Hey! Thanks for reading! Just a reminder that I wrote this some years ago, and may have much more complicated feelings about this topic than I did when I wrote it. Happy to elaborate, feel free to reach out to me! 😄
🎵 The song for this post is Little Rootie Tootie, by Thelonious Monk. 🎵
On one hand, I'd love for this blog to contribute to positive discourse; to inspire joy rather than anger; be part of the solution instead of part of the problem. Statements that were benign and agreed-upon ("Nazis are bad people," "police shooting unarmed people is wrong," "the President should be transparent about their finances and shouldn't profit from the policies they enact") are recently, weirdly, divisive, and I believe this is in part due to algorithms and products that are explicitly designed to extract dollars from our attention. It doesn't have to be this way.
We also can't fix any of the above without identifying its causes and symptoms. If our attention and compassion are being strip-mined for profit, who's calling those shots? Who decides that money is worth the downgrade of society? While many systematic problems can't be blamed on mere individuals, you also can't assign them to nobody or their choices.
So I might occasionally write a character portrait of certain prominent figures whose roles in the above, I feel, need to be better-understood.1 It's not the powerless or the poor who create and uphold systems which keep the powerless and poor in place.
I spend a lot of energy being grumpy and goddammit, if you're reading this, you're invited to see why. Today let me tell you a bunch of things about Elon Musk.
Why he's celebrated
It's easy to see why: Elon is the public face behind a number of companies that look like they're paving the way for the science-fiction future we dream of. "Where's my flying car?!" for his admirers is answered by the companies he's creating: SpaceX (rockets and space travel), Tesla (named after the folk geek hero, cars of the future!) and The Boring Company (kill traffic with high-speed pneumatic tunnels!).
His personal brand is one of effervescent nerd-humor: he wanted to sell a flamethrower, wasn't allowed to, so he sells it as "not a flamethrower." SpaceX launched a convertible into space with a figure named after David Bowie's Starman.
Most of the last century has been filled with fantasies about what wonders technology could bring us. Technology has largely delivered: from radio to televisions to computers to the Internet, it's unlikely there's been a century of this much upheaval in our history. The last few generations of advanced societies have been conditioned, correctly, to look for people to bring on that next world-changer, and it looks, at a casual glance, like Musk is an engaged visionary who could bring it about.
For a lot of people, he's Hank Rearden, and his products are their own versions of Rearden Steel: through sheer genius and force of will, he's building better cars than the car people, better rockets than the rocket people.
But, well, he largely sucks, and his companies are very expensive branding exercises that fail, as projects and/or businesses. Folks making him out like some kind of Henry Rearden are just suckers for simple stories and have incomplete models of reality (and/or don't have a whole lot of empathy for people).
We'll start with Tesla. They burn an extraordinary amount of money. Taking VC dollars and using it capriciously to gain market dominance is pretty expected, but we're talking about a level that scares VCs. They post abysmal numbers and his shareholder call trying to assuage them went rather off the rails, where he pretends that investors caring about the financial performance of their investment is somehow "boring" and "stupid."
He's in the midsts of gender discrimination and racial discrimination lawsuits, the merits of which he is clearly is not taking very seriously. His company has been investigated several times for poor working conditions and found to be negligent and dangerous for workers (three separate times! May 2017, Feb 2018, April 2018). He brushes that off too. Weirdly, the company retaliates against those who want to start a union!
The Boring Company will flat-out never work. He's trying to create a system which will do public transit's job better than public transit, but he hates public transit and demonstrates no evidence of interest or knowledge on its successes or failures in over a century of history.
SpaceX (and other companies) take massive government subsidies while still being privately owned. He's privatized the gains but socialized the investment. He's loved by libertarians and Objectivists but behaves exactly like the antagonist of Atlas Shrugged did.
If you've ever heard the term "Starter Wife" it was coined by Elon's ex, Justine Musk, based on her experiences being married to him. Check it out if you want to read about a dude who wasn't a great husband with winners like "if you were my employee, I'd fire you."
Why does this matter
Because, stupid as it sounds, we can only address our social problems when we address our social problems. A foppish billionaire using several hundred millions of VC dollars (and billions of public dollars) to ostensibly build toys for the rich in the success case (let's be real, he's not putting poor people in his rockets to Mars) saps away efforts to meaningfully address social problems that affect people.
Even if you want research that leads to better cars or rockets (I hate that we barely fund NASA, personally), can you invest in a person who doesn't brush off workplace accidents? Someone who's companies don't become hotbeds of discrimination? Can the people footing the bill be included in its profits?
The workers cited in the Tesla workplace accidents? The employees behind the racial and sexual harassment claims? These are real people who are negatively impacted by choices Elon makes, and it's a disservice to give him a wide pass because he jokes about bacon on Twitter.
There are some smooth-brains who will support a charismatic character no matter what facts you throw at them (apparently Elizabeth Holmes still has acolytes). The rest of us, though: don't fall for his grift. Demand more.
I was at Google when Larry Page was CEO, and the culture there told us to target "moonshots:" highly improbable projects that can change the world. Oddly, the following are never considered moonshots to tech luminaries like Larry and Elon:
I think they should be considered… they seem ambitious enough 🤷🏼♂️
But nah, they want toys like balloons to increase their customer bases and self-driving cars. Larry even said, paraphrasing, that when he dies he'd rather give away all his money to Elon Musk instead of charity.
So yeah, stop lionizing this shit. Or, continue to! But don't get huffy if I consequently think you're either ignorant of what I'm linking to here (no longer an excuse!) or a simpleton lacking in empathy.
A good comic, as a chaser.
1. ^ A favorite example of this exercise is Alex Pareene's The Hack List. There are a number of Serious Figures in national discourse who suck and make things worse for everybody. His dressing down of Jonah Goldberg is a favorite, and in a similar vein, this takedown of Ben Shapiro by Nathan J. Robinson is a cathartic read.
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