- Elon Musk was recently named Time Magazine‘s “Person of the Year,” a choice that was widely criticised by media and politicians alike.
- Columnist Noam Cohen writes that in hero-worshipping tech billionaires like Musk, we are at risk of outsourcing vital policy decisions to self-interested businessmen.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
The other day on Twitter, someone made the observation, “How you feel about Elon Musk is how you feel about yourself.” At least one reader enthusiastically agreed. “That is how I feel about myself!” wrote Elon Musk. “Oh wait …”
If it seems like Musk is in your head as much as he seems to be on his own – there is a good reason. He is reported to be the richest man in the world, is doing comedy on network television and at the end of the year has been racking up honors like Time’s Person of the Year, the FT’s Person of the Year, and induction into Newsweek’s Disruptor Hall of Fame.
I understand the attraction of a master of the universe who has no filter and promises self-driving cars and intergalactic space travel. But to fall under the sway of Musk even for, say, his work making electric cars a stylish alternative to gas-guzzlers, means accepting his self-aggrandizing worldview and all the collateral damage that produces: the allegations of indifference toward workers’ safety, the resistance to government regulations (financial, transportation, workplace), the plan to clutter the atmosphere with satellites.
There may be reason to hope, however, that this end of the year swooning represents a high-water mark in public appeal and as the pendulum swings back all this attention may expose the dark side of a Muskian world.
Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Musk’s avenging angel, certainly saw the opportunity this week to again demand via Twitter that he “actually pay taxes and stop freeloading off everyone else.” This comment drew out the ugly side of Musk, never far from the surface – “stop projecting,” he wrote. (See, her feeling that Musk is a freeloader was really a feeling about herself.) He then followed up with, “You remind me of when I was a kid and my friend’s angry Mom would just randomly yell at everyone for no reason.”
To Musk, her criticism wasn’t just wrong, it was literally incoherent, in the way that ‘angry women’ can get. Such misogyny is also never far from the surface with Musk, and takes on greater meaning in light of a recent lawsuit by six female workers who, according to The Washington Post, say they were “subjected to lewd comments and catcalling, physically intimate touching and discrimination.” There have been similar allegations at Musk’s other enterprise, the rocket maker Space X.
Warren enraged Musk by raising the uncomfortable question of what he and other billionaire entrepreneurs owe the government – whether that be taxes or credit for creating the economic incentives for their companies to thrive. Musk is offended by her implication that he doesn’t pay taxes because of greed. How silly! Musk cares so little for wealth, he once explained in interviews with Time, that he doesn’t even have a proper home. Rather, as he told Time Magazine, he objects to Warren’s focus on his lack of federal taxes because he doesn’t believe the government is a “good steward of capital.”
It’s a rich claim, since as a steward of capital, the federal government at a crucial momentand to promote cleaner energy, approved a $465 million loan to Tesla. In Peter Thiel’s account, Musk’s decision to accept the loan was the act of brilliance — not the loan itself. There was only one moment where a half-billion-dollar loan was possible, Thiel writes in Zero to One, “and Tesla played it perfectly.”
By hero-worshiping these tech moguls, however, we are at risk of outsourcing our most vital policies to self-interested businessmen who care little for how their decisions affect the general public. Musk saw electric cars as an opportunity and did good by promoting their sales; earlier, he saw online banking as an opportunity, and promoted that. Same with space travel. The government, however, saw – and sees — electric cars as a public good that reduces our reliance on fossil fuels.
The point is not to mistake the success and confidence of moguls like Musk for a path out of our troubles. To hand over the keys, so to speak, and watch what happens. To, say, let Bill Gates, who made his fortune dominating software and was also “the richest man in the world,” solve world health from on high. To let Jeff Bezos, another one-time “richest man in the world,” create the standard for how we get stuff and how we treat the workers who get that stuff to us.
As one longtime acquaintance described Musk to Time magazine, he is “a humanist—not in the sense of being a nice person, because he isn’t.” His humanism, instead, is defined as doing the best for “humanity” by pursuing his personal vision on our behalf. In other words, it is the type of humanism that takes advantage of the social policies, people, and institutions that made pursuing his personal vision possible in the first place without contributing back.
Hence, presumably, the attraction of space to Musk. Some see his interest as yearning to hit the reset button for a troubled Earth. I see it, however, as seeking to escape accountability to the rest of us. No gravity up there to tie you down.
Yet for all its lack of constraints, space, one must remember, is silent, cold. A downright dismal place, no matter how brilliant the businessmen who led us there.