Few have as impressive a resume as tech giant (and recent SNL host) Elon Musk. A household name and innovative billionaire, Musk co-founded PayPal, Tesla and Neurolink, has put forth numerous ground-breaking projects (anyone ready for a trip to the moon or to Mars?), and has won scores of accolades and awards. He was even the inspiration for Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Iron Man. So, is Musk the superhero that the world has portrayed him as, or given a number of controversies that have resulted in lawsuits, raised eyebrows, and his 2018 removal as Tesla chairman, are we romanticizing who he is at our own peril?
Elon Musk is a hero
Transformed multiple industries for the better
Musk is a visionary, and his dreams alone have had a positive global impact. His car company Tesla has steered the automotive industry towards semi-autonomous vehicles and electric cars, globally reducing vehicle emissions. Because of Musk, analysts now believe that over half the cars sold by 2040 will be electric. The public agrees with Musk’s vision; a poll taken before the coronavirus pandemic showed that almost 50% of people believe Tesla is the most innovative technology company in recent years. Demand confirms this: Its Model 3 sedans became the world’s best-selling all-electric vehicle model in 2020.
Additionally, Musk has demonstrated that the space industry can be privatized, and for the better; his company SpaceX has seen the successful return of rockets back to Earth after being launched into space. Its Dragon more recently succeeded in delivering a capsule of supplies to the International Space Station. These show that privatization ventures may significantly reduce costs of space exploration.
No stranger to adversity
As a man with an unhappy childhood and unfortunate circumstances growing up, Musk is a role model for those of lesser means and difficult conditions. Having survived both bullying and emotional abuse, he still managed to code and sell his first video game at 12 years old, and his creativity hasn’t stopped since. His failures were many before his success; Musk was removed from his CEO position at two of his own companies, survived malaria, and oversaw three failed launches after the creation of SpaceX (which left the company almost bankrupt).
He also settled with the SEC after being accused of misleading investors and agreed to step down as Tesla chairman, pay a $20 million fine but to remain as CEO. More recently, a Los Angeles court found Musk not guilty of defamation after he made a series of Tweets, calling a British diver who was part of the life-saving efforts of a Thai youth soccer team stranded in underwater caves a pedophile after the diver rejected Musk’s offer of a submarine. No matter how wealthy, brilliant (or, at times, petulant, especially when told that he couldn’t yet re-open his Tesla plant due statewide coronavirus stay-at-home orders), Musk’s experiences with hardship and failure make him relatable to the common man.
It’s not about the money
Aside from creating over 35,000 jobs worldwide, Musk has put his own money on the line to ensure his employees continue to have jobs. In fact, he invested $20 million into saving Tesla after it was on the cusp of bankruptcy in 2015, and he has never taken a paycheck from the company. Additionally, $100 million of his own money went into funding SpaceX – a risky investment, as the space industry had never been privatized before. He has quietly donated to charities and has reportedly pledged to give away at least half of his money when he dies. More recently, he put 5 homes up for sale worth almost $100 million in total after pledging on Twitter that he aims to own no physical possessions. Time will tell what he will do with the money from the sales.
Elon Musk is only human
Ignoring the little guy
Musk may be worthy of his glory but getting to his end-goal has a price, and he is not necessarily the one paying it. In fact, some critics even go so far as saying that during the height of the pandemic, he played with his employees’ lives by re-opening his Tesla plant even after two Tesla workers tested positive for COVID-19 and before California authorities recommended re-opening for business. Health risks aside, SpaceX staff have often been presented with impossible tasks, like pulling all-nighters after working 12-hour days, in order to meet the deadlines Musk expects from them. His Tesla workers filed charges in 2017 with the National Labor Board against him, citing coercion, hazardous working conditions, intimidation, illegal surveillance and prevention of worker communications as their main reasons for doing so.
Idealization is harmful to the collective
Social comparison theory posits that human beings have an innate drive that leads them to compare themselves to other, more successful people. This can lead to negative self-esteem, envy, and unrealistic standards of success. Musk plays his own part in this comparison, creating the perception that he’s the sole embodiment of technological prowess. Yet, it’s easy to forget that, in reality, Musk wouldn’t have been able to get where he is without government funding, subsidies for electric cars, etc. It also helps to have a (now former) president’s full and public support and admiration.
Furthermore, Musk’s elevation by the public to a capitalist idol “has distorted the flow of capital and talent. Healthy markets don’t take cues from the tweets of one man,” writes American author and business professor Scott Galloway. For example, Musk’s outsized influence on raising (or lowering, in the case of Dogecoin) the value, popularity and production of cryptocurrency has masked the truth that the high level of carbon emissions from increased mining of Bitcoin significantly reduces if not wipes out any carbon savings of Teslas.
There are other causes to focus on
A man of Musk’s means, brilliance and stature has the power to significantly change the world for the better, yet he often devotes his resources towards projects that are arguably rooted in vanity. For example, his SpaceX Falcon Heavy Test Launch project – in which a Tesla sports car was launched into space – cost $90 million to execute, and didn’t contribute to any scientific or humanitarian gains. That money could have been used to further STEM research, launch satellites into orbit or end malaria, to name a few. Instead, it was used to begin a space race with a car of Musk’s own making, a project Musk defended as something “silly and fun.” Additionally, his Hyperloop project – estimated to cost billions – has been criticized as a parallel transportation network intended for catering to the rich. With money and power often comes hubris, and it seems as though Musk isn’t an exception to this rule. He has particularly shown arrogance with regard to the coronavirus and the stock market, as seen in some of his insensitive and even irresponsible comments dismissing the dangers of COVID-19, and his careless (or deliberate?) Tweets causing tumult in the values of publicly traded companies, with real-life consequences for shareholders.
The Bottom line: Innovative and driven, Elon Musk has contributed immensely to the world of technological ingenuity. However, his celebrity-like persona may have given him personal and professional leeway, and thus has negative consequences on society. Is Elon Musk someone you look up to?