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Kathleen Breitman

Ben McKenzie needs a hug: The 'OC' star's crypto book is an ill-informed flop

Ben McKenzie wrote a crypto book. (Credit: Jose Perez—Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)

You probably remember Ben McKenzie as the 27-year-old playing a 17-year-old on the early aughts soap opera “The O.C.” (Just kidding. If you’re reading the Fortune Crypto beat, odds are you were watching Survivor during that time slot.) Anyway, by Ben’s account, during the COVID-19 pandemic he took some bad financial advice from a friend, smoked legal marijuana, and came up with the idea to write a cryptocurrency book called Easy Money as he lost over $200,000 in the market.

Lord, grant me this much confidence in the face of failure.

Even without knowing the backstory, the many contradictions and half-baked arguments suggest this book grew out of a stoned idea. McKenzie claims, for instance, that Bitcoin is only owned by a small set of people and repeatedly compares crypto to the most recent banking crisis that devastated the global housing market. He makes an unintentionally credible defense that cryptocurrencies are not securities: “Cryptos aren’t tied to anything of real value, unlike shares in a company or a commodities future. They’re computer code uncorrelated with any actual asset.” I couldn’t have put it better myself!

McKenzie likes to mock online cryptocurrency believers for using the word “community" when they only share a "utopian vision of financial freedom," but takes great pains to laud his own legitimate "community" of skeptics who have dorm room-style conversations over beers. There’s a constant insistence that cryptocurrencies have no use case while citing capital flight from authoritarian regimes and war-torn regions. McKenzie also can’t seem to decide if FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried is a PR genius or a bumbling weirdo.

Easy Money does touch on many valid criticisms of the cryptocurrency industry. McKenzie is correct that the prevailing crypto culture revels in conspiratorial thinking and has more than a tinge of misogyny and anti-semitism. He's correct to note that many Bitcoin “maxis” are happy to embrace authoritarians who embrace the token. Likewise, the crypto industry does provide leverage to unsophisticated actors who get fleeced by established traders, while both crypto exchanges and venture capitalists are rife with conflicts of interests. These aren’t novel observations, but they are fair. I wish McKenzie had expanded upon them, rather than rushing to paint everything with vague accusations of fraud. Brief encounters with industry folks later found to be fraudsters—not found by McKenzie, of course—get more airtime than technical explanations that would be more useful to a general audience.

There are also numerous mischaracterizations within the book that point to either shoddy editing or insufficiencies in McKenzie's decades-old BA in economics—the poor sheepskin is mentioned so often that it feels like a character in the book—to explain cryptocurrencies. I dispute McKenzie’s basic definition of a cryptocurrency wallet, his confusing characterization of FDIC insurance, his understanding of smart contracts, and his market research on crypto fees. The one section of the book that comes off even less believable than an alleged encounter with drunken CIA officers is his account of a hypothetical Bitcoin OTC trade with a 60% haircut. (Girl, those are 2009 numbers!)

My real beef, though, is with the bitterness that seeps through the book's pages. McKenzie's contempt for anyone sympathetic to the book's subject matter only serves to clarify why he's so befuddled by it. To him, no crypto-enthusiast could possibly have a credible intellectual defense for their position, rather they’re just all “boosters” (a potentially interesting historical concept to define, which the author doesn’t) or naïfs. Basic terms from economics are defined with snarky graphs, while more sophisticated activities like ETF market-making are characterized in a single line as akin to “playing video games.” McKenzie mocks emerging markets for their potential to host technical innovation hubs and makes pains to paint “people of color” as unsophisticated victims, inexplicably highlighting the ones gifted Bitcoin by Jay-Z. 

Another reason to avoid Easy Money is the final third of the book, which is a wordy report of things like Twitter feuds that took place late last year as the FTX exchange and the TerraLuna “stablecoin” saw their chickens come home to roost. It’s lazy. McKenzie should have tried to coauthor with Dirty Bubble Media, a Twitter account manned by someone with the actual hustle to unearth some of the sinews connecting the cryptocurrency world’s nasty underbelly.

Some people have the chutzpah to call out bullshit when they see it, even at great risk. Others wait 10 months to write a seething account of how “average Joes” making money convinced them that they should examine the global financial system for the first time. It’s a pity the wrong party wrote this book.

And, my goodness, could the timing be worse? McKenzie’s assured claim that most cryptocurrencies are unregistered securities was upended by last week’s court ruling in the case SEC v. Ripple. Meanwhile, the excesses of the last crypto bubble have long since popped and the market seems to be renewing after a period of deleveraging. The time to write a warning or a screed based on the instability of the market was July 2022.

The next time I see McKenzie and his Emmy-award winning film crew at something like a near empty SXSW panel, I will offer him a hug. The one thing this book convinced me of is that he needs one.

Kathleen Breitman is a cofounder of Tezos. The opinions expressed in commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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