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Is Elon Musk Really That Bad?

Is Elon Musk Really That Bad?

Sunday, 1 May, 2022 - 04:30

Elon Musk is hard to love. Elon Musk is hard to like. On his way to becoming the world’s wealthiest person, Musk has emitted so many metric tons of self-indulgent puerility he might have violated the Paris Accords.

But one need not find Musk personally or politically appealing to appreciate that his contributions to humanity could end up being profound.

Through his endeavors in solar power and electric cars, Musk might do more to combat climate change than just about any lefty environmental activist or politician you can name. Musk looks even better when judged against other globe-straddling billionaires in his orbit. His is not an empire built on inheritance, dumb luck, monopoly or, subsidies notwithstanding, insider access. Indeed, his businesses seek to undermine some of the most harmful and politically entrenched industries on the planet, among them defense contractors, utilities, oil companies and combustion-engine automakers.

There is also something straightforwardly inspiring about Musk’s story. After a troubled childhood in South Africa, he immigrated first to Canada and then to the United States, put himself through college and made his own fortune through unending hard work and in pursuit of ambitions far grander than slapping “like” buttons all over the web. Even Musk’s bluster is excusable because underneath the big talk he has repeatedly delivered on his far-out promises. He makes innovative products that work well, that delight customers and that are on balance probably good for the world. Isn’t that the best one can hope for from capitalism?

Apparently not. Over the last few weeks, as Musk began looking, at first coyly and then determinedly, to acquire Twitter, I’ve been a bit stunned by the volume of opposition — on Twitter and off — to his bid. On Monday, when Twitter’s board announced a roughly $44 billion deal for Musk to buy the company, the boos reached a fever pitch.

I get the worry. Some of Musk’s business practices are loathsome. Tesla employees have alleged rampant racial discrimination, sexual harassment and unsafe practices. Musk’s stated reasons for buying Twitter are also quite vague and naïve. He says he wants to bring “free speech” to the platform, but it’s a mystery what exactly that means, and how he would do so while preventing the service from devolving into a snake pit of hate and harassment even more venomous than it already is. Musk’s own Twitter presence can be insufferable. His tweets are often crude, juvenile and misogynistic, traits that are the basis for perhaps the most unpleasant thing about him — the social-media sausage factory of aggressively bro-ey tech, finance and gamer types who hang on his every word and swarm his every critic.

Still, as a longtime Twitter addict, I find the very notion of ruining Twitter amusingly redundant. Twitter’s impact on the world has arguably been quite negative under its current and previous management. During the Trump years, the site became the cudgel with which a media-obsessed president bullied the world into paying attention to little else but him. Twitter’s leaders only found the courage to shut off Trump’s bullhorn after he lost re-election and incited an insurrection. Sure, Musk could reinstate Trump’s Twitter account, and maybe that’d be a disaster for democracy — but that horse left the barn long ago, and it was Twitter’s longtime bosses, not Musk, who held open the door.

It’s not just that I doubt Twitter under Musk could get much more terrible than it is now. There’s also lots of room for Twitter to become much better, and Musk, with his enviable track record at managing technologically sophisticated companies and making groundbreaking tech products, might be just the owner to unlock its full potential.

Twitter under Musk could experiment with the service’s user interface in ways that its current management has been too slow or scared to try (for instance, my hobbyhorse: Get rid of “quote tweets,” the feature that allows Twitter users to performatively dunk on one another, turning your feed into an endless parade of cheap shots).

By staking a hefty chunk of his wealth to take the company private, Musk could also free Twitter from the stock-market’s short-term pressures for advertising growth, letting the company explore new business models — like subscriptions, perhaps — that may be more conducive to long-term sustainability. Or he might think of wholly new ideas for fixing up the place — and I, for one, am excited to see what he comes up with.

Musk’s detractors often paint him as motivated by little more than money and politics. But Musk is at best a fair-weather ideologue. His politics are all over the place — he has lobbed silly attacks at Democrats (“Please don’t call the manager on me, Senator Karen,” he tweeted at Senator Elizabeth Warren after she called for him to pay more taxes), but he also criticized Trump’s immigration policies and resigned from presidential advisory councils after Trump quit the Paris climate agreement.

Many of Musk’s entrepreneurial passions are long shot bets that could have easily blown up his fortune, and may yet still. In 2002, after earning more than a hundred million dollars by selling PayPal to eBay, Musk could have become a venture capitalist and lived the good life. “Among the least financially advisable projects imaginable for someone in that position would be to start a rocket company,” Ashlee Vance, the Bloomberg reporter and author of a terrific biography of Musk, once wrote. But starting a rocket company is what Musk did — and, after also pouring money into another money-burning venture, Tesla, Musk came very close to losing it all after the Great Recession.

Musk’s real genius isn’t in making money, but in making unusually ingenious products. Not long ago I drove a Model S Plaid, Tesla’s top-of-the-line sedan, on a long-weekend trip up the California coast. Tesla unveiled the original Model S in 2012. Back then it was a quixotic machine, a luxury electric car that looked like a plaything for tech execs and presented hardly any threat to the world’s gas-guzzling automakers.

In the decade since, Tesla has grown into a remarkable force. Year by year, it improved its products, expanded its product range, and built out a global production infrastructure that has become the envy of the automotive world. Its growth spiked, then exploded, then went supernova: In 2012, it delivered about 2,650 cars. In 2021 it sold nearly a million. And even though the rest of the auto industry, seeing Tesla’s growth, jumped on the electric vehicle bandwagon, Tesla has maintained an indomitable lead. According to Experian’s Automotive Market Trends, in the fourth quarter of 2021, Tesla had just under 70 percent market share of electric light-duty vehicles on US roads; every other manufacturer’s share was in the single digits.

Driving the Plaid, I could see why. The car is a dream. It’s one of fastest accelerating vehicles on the market today — at about $130,000, it is said to have the acceleration normally found in multimillion-dollar hypercars. At the same time, like cheaper Teslas, the Plaid is also one of the most environmentally friendly vehicles you can buy. It has a range of up to 405 miles on a single charge and is as efficient as a gas-powered car that gets 101 miles per gallon.

What I found most remarkable was how ordinary Tesla has made electric driving. I was in sparsely populated areas of California, but wherever I went I was not very far from a Tesla Supercharger. The whole thing was effortless. As I’ve written before, the electric car is not a transportation panacea — but the world is undoubtedly a better place thanks mainly to Musk’s doggedness in making this outlandish dream a reality.

I can’t promise that Musk will similarly revolutionize Twitter. But I can think of many less-skilled and more troublesome owners for the site. And as billionaires go, there are many I worry about much more.

The New York Times

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