Discover more from Odds and Ends of History
Elon Musk is good
I'm sorry but this is, sadly, actually true
If there was a vote to choose the worst person on Twitter, now that Donald Trump’s account has been blissfully silenced, the winner would surely be Elon Musk.
And to be clear, if you look at Musk’s record, there are ample valid, legitimate and important criticisms of the companies he has founded and his personal behaviour.
It’s rather unfortunate then, that Elon Musk is… actually, on balance, good.
I actually feel apprehensive typing that, just knowing that your teeth just clenched, your brow just furrowed, and that you immediately started imagining what arguments you’re going to deploy to prove me wrong.
Yes, in this post, I am going to essentially do this:
But imagine if a portal opened up and out-stepped Ancient Egyptian god Anubis. The dog-headed judge of each immortal soul. And he announces that to settle the argument on Twitter once and for all, he was going to judge Elon Musk’s contribution to humanity by weighing the good against the bad.
In my view, the scales would determine that despite everything, Musk is still, ultimately, a good thing.
First I should probably set out why I can’t bring myself to hate Elon Musk as much as everyone else on my Twitter timeline does. The short answer can be summed up with this one GIF:
This clip, from 2019, shows the simultaneous landing of two Falcon 9 first-stage rocket boosters, that had just been used to transport a Falcon Heavy rocket into space. It was a crowning achievement for the company1 which has made real, amazing progress since it was founded in 2002. It was the first privately funded rocket company to get to space2, it is the first private company to transport humans to the International Space Station, and it was the first company that has figured out how to land a freaking rocket.
So what? NASA has launched rockets for years. But these are all important landmarks. There’s a reason we don’t throw away each Boeing 787 after landing: They’re really expensive. By the end of the programme in 2011, a Space Shuttle launch cost $450m, and now SpaceX can get cargo and people into space for just $57m. That’s an incredible saving that is ultimately going to help humanity get better at space stuff, and get better at it faster.
SpaceX’s StarLink too is shaping up to be an incredible achievement. This is a constellation of thousands of satellites that will, in the not too distant future, deliver broadband speed internet to almost everywhere on Earth. And crazily, this isn’t a technology envisaged for the future. The first thousand-ish satellites are already in orbit and are delivering connectivity to its first customers. That’s amazing, and potentially world changing.
But it’s Elon Musk’s other company that is probably more important in the short term. That’s Tesla. My opinion here isn’t a sophisticated take about any particular technical achievement the company has made, though the company has consistently improved battery and electric vehicle technology. It’s much simpler: Tesla made electric cars cool.
This is an achievement that shouldn’t be under-estimated. Before Tesla, electric cars were treated by every serious car person like “The Homer”. I’m not a car person. I once regularly made a living by writing scathing critiques of The Grand Tour3. But I recognise the strategic importance of persuading the taste-makers and early adopters to take an interest in electric vehicles, if we’re going to have a hope in hell of tackling climate change.
I know what you’re thinking: But what about the stupid tunnelling company? The false allegations against the diver? The efforts to stop Tesla workers from unionising? The stupid Bitcoin thing that happened just yesterday?
There are tonnes of valid criticisms of Musk that I 100% agree are bad. And on Anubis’ scales would weigh heavily on the negative side.
But I also think that some of the criticisms Musk regularly receives are less effective than they appear to be. These less effective criticisms usually fall into three buckets.
1) The Urbanist Critique
This is a set of criticisms usually levelled at Tesla, on the basis of it being a car company, and Musk personally as an avatar for his company. Even if Tesla makes great cars, and even if they manage to figure out autonomy, the urbanists argue, it doesn’t actually solve any problems. Even if cars are no longer belching out greenhouse emissions, they still create congestion. They don’t solve the problem of affordable housing. They still create urban sprawl and cities that are unpleasant to live in.
Even Tesla seem to realise this, as this amusing tweet points out:
I completely agree that electric cars do not solve these problems. I readily ideologically identify as an ‘urbanist’, who would ultimately prefer a world where cities are densely packed with affordable housing, where public transport and cycling infrastructure is lavishly funded and where private cars are banned.
But the reason I don’t think this quite works as a critique of Musk or Tesla is that, even if this urbanist utopia were to happen4, we would still need electric vehicles.
And more importantly, while electric cars don’t solve the litany of problems listed above, they do help the world work towards solving the most important one: Mitigating climate change, of course.
Given the world is on a tight deadline already on climate, with the Paris Agreement setting 2050 as the universally agreed net-zero target, we need to figure out how to make electric cars popular and better. And Tesla is the company that is currently the best at doing that.
So as much as I’d like to rebuild every city using urbanist principles, and though I’d like the world to wake up to the importance of public transport investment, I think any hope that this could be done by 2050 would be… ambitious, to say the least.
So my rebuttal here is mostly pragmatic: That a like-for-like swap of petrol cars for electric cars is much more achievable in the time that we have left5.
2) The Socialist Critique
Unsurprisingly, Musk is a particular bête noire of people who have a “🌹” on their Twitter profiles6. And to be fair, they have some good reasons (hence all of the valid criticisms I agree with.)
But socialist criticisms are aimed at both Tesla as a company, and Musk as a business guy. These tend to vary from the specific, such as the attempts to resist unionisation of the Tesla workforce, to the broad, such as that Elon Musk is a billionaire, and billionaires as a class are bad.
I don’t actually disagree with the socialist critique all that much. I’m a boring social democrat. I want more redistribution of wealth and think that concentrating vast amounts of wealth in the hands of a few men is bad. I think Musk’s anti-union actions are very bad.
But when the fog of righteous, red-rose anger descends, I think it is easy to to elide criticisms of Musk and his companies specifically, with broader critiques of capitalism writ large.
These critiques remind me of the time I had to fill out an “ethical investment” questionnaire, sadly not for any personal wealth I was investing, but for the reserves of an organisation I was working with. I had to tick which types of company I was comfortable with the organisation investing in, and which I was not.
After the obvious “no” votes, like tobacco and weapons companies, it became a lot harder. Oil companies? Nope. Gambling companies? I’m not sure how I feel about them. Supermarkets? What about the zero hours contracts? Big Tech? Oh god, what about all of the bad things they do7? The problem is that you can pick pretty much any company listed on the FTSE100 or Dow Jones and find reasons that they are evil in some way.
So my question with regards to Musk is, is he or are his companies uniquely bad in the context of a capitalist society? Or are they just doing capitalism, which is bad because capitalism?
Maybe you’re reading this section thinking “he’s so close to getting it!”, but this is sort of irrelevant. My point here is similar to the urbanist conclusions: If the first step to fighting climate change is to first overthrow capitalism, we should probably just give up now. Whether ending capitalism is ultimately desirable or not, or whether socialism would do a better job at tackling climate change is ultimately besides the point. The time left in which to have a proletarian revolution and remodel society is running out, and seems like a tough ask if we need to tackle climate change at the same time too.
So once again, my point is one of pragmatism. We have a 2050 deadline, so we’re probably going to have to solve the problem in the context of a capitalism. Elon Musk’s company is creating technology that is going to - hopefully - help humanity do it. That’s got to count for something, right?
3) The Personal Qualities Critique
The final bucket is criticism related to Musk’s personal qualities.
One argument is that Musk doesn’t deserve the credit for any of Tesla and SpaceX’s successes, because he himself has not actually invented anything. He is just some business guy, living off of the successes and innovations of other individuals and companies.
This is broadly correct. His name is apparently only listed on three patents, and he wasn’t even one of the original founders of Tesla!
But I think this criticism underrates what Musk has contributed. And that is being the business guy. Though he isn’t the one wearing the white coat in the lab, it is Musk who has scaled these new technologies into viable businesses. He has played a significant role in marshalling the cash and political will necessary to make these technologies happen. I understand why this is less appealing on an emotional level - he’s just a billionaire suit, not an endearing scientist! - but this is important too.
Counters to this defence of the business guy stuff is that Musk’s business success is illusory. For example, SpaceX is only a viable business because of contracts with NASA8. Or that given incremental progress made by the electric vehicle and space industries, if Musk’s companies didn’t exist, someone would have got there anyway. Well, yes, but… Musk is the one who actually did it.
One way to understand this is by comparison to Steve Jobs. Like Musk, he didn’t invent the core technology, but he was the driving force that led to the creation of such a revolutionary product9.
Jobs is actually the perfect segue to my final point, which is criticism of Musk’s stupid behaviour. Jobs was a famously abrasive individual, and this is reportedly a trait Musk shares with him.
And in public Musk is, of course, intensely annoying. He posts on Twitter as though he were 14 years old boy, not one of the world’s richest people and an executive in two legitimately world changing companies. Stupid memes, stupid jokes, stupid market moving announcements. It’s almost weirdly impressive how he almost manages to cancel out all of his achievements, with just the sheer badness of his tweets10.
But here’s the actual worst opinion in this piece: I can’t help but wonder if the annoying personality is actually part of what has made him successful.
Just as Donald Trump managed to ‘hack’ the 2016 Presidential election by optimising for attention over competence, I wonder if the same could be said for Musk? There’s a reason everyone knows who Elon Musk is. There’s a reason why SpaceX and Tesla have legions of annoying fanboys, while Boeing and Polestar do not.
It means that whenever Musk is negotiating a business deal, or arguing with an FAA regulator, it means the person on the other side of the call knows they’re not just dealing with some rich guy, but a famous rich guy with a megaphone. Who would want to be the person saying “no” to the cool rockets given those circumstances?
So how should Anubis judge Musk’s contribution to humanity?
My view on the cosmic scales is that when the good is weighed against the bad Musk has done for the world he is still, narrowly, a good thing.
As I repeatedly acknowledge above, there are lots of valid criticisms of Musk and his companies. I didn’t even mention the fucking Hyperloop.
So the chances are if you’re busy typing out a comment saying “what about [some awful thing]” then I will, actually, probably agree with you that the thing you are pointing out is bad. This is not an unqualified endorsement - this is more of a 52/48 split.
Maybe I will have to revise my opinion if the Musk Good to Musk Bad ratio goes too far in the other direction. I mean, hell, the stupid Bitcoin thing sure sounds bad.
But ultimately, my current view is a reflection of my priorities. Climate change is, in my view, the most important thing we as a species should be worrying about in the short to medium term. And despite all of his many flaws, Elon Musk has played a major role in pioneering some of the technologies that we need in order to limit it.
So, sorry everyone, Elon Musk is good.
Phew, if you’ve made it this far, then it is time to hit the “subscribe” button to get my infuriating opinions directly into your inbox. Go on, sign up!
Just don’t mention the third booster that crashed into the sea.
I’m sure space nerds will want to add a whole bunch of caveats here clarifying the definition of space, the specific type of rocket, and the exact nature of the achievement.
The review I linked to resulted in a personal tweet from Jeremy Clarkson telling me to get a job. A career highlight.
It pretty much exists and is called The Netherlands, and I dearly wish the rest of the world looked like it.
Yes I know that petrol cars and EVs are slightly different in terms of required charging infrastructure and usage habits, but that is definitely a far easier sell than full-on urbanism, at least in the time we have left.
It’s similar to the reason nuclear power is an important part of tackling climate change. Local generation, micro-grids and behavioural change are a great idea in theory, but swapping out the world’s coal plants for nuclear is probably much easier to do, as it is more like changing the plug socket the grid is plugged into, than redesigning the world’s grids entirely.
I think this goes back to climate change. I think a lot of socialists see it in eschatological terms. Climate change isn’t just a problem, it is a moral reckoning with the excesses of capitalism. The way it is supposed to work is that we either fail to stop climate change, which causes us to lose our false consciousness and realise that we want socialism, or we decide beforehand that only a socialist system can create the necessary behavioural change needed to mitigate it.
And from this straw-person perspective I have created, the worst possible thing that could happen is humanity dodging its much-needed reckoning with capitalism by using capitalism to avoid it. Hence the rage directed at Musk and Tesla.
Google killing Google Reader is my number one concern here.
This is true! The reason NASA created its commercial programmes like Commercial Crew, is to drive the creation of a private space industry in the US.
Yes I know your Nokia Communicator could do some clever things too, and that many of the technologies that went into the iPhone already existed. But… before the iPhone, none of these things were an iPhone.
It makes me wonder what history would be like if we had access to Henry Ford’s every stupid thought. Though given Ford was a massive antisemite, it is probably for the best that we don’t have an extensive archive of Ford’s best memes.