The world doesn't need more Elon Musks

The world doesn't need more Elon Musks

A video interview with Labour MP Jess Philips was posted by slow-news site UnHerd last week, under the headline “Jess Phillips on why we need more Elon Musks”:

Here’s an excerpt:

Without him being in some sort of competition with others to innovate quickly and to work in that fast-paced environment, we wouldn’t be progressing in lots of areas, and more babies would be dying, and there wouldn’t be as many new jobs in tech, and things like that. 

In fairness to Phillips, she didn’t actually utter the wrongness conveyed by the headline. (We’re also going to be fair by not even addressing the bit about dying babies.)

But we’ll use her interview as fodder for this series because this was by no means the first time someone on the internet has suggested that what humanity really needs is a multiplicity of the 46-year-old serial promise-breaker entrepreneur.

It’s not hard to see why Musk attracts so much hero-worship. He’s the co-founder of a firm whose cars can go from zero to 100kph in 1.9 seconds; the CEO of a company that has launched an electric car into solar orbit; and CEO of a start-up that is developing Black Mirror-like “ultra high bandwidth brain-machine interfaces to connect humans and computers”.

He is in many ways a brilliant and canny businessman who is doing important work in reducing the cost of space travel, bringing electric cars to the mass-market (although that’s still some way away) and generally moving us towards a more sustainable future.

(The multi-billionaire is also pretty canny at setting himself up with mega-bonus schemes from which he can reap rewards without even raising profitability. Although it’s probably not a great idea to point out any profitability issues):

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Notice Musk’s tweet, in response to The Economist’s, was responsible for a 3.4 percent share price rebound in Tesla on Friday. No matter the broken promises, say markets, if Musk says Tesla will be profitable then it’ll be profitable gosh darn it!

But we give Musk — as an individual — too much credit.

As UCL economics professor Mariana Mazzucato has argued in The Entrepreneurial State, we are too focused on the myth of the “lone entrepreneur”, and not enough at the role that vast amounts of state spending have played in the development of the kind of cutting-edge technology that Musk’s business ventures are built upon.

Here’s Mazzucato:

The State has been behind the development of many key technologies that are later integrated by the private sector into breakthrough innovations. 

Federal U.S. agencies such as the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the National Science Foundation and NASA have been hugely important in the development of artificial intelligence, GPS systems, nanotechnology, wind energy, and even the internet itself.

And the nature of Musk’s businesses mean he has received an outsized benefit from the state — not just through research projects, but also through subsidies and other incentives.

Here’s Mazzucato again:

Tesla Motors, SolarCity and SpaceX, all led by entrepreneur Elon Musk, are currently surfing a new wave of state technology. Together, these high-tech ventures have benefited from $4.9bn in local, state and federal government support, such as grants, tax breaks, investments in factory construction and subsidised loans.

The State also forges demand – creates the market – for their products by guaranteeing tax credits and rebated to consumers for solar panels and electric vehicles and by contracting $5.5bn worth of procurement contracts with SpaceX and $5.5bn for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the US Air Force. 

That’s a lot of billions.

The problem is, by putting tech leaders like Musk on a pedestal and forgetting about the helping hand of the state that made their businesses possible, we imperil that support.

We are also falling into the trap of the “ great man theory” popularised in the 19th century, in which we imagine that the course of history is driven more by messianic individuals than by circumstances in which they operate.

In so doing, we conflate business success with wisdom.

As politics professor and Washington Post contributor Dan Drezner has pointed out, we shouldn’t inherently trust the wealthy more than anyone else. (A quick glance at the White House suffices for proof.)

Drezner recently wrote a piece in response to this Tweet from Bloomberg View columnist Noah Smith:

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Here’s Drezner:

It is necessary to separate the importance of the intellectual from the importance of the position they occupy in the marketplace of ideas. For example, one of Tyler Cowen’s answers to this question simply listed important tech moguls Elon Musk and Washington Post owner Jeffrey P. Bezos.

To put it gently, however, many of these plutocrats are only treated as intellectuals because they are sitting on obscene gobs of money.

As astute FT readers have pointed out before, Musk’s brilliance — while certainly there — tends to be overstated.

We should stop this. Yes, Musk is undeniably working on some pretty cool stuff. But we don’t know how much of it is going to come to fruition. And he certainly didn’t get there on his own.

Earth doesn’t need any more Elon Musks. And the asteroid belt probably doesn’t, either.

Related links:
Musk’s mega-bucks don’t require mega profits
– FT Alphaville
Tesla the most shorted stock on the US market, again
– FT Alphaville
A postcard from Elon Musk’s future – FT Alphaville
Tesla pay deal seeks to blast Elon Musk to infinity and beyond – FT
The genius of Elon Musk was obvious very early on – FT

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