Artillery Row

Letter from Washington: Team Musk

Why we need more Elons

Episodes of Saturday Night Live do not, generally speaking, move markets. But last week was different. Elon Musk was hosting and by the end of the programme, the value of dogecoin — a cryptocurrency with the meme-friendly Shiba Inu dog as its mascot — had plummeted.

Dogecoin was founded to poke fun at bitcoin but has soared in value recently in part thanks to Musk’s semi-serious support on social media. But when the the Tesla and SpaceX CEO called it a “hustle” on air, its price took a tumble. This week, Musk disappointed his crypto fanboys again, announcing that Tesla will no longer accept bitcoin for purchases of its electric cars. “We are concerned about rapidly increasing use of fossil fuels for bitcoin mining and transactions, especially coal,” he said on Twitter.

It wasn’t just crypto prices that were sensitive to Musk’s television appearance. When NBC announced he would be guest hosting their marquee comedy programme, cast members expressed pointed (and suitably millennial) disapproval on social media: sad face emojis, screenshots of Bernie Sanders tweets and passive aggression. NBC, their employer, said that anyone uncomfortable working with Musk could take the week off.

To be sure, Musk is a controversial figure. He tweets stupid stuff. He admitted to contemplating voting for Trump. He was sceptical of Covid lockdowns. In general, he seems determined to disavow any responsibility that might come with his prominence.

But the Twitter rows and bitcoin wind-ups mean too few people take Musk and his work seriously. For an article for City Journal, I recently went to Boca Chica, the spot where Texas, Mexico and the ocean all meet, and where Musk’s SpaceX is running big, messy, and loud rocket experiments that promise to transform space travel. As I wrote in that piece, Musk has a track record of technologically brilliant, socially useful innovation. And his success could point to a new era of dynamism in which Silicon Valley’s data revolution gives way to tangible, real-world progress.

Away from Musk’s grand designs for travel to Mars, SpaceX can launch people and stuff into orbit more cheaply and effectively than anyone else. It’s so good at what it does that the Jeff Bezos-owned rival, Blue Origin, has complained that it is behaving like a monopolist. Think about that: the Amazon founder’s company is crying foul-play about a competitor’s market share. Closer to earth, Tesla maintains a grip on the electric car market because of its superior battery technology and promises a future of greener travel. Earlier this year, Musk funded a $100 million prize for carbon capture technology ideas.

Musk is, first and foremost, an optimist. And he’s also someone who clearly takes his work seriously without taking himself too seriously

And yet too often this is drowned out by low-level micro controversies surrounding Musk. Why? The journalist Josh Barro speculated on Twitter that “people on here hate Elon Musk because he has unbundled decarbonisation from pious attitudes about decarbonisation… Environmentalism is supposed to be pain and sacrifice. Because Musk offers an environmental vision that is fun, futuristic and coded with all sorts of “bro” aspects, he is deeply suspicious and must be stopped.”

I think there’s something to that. James Pethokoukis has contrasted the “Team Elon Musk” and “Team Greta Thunberg” approaches to climate change. The latter thinks “we must reject ‘fairy tales of eternal economic growth’ and settle for scarcity and stagnation to prevent environmental collapse”. The former “believes that humanity has the will and know-how to create a future of vast abundance”. Sign me up for Team Musk.

Musk is, first and foremost, an optimist. And he’s also someone who clearly takes his work seriously without taking himself too seriously. On Saturday Night Live last week he revealed that he had Asperger’s syndrome and joked that he was “pretty good at running human in emulation mode.”

He also offered an admirably straightforward response to his critics: “To anyone I’ve offended, I just want to say I reinvented electric cars and I’m sending people to Mars in a rocket ship. Did you think I was also going to be a chill, normal dude?”

Musk may be one of a kind, but the world needs more Elons, not fewer.

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