The CEO epitomizes the American people’s desire for public figures to be perfect, both politically and personally.
Over the summer, entrepreneur and investor Elon Musk has captured the attention of Wall Street for less than enviable reasons. The renowned and undeniably brilliant CEO of three successful companies in SpaceX, Tesla and The Boring Company made headlines during the Tham Luang cave rescue by declaring he could assist the diver teams by providing a six-foot long mini-submarine to transport some of the more debilitated children.
While appreciative, the divers successfully extracted the boys without the use of the Tesla-designed apparatus, and one of the divers proceeded to criticize Musk’s design and self-insertion into the harrowing saga. Musk took to the Twitterverse to berate the diver and throw in an unsubstantiated moniker of “pedo.” The enormous backlash to the claim forced the Tesla CEO to apologize and admit that he let his anger cloud his judgment. That should have been the end to the story.
However, due to further tweets aimed at Musk, the billionaire fired back and not only discarded his apology but proceeded to double-down on his claim that the diver was a “child rapist.” He also provided a less than cryptic tweet about potentially privatizing Tesla, sparking debate, a libel suit and even legal inquiry into his company. Every major media outlet exploded, each parroting how Tesla’s stock plummeted, and calls for Musk’s resignation rung throughout the financial world.
Finally, in an attempt to rehabilitate his image, Musk appeared in a two-and-a-half-hour podcast conversation with Joe Rogan. At about the two-hour mark, Musk took a single puff of a mixed tobacco-marijuana joint which sparked further controversy in the Twittersphere.
I couldn’t care less if Elon Musk, after drinking whiskey for about two hours, takes a single or any number of hits of marijuana. The issues that underlies all of this does not pertain to Elon Musk’s behavior; while reprehensible, it reveals a much larger issue as to how America interprets and evaluates business leaders.
Elon Musk is only a case-study in a larger issue by which America seems to find itself enraptured. Musk, despite Joe Rogan’s repulsively sycophantic interview, is a human being. An extraordinarily intelligent one, but still a flawed man who makes abhorrent claims without justification against those that dare to criticize him. The problem with Elon Musk is not actually him; he is nothing more than a symptom of a larger conundrum on how we judge character in a world where the richest one percent of the population controls about 39 percent of its wealth.
In a neoliberal America, Musk is the ideal leader. Armed with a knack for business, an unmatched intellect and an economically deregulated America for his genius inventions to flourish, he took the world by storm. His ideas for an environmentally clean America and a space-faring humanity appear to be the epitome of virtuous capitalism, allowing even vehement detractors of unregulated business to rally behind his image. While that image is admirable, we have to be reminded that it will always be subservient to Musk’s profit margin.
We are fortunate that Musk’s ideas are progressive and might even be necessary for the survival of humanity, but for every Elon Musk there are about two Koch brothers. I share Musk’s vision for a benevolent and progressive humanity that reaches for the stars instead of our back pockets, but worship of Elon Musk leaves us vulnerable when our heroes fail us. Elon Musk, contrary to Joe Rogan’s flattery, is no superhero.
The last two years of a supposedly successful CEO leading the country should have demonstrated to Americans that success in business is not equivalent to triumph in politics. However, I find myself scratching my head when I read a Wall Street Journal article only condemning Musk’s behavior as a disservice to his company and should be fired; if he claims to seek the betterment of humanity, he should be judged for that too.
At the heart of this dilemma appears to be a confusion between the economic and the political. We have to imagine both scenarios at their perfect end. The perfect political end in a liberal democratic state is a perpetual debate and deliberation over the common good. While government will never be perfect, it seeks a spot for every willing participant in the political arena to raise concerns and bring forward new ideas. A business’ complete victory occurs when it stands as the sole winner of the market competition. Tesla would be the only car company in the world and could set whatever prices it wanted on any vehicle it produced. There is no egalitarian notion here; there is no justice nor fairness because there is not supposed to be.
This is how businesses should operate. They should seek the maximization of their bottom line and generate as much profit as they can to satisfy their stockholders. The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times imagine Elon Musk as a moral figure, but they forget his obligation is solely to his shareholders. He should not be beholden to our standards of decent behavior because business leaders are not meant to be our heroes. He should be judged on his ability to challenge the market and succeed, not his tweets.
Therefore, our problem is fixated on a confusion of leadership, and I want to argue that we are judging Musk on standards of political leadership rather than economic ones. In a democracy, political leadership seeks the common good and is inherently collaborative. Which one of these has matched with any corporate tenet that you have ever seen? None, and they honestly shouldn’t line up. The concerted political power should check the self-interested nature of the economic. This is how it was intended to be, and we seem to have lost this balance.
We judge Musk on the wrong standards because we are part of the problem. In the age of a superhero culture, we seem to be looking at Elon Musk as Tony Stark, using his technology and intellect to save us from ourselves. In reality, as a friend of mine claimed, Elon Musk is a fusion of “a neckbeard and a Chad.” We don’t need Iron Man or Superman to save us; we certainly don’t need a petulant CEO with a flawed conception of our justice system and a misunderstanding of #BlackLivesMatter to fix all our problems. We need to suit up, fly over to our nearest political battlefield and take part together in blasting away our problems.