For reasons known only to Hell itself, an editor—or more likely, several—decided today to run a profile in Bloomberg entitled, “Elon Musk Is the Hero America Deserves.” We can debate whether that’s a hidden dig at the worthiness of this lapsed country, or if recycling quotes from an overrated Batman movie says something deeper about author Ashlee Vance’s lack of imagination. But even in the well-tread genre of corporate puff pieces, I worry about the health of Vance’s wrists given the sheer volume of handwaving that was necessary to paint a flattering portrait of the Tesla and SpaceX tycoon.
Vance, of course, is the first to point out his own interests in writing this story, ostensibly pegged to the company’s upcoming manned launch of NASA astronauts:
As Musk’s biographer, I’ve spent years watching how he operates and affects everyone and everything in his orbit, from SpaceX to that other company he runs, Tesla Inc. During interviews, he can be loquacious to the point of oversharing—and then shut down for weeks or months after some perceived slight. We’ve had periods of intense and fruitful interactions, though my book left me in the Musk doghouse for quite a while.
Presumably at least one goal of this profile was to return to Musk’s good graces. And among the most difficult aspects of the man to rehabilitate during the current pandemic has been his consistent downplaying of covid-19's severity and danger.
Not only has Musk given Tesla factory workers the option to essentially break government-mandated distancing guidelines or lose their jobs, he’s all but begged local authorities to arrest him for turning the pursuit of profit into his own personal Alamo.
Like the president, Musk has made patently false claims about the presumptive number of cases and pushed an anti-malaria drug as a potential cure—even as experts in the field have loudly and repeatedly said there is no solid evidence to support its efficacy against coronavirus, and that in many cases it’s actively harmful. His “FREE AMERICA” tweet mirrors Trump’s own all caps calls to “LIBERATE” various states (from the tyranny of lower mass casualties, one assumes.)
Almost 95,000 Americans have died because of the virus at the time of this writing. But Musk continues to claim the statistics, which many experts believe are under-counted, are actually over-attributing deaths to coronavirus. Vance excuses this obvious bullshit, from a man who he states has become a “religious figure” to his 34.5 million Twitter followers, as merely the personality quirk of a “provocateur.”
Suggesting that Covid-19 cases are faked sounds especially abhorrent coming from someone who tends to celebrate science. But Musk has always been a provocateur. It’s only in recent years that those outside his inner circle or who don’t work at his companies have been able to witness the Full Elon firsthand.
Conveniently left out of Vance’s accounting of the events was Musk’s most recent appearance on The Joe Rogan Experience, during which he further claimed that covid-19 numbers were being intentionally inflated by hospitals for the purpose of profiteering. (In reality, hospitals are suffering financially due to the pandemic.) Who knew a core trait of the Manic Pixie Dream Scientist archetype was being a dismissive, conspiratorial shithead to frontline workers?
(Not that his uninformed rambling ought to merit discussion, but profit in hospitals most often comes from elective procedures, most of which have been halted by the pandemic and its resultant resource crunch. In a report on the state of hospitals from March, one hospital administrator called the situation “an absolute financial nightmare.”)
With the present Musk largely impossible for an average person to empathize with, and his interactions with the world painting him as a mouthy jackass, Vance turns his rehabilitation efforts toward the past, arguing the case that the billionaire’s self-made status excuses his current hoarding of vast resources.
Financial acrobatics and lionizing Musk as an immigrant success story belie several important truths. His father, Errol Musk, did indeed provide financial assistance for Zip2—his first venture, which eventually sold to Compaq for $305 million. “My Dad provided 10% of a ~$200k angel funding round much later, but by then risk was reduced & round would’ve happened anyway,” Musk said dismissively on (where else) Twitter at the end of last year. The company was also funded in part by his younger brother, Kimbal, who kicked in $5,000 despite being in his early 20s. And yes, Errol Musk did partly own an emerald mine in South Africa during apartheid.
What’s more important than whether or not the Musk family in specific profited off “blood gems” is the obviousness by which no individual is a “self-made” anything. Generational wealth and privilege played a crucial role, and Musk and Vance’s attempts to deny this perpetuate a version of the American dream that does not and may never have existed.
In the present day, Musk’s business practices are barely more ethical than what his stoniest detractors assume about his father’s past. Tesla’s solar cell products has been accused of—and its parent company sued for—starting fires. He’s repeatedly gobbled up taxpayer money for projects that underdeliver. SolarCity had to settle claims it defrauded the government, and when Musk bought the insolvent company for $2.6 billion, his own shareholders sued him for using the sale to enrich himself and other executives. He creates problems for himself with embarrassing frequency, mostly the kinds that get him sued for defamation and securities fraud. Nothing about this track record strikes me as especially heroic.
Fast-forward to 2001. Musk is sitting poolside at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas [...] The company he co-founded, PayPal, is about to go public. His stake will soon be worth roughly $160 million [...] Only he’s celebrating like Musk celebrates. “Elon is there reading some obscure Soviet rocket manual that was all moldy and looked like it had been bought on EBay,” Kevin Hartz, one of the PayPal crew, told me for my book. “He was studying it and talking openly about space travel and changing the world.”
Vance lets us drift into the stereotype of a reserved genius, maybe one lacking in social graces but gifted in more important ways, with this anecdote. No great change took place between then and now, though. With his Paypal winnings, Musk famously bought and almost immediately crashed an uninsured McLaren F1 with his co-founder in the passenger seat. Musk has always been as bombastic as he is irresponsible.
Cut to 2008, and things are not going well. SpaceX’s first three rockets have either blown up or failed to reach orbit. Tesla is verging on bankruptcy after struggling to get its first car to market. Musk has ripped through his PayPal money, trying to keep both of his companies alive. In the background of all this, the financial markets are cratering, real car companies are going under, and Musk is getting a divorce from the mother of his five boys.
Even as an aside meant to draw sympathy, Vance seems to be biting off more than he can chew with references to Musk’s first wife, Justine, whom he fails to name. In a tell-all story published by Marie Claire, she describes the relationship as profoundly lopsided:
“I am your wife,” I told him repeatedly, “not your employee.”
“If you were my employee,” he said just as often, “I would fire you.”
This behavior seems to have grown worse, not better, as Musk has moved through other relationships to Claire Boucher—better known by her stage name, Grimes—with whom he recently had a child. Days before the baby, whose name may or may not be X Æ A-12, was due, Musk took to Twitter to claim he would be selling the majority of his earthly possession, including his homes. On the Rogan podcast he further implied his decision to do so was influenced by detractors of his wealth. While the difference between holdings in liquid and illiquid assets was clearly not what anyone in particular found galling about Musk’s money, he seems to be going through with the plan, despite needing to provide some sort of living space for a newborn.
As Vance writes:
“I’d rather just stay with friends and rotate among their houses and stay in the factories when there are issues,” he says. “I kind of like that better. It’s less lonely.”
While not a practicing marriage counselor myself, I find it striking that he would describe the company of his girlfriend and children as lonesome.
Further frustrating what may already be a strained relationship with the mother of his child, Musk has taken to tweeting out far-right slogans to the chagrin of Boucher’s mother. “If your partner went through a challenging pregnancy and childbirth in the last two weeks...And you were over 16 years old,” she wrote on Twitter, “Would you be blaring MRA [Men’s Rights Activist] bullshit on Twitter right now?” X Æ A-12 Musk is currently less than one month old.
I have sympathy for Vance, truly. Musk has a vast, baked-in audience hungry to read any little thing about their Tony Stark-esque demigod. And the man is just such a goddamn character that writing about him, even if he’s violating labor laws or shooting himself in the dick, tends to be enjoyable. At Gizmodo, we also had direct access to Musk, for a time, via Twitter DMs—an asset we used often to hold him to account, and just as often to waste his time for fun. We did one or both of those too often, and he eventually unfollowed us. It was a loss for scoops, but probably a boon for our readership, because as often as he did something stupid and funny that frustrated his own corporate communications teams, he also used that avenue of communication to lie. Musk, like most trolls, craves attention above all, and even if most of our hands are tied by newsworthiness, it’s unhelpful to provide that for him in soft focus.
If we wanted to read about Musk’s early career, surely we could have simply read Vance’s book, and by now most people have made up their minds already as to whether they love or despise the man. What’s the point of tying this profile of mostly retread material to the NASA launch?
For anyone who can look past Musk’s antics, a successful launch will be a moment of pure shared bliss at a time when the world could use some of that. At the very least, it would affirm that the government—in this case, NASA—can take intelligent risks and be courageous by partnering with a private company while keeping its safety standards intact.
We’ve non-exhaustively covered why this pattern of behavior qualifies as more than “antics,” as though a grinning Musk were merely slipping a whoopie cushion under the asses of uptight critics. Vance asks us to look beyond the many flaws and toward the greater good, the Big Mission of shared progress that space exploration is supposed to inspire in us. And I’ll fully agree: Space travel and the quest for knowledge is as appealing to me as it is to anyone who grew up during the Mars Rover mission and waning years of the Space Shuttle.
But the rising tide of Musk’s futurism has lifted few boats. We’re hardly closer to dumping coal or oil. We haven’t come close to hacking our brains. Cars remain ubiquitous, and largely not confined to single-lane underground tunnels. The Star Trek utopia a rocket launch is supposed to presage reads more like another stumble toward the stark class divide of Blade Runner’s corporate-controlled hell. The neoliberal model of public/private partnerships has been disastrous enough to the economy on Earth, and we hardly need to extend it to the hope of one day living among the stars. That’s because it’s fundamentally not designed to make progress shared—it’s sold, to those who can afford it, or who have been means-tested to merit it.
I suspect we will not be confined to this planet forever. But if we settle elsewhere, ask yourself if you’d want to live in a world built in Musk’s image.