-Fried testifies at a House Agriculture Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., on May 12.Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — Gabe Bankman-Fried knows you’re going to have a hard time believing him when he says he’s only interested in using his crypto-billionaire brother’s money to stop the next pandemic. 

“If this is a weird crypto play, I certainly have not been informed about it,” said Bankman-Fried, the younger of two millennial brothers who are poised to make a huge impact on politics and philanthropy in the coming years. “I want to stop the next pandemic. That is really my one and only goal here... I think over time, people will realize that.”

Gabe’s older brother, Sam, who at 30 is estimated to be worth more than $20 billion after founding the cryptocurrency exchange FTX, has already baffled and angered some strategists, candidates and journalists this year by dropping unprecedented sums of money into Democratic congressional primaries — at least $18.6 million so far — and they're just getting started.

The Bankman-Fried brothers have given few interviews about the political work but spoke with NBC News to provide new details about the goals for their joint political operation.

“We’re ambitious and looking to make a splash,” Gabe Bankman-Fried said. “We certainly haven’t hit our budget yet.”

Democrats across the spectrum have been skeptical of Protect Our Future, the PAC largely funded by Sam Bankman-Fried, with a mix of fear and covetousness since it has supported candidates claimed by both progressives and moderates.

And the spending has earned quizzical headlines about the “mystery PAC” behind it. Plenty of rivals and observers have complained that the Bahamas-based billionaire is trying to buy congressional seats and create a “Colony Ruled by a Distant Crypto Prince,” as the alt-weekly Willamette Week put it after Protect Our Future spent over $11 million supporting a previously little-known candidate in a crowded Oregon congressional primary, making it the most expensive House race in the country this year by far.

That candidate, Carrick Flynn, ended up losing handily in Tuesday’s primary despite the spending, though the PAC won in two other primaries in other states that day.

“I’m obviously disappointed in the outcome in Oregon, but am excited that Valerie Foushee and Morgan McGarvey won their primaries in North Carolina and Kentucky,” said Sam Bankman-Fried. “And I look forward to having two strong champions for pandemic prevention in Congress when they win their elections this fall.” 

Critics see the spending as part of a growing effort by the cryptocurrency industry to buy friends in Washington and say the talk about pandemic prevention is just PR window dressing.

But both brothers and those close to them insist that gets their motives backward. 

They say they are inspired by the “earn to give” model and the effective altruism movement, a wonky approach to philanthropy and life that calls for devoting oneself to doing the most good for the most people, informed by the cold math of data. 

The brothers were steeped in those ideas from a young age by their parents, both of whom are Stanford Law professors. 

Their father once put a kitchen renovation on hold so he could use the money to hire a lobbyist in his Quixotic mission to make the government do Americans’ taxes for them. And their mother’s work in the philosophical field of consequentialism “is at the root of Effective Altruism and has guided all four of our lives,” Sam wrote on Twitter. “In fact, many (effective altruists) knew of her work before they knew me.”

Protect Our Future invested so heavily in Flynn — the PAC spent more in the Oregon race than it did in the eight other races it has been involved so far, combined — because Flynn comes out of the effective altruism world, researching issues like pandemic prevention at an Oxford University center that serves an academic hub for the movement. 

Among the issues effective altruists tend to care about are “long-tail risks” — low-probability but existential threats to humanity. And they’re interested in finding places where they can have the most bang for their marginal buck.

There are already plenty of people working on climate change and nuclear war, but few working on pandemic prevention, so Gabe Bankman-Fried said they chose to focus on the issue in “a mix of importance and political opportunity," since Covid-19 created a once-in-a-blue-moon interest in pandemics.

“No one supports pandemics, but pandemic prevention and biosecurity have millions of supporters and no champions,” said Gabe Bankman-Fried. “It’s an uphill battle to get members of Congress to care about and actually prioritize an issue.”

The brothers want to help elect lawmakers who will advance legislation to start preparing for the next pandemic by doing things like increasingly biosecurity rules, allocating funds to proactively develop vaccines for the next superbug, stockpiling more personal protective equipment, and changing building codes to make spaces less likely to spread germs.

They also spent $12 million to get a measure on the ballot in California to raise taxes on the wealthy to fund pandemic prevention efforts in the state.

Skeptics, however, have noted that several of the groups’ “champions” also happen to be proponents of the crypto industry, like Rep. Richie Torres, D-N.Y., who has publicly argued that liberals should embrace the industry. 

Sam Bankman-Fried has donated $2 million to an industry PAC whose stated goal is to advance crypto-friendly candidates. And in his personal capacity, he spread his donations around to a wide range of candidates, which is common for businesses looking to maintain access to the Capitol. He’s also testified before Congress several times on crypto regulation.

Because of campaign finance laws, the two brothers work together through a somewhat convoluted process. 

Gabe Bankman-Fried runs a group called Guarding Against Pandemics, which is a 501(c)4 nonprofit that vets and endorses candidates in both parties it thinks will be “champions” for pandemic prevention.

Protect Our Future, run by Democratic operatives, then crafts and implements campaigns to support some of the Democrats — but not Republicans — Gabe Bankman-Fried’s group endorsed. 

Another FTX billionaire, co-CEO Ryan Salame, recently launched his own PAC to support ″forward-looking” Republicans.

The people running Protect Our Future are linked to a loose network of data-driven Democratic operatives and writers sometimes called "Popularists" and Sean McElwee, the founder of the progressive think tank Data for Progress, has advised them.

“We’ll be eagerly looking for more champions who we can support to move this important work forward,” said Michael Sadowsky, the president of Protect Our Future.