Weekly Brief: In Defense of the Indefensible Elon Musk

Weekly Brief: In Defense of the Indefensible Elon Musk

In light of his recent legal difficulties, Andrew Tolve offers a positive appraisal of the EV maverick.

In the long, bizarre, often cringe-inducing descent of Elon Musk over the past year, last week represents a new low: the CEO and chairman of Tesla cost his company $20M and himself another $20M with a single tweet. You may recall the tweet in question, when Musk posted in August: “Am considering taking Tesla private at $420. Funding secured”. Sounds innocuous enough, right?

Not so fast. Turns out that Musk didn’t have the funding secured; he hadn’t even discussed the matter in any detail with funders, which is (obviously) illegal. The SEC took issue, and six weeks later, we have a settlement: $40M in fines. And Musk cannot serve as the chairman of Tesla for three years, effective immediately.

All of this is indefensible stuff. It’s stupid. It’s reckless. And it fits into a larger pattern of stupidity and recklessness for the tech wonderboy. Remember when he smoked pot on a podcast in early September, causing his company’s stock to plummet almost 10%? Pot continues to be stigmatized in society, arguably unfairly so. But nevertheless, smoking marijuana on a podcast for no reason other than to appear cool is undeniably foolhardy.

Do I think Musk is volatile? Yes. Do I think he got what he deserves in this case? Yes. Would we be better off without him? Absolutely not.

Humanity has never faced challenges on the scale that it does today. From poverty to war to refugee crises to climate change and destruction, these are big, complex, globally intertwined challenges that defy simple solutions and impact all of us in big and small ways. It doesn’t actually matter if you believe in global warming, if you care about the war in Syria, if you are bothered by the fact that the Great Barrier Reef is dying while the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is growing at an exponential rate.

What matters is your life and your kids’ lives, and my life and my kids’ lives, and on and on inexorably, will have to contend with these issues, often in profound and problematic ways. Resource scarcity will start wars. Lack of water could ruin the American west. This calls for bold, audacious thinking that approaches problems from new directions with an urgency that fits the scale of the challenges. That, to me, is what Musk embodies. He doesn’t just think seriously and expansively about our biggest problems, he puts his ideas into practice at scale with the goal of making the businesses that drive them profitable. That’s not reckless. It’s admirable.

It remains to be seen if Musk’s Boring Company ever pulls off that underground hyperloop connecting New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington DC. Who knows if Tesla will ever turn a profit in its pursuit of a world-changing electric vehicle. Odds seem low that SpaceX reaches Mars and sets up human colonies there – at least in our lifetime. But there’s a value in trying. There’s a value in putting forth ideas with real-world applications that force us to think about radical new solutions, rather than incremental changes to formulae we’ve already tried and tested a hundred times before.

That’s why I appreciate Elon Musk. It doesn’t make him invincible, nor does it excuse stupid behavior, but it does suggest we should root for his success. And yes, perhaps forgive the occasional, ill-advised podcast interview or tweet.


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