Embarrassing Fans of the Super-Rich
The obscenely wealthy don't deserve or need uncritical cheerleading from journalists.
Elon Musk, We Stan On Guard For Thee
Josh Barro and Matthew Yglesias are both, I’ve been told more than once, smart pundits. They are Harvard alumni, if that counts for anything. (Yglesias seems to think so since he argues that the American elite does a good job of selecting for braininess, although he also thinks this meritocracy is socially bad).
Given their putative intelligence, I’ve been puzzled by the arguments they made recently on behalf of Elon Musk:
The arguments here, as far as I can make out, are that people “hate” Musk for no good reason, merely because he’s making electric cars and other nifty things, advocates for tech solutions to the climate crisis and is rich. Musk’s critics are, we should assume, motivated merely by jealousy and an irrational love of penitential asceticism.
It’s rare to encounter so simplistic a worldview outside the pages of an Ayn Rand novel. As in The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged, Barro and Yglesias divide the world into good guys (manly creative makers who improve the world) and bad guys (envious parasites dragging down the heroes).
What’s lost here is any consideration that there might be good faith reasons for criticizing Musk. The CEO of Tesla isn’t just, by some measurements, the richest person in the world. He’s actively involved in all sorts of contentious public issues, all the more more so since his firm both relies in part on public funding and frequently runs afoul of government regulation. Musk’s wealth, contra Yglesias, isn’t just objected to “per se” but as part of larger political disputes over inequality and the sway of the 1% over politics. Surely these are topics that are not out of bounds for policy disputes.
Nor are Musk’s environmental bona fides beyond reproach. His good work in developing the electric car has to be considered along with his advocacy of bitcoin, a notorious source of carbon emissions.
Musk has frequently commented on the Covid pandemic in ways that don’t inspire confidence, all the more worth criticism because he has a voice that gets ample respect and attention:
Musk’s flaky Covid tweets are part and parcel of a general arrogance which has, time and again, gotten him in hot water. Musk suffers from the common frailty of those who are smart and successful in one field and think they can easily master all other fields. This hubris tends to fester even more if the successful person is surrounded by courtiers who loudly sing praise, as Barro and Yglesias do.
Writing in GQ in May 2020, Elizabeth Spiers gave a rundown of some of Musk’s more dubious moments:
On May 11, Elon Musk announced that he would be defying Alameda County’s stay-at-home order and restarting production in Tesla’s Freemont factory. “I will be on the line with everyone else,” he tweeted. “If anyone is arrested, I ask that it only be me.” He also threatened to move Tesla out of California if he wasn’t allowed to reopen. Protesters, some of whom were Tesla workers, responded with a rally outside of the factory, arguing that Musk was not above the law, and should in fact be arrested.
But Musk has demonstrated over and over again that he believes that laws do not apply to him and has faced minimal consequences for violations, which no doubt reinforces that perception. He has thumbed his nose at the Securities and Exchange Commission, manipulating Tesla’s stock price via tweet, an offense for which he had to pay a fine of $20 million, which is less than 0.1 percent of his wealth. He has illegally tried to sabotage union organizing efforts at the company, with no financial penalties whatsoever. And Alameda County ultimately caved to his demands that he be allowed to reopen the factory in Freemont, while imposing no consequences for violating the initial order.
These are not isolated acts; they’re ideological. Following the SEC fine, Musk said in a 60 Minutes interview that he did not respect the SEC, a sentiment that was apparent to anyone paying attention well before the interview. The truth is, Musk doesn’t respect any agency or government body that would hold him accountable. He does not fundamentally believe any person or organization has the authority or right to constrain his behavior.
Musk’s disdain for rules, so well described by Spiers, explains the hold the billionaire has on libertarian-leaning centrists like Barro and Yglesias. Musk is the capitalist cowboy of mythology, a modern Rockefeller or Carnegie, the revolutionary dynamo whose inventions will remake the world and who shouldn’t be held accountable by the normal codes that tie down merely ordinary people.
The cult of Musk has the same appeal for centrists that the myth of Trump had for right-wing Republicans: the heroic businessman who shouldn’t be fettered by pesky rules and norms because it’s his destiny to revitalize a stagnant America.
The strange thing about Musk fandom is how humiliatingly unnecessary it is. Musk is rich enough to hire plenty of flacks and shills to sell his image and flatter his ego. But Barro and Yglesias insist on doing it for free. That’s a dereliction of journalistic duty since a figure like Musk deserves scrutiny, not uncritical applause.
Bill Gates’ Pernicious Vaccine Politics
Another plutocrat who deserves probing by a more critical press is Bill Gates, who is doing everything he can to make sure the pandemic doesn’t interfere with the intellectual property rights of pharmaceutical companies. I highly recommend this bracing and informative take-down by Luke Savage.
Gates, who incidentally owes much of his own fortune to monopolistic intellectual property laws, has been more than a passive actor in the pandemic — having, among other things, convinced Oxford University to renege on its original promise of a no-patent vaccine and partner with the profit-driven AstraZeneca instead. Arguably more than any other single figure, the billionaire has mobilized his immense personal wealth and power to ensure that the interests of for-profit drug companies prevail over global public health.
Jeffrey Epstein’s Media Friends
Of course, when it comes to fawning media coverage of the rich, nothing will ever top the paeans to Jeffrey Epstein before his disgrace and death.
Via journalist Eoin Higgins, here’s a puff piece on Epstein that aired on VH1 circa 2007.