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America has an Elon Musk Problem
Why the billionaire’s reckless shitposting and control over public goods should concern us – and what we can do about it
It is with a heavy heart that I must announce that Elon Musk is at it again.
The increasingly mercurial Tesla and SpaceX chief executive has certainly had an eventful past few weeks. His on-again, off-again purchase of social media platform Twitter now seems back on once more, thanks in no small part to the company’s lawsuit intended to force the sale. Musk has also put forward cockamamie diplomatic proposals for Ukraine and Taiwan, earning justified condemnation from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Taiwanese lawmakers alike. After SpaceX warned the Pentagon that it could no longer provide its Starlink internet satellite service to Ukraine free of charge, Musk reversed course and stated that his company would continue to do so – but not without whining that other companies received “billions of taxpayer $.”
This erratic behavior raises severe questions about just how many eggs America should put in Elon Musk’s particular basket. There’s no doubt that his two main companies – SpaceX and Tesla – support critical public policy goals, from space exploration to the electric vehicle transition now underway. Indeed, these companies stand as two of the most notable successes of Obama-era industrial policy, and neither would have survived their respective corporate infancies without substantial public support at critical moments.
That support has proven to be worthwhile from the perspective of the American public and the federal government. SpaceX launched its fifth commercial crew mission to the International Space Station at the beginning of October, for instance, and recently inked a contract extension with NASA for five more missions. Tesla continues to dominate the market for electric vehicles in the United States, though its share will almost certainly decline as long-time automakers like Ford and General Motors roll out their own EV lines over the next few years. In Ukraine, moreover, Starlink has proven that satellite internet constellations will have significant utility for American foreign and defense policy moving forward.
Nor does Musk have much reason to complain about other companies receiving taxpayer money. He and his own companies get their fair share of federal dollars, whether through direct government contracts or tax breaks. Contrary to SpaceX’s early public statements, the U.S. government and its European allies have paid for and delivered many of the Starlink terminals used in Ukraine; the company has struggled to get terminals into Iran to circumvent the internet restrictions imposed by Tehran amidst ongoing protests against the regime. Telsa has even reportedly discussed plans to shift battery production from Germany to the United States to take advantage of the manufacturing tax credits included in last summer’s Inflation Reduction Act. So far, though, the American public has received a good return on its investments in Musk’s companies – his own sour complaints about contracts won by his corporate rivals notwithstanding.
But Musk’s antics over the past year or so only undermine the contributions his companies have made to America’s economy. His multiple affairs and out-of-wedlock children may be salacious gossip fodder, but they’re not the issue here – it’s Musk’s capricious, fickle character that should worry us. His tendency to shitpost with reckless abandon is just the tip of the iceberg: his freelance diplomacy on Ukraine and Taiwan are wildly inappropriate for someone with his corporate positions and responsibilities, and his petulant reactions to criticism reveal an exceedingly thin and sensitive skin.
Even more troubling are Musk’s business ties to China and its ruling Communist Party. As Matt Yglesias notes, Tesla in particular has substantial interests in China – the company sells more electric vehicles there than anywhere else – and Musk has taken a noticeably softer line on China over the past decade. Given Beijing’s tendency to lean on companies that fail to toe the party line, it’s entirely plausible that the CCP could threaten Tesla’s business interests to gain leverage over the company and its owners. Or they may not even have to: Musk effectively endorsed Beijing’s position on Taiwan just before Tesla received a tax break from the Chinese government.
In short, Musk looks more and more like a bad corporate citizen intent on biting the hand that feeds him.
What can America do about it?
Ideally, Musk himself would leave social media of his own accord – or at least use it far less. He won’t, of course, since he’s dedicated more and more of his time to shitposting. Alternatively, he could express a little more appreciation for what the U.S. government and American taxpayers have done for him and his companies – including ensuring their very survival at critical moments. That’s not something we should expect, though; it’s simply not in Musk’s nature, much less the public persona he’s crafted over the years.
Absent this improbable turn of events, there are steps the U.S. government can take to prevent or limit any damage Musk’s mood swings and fits of pique might do to the national interest. First and foremost, the government can start writing provisions into contracts with Musk’s companies to insulate against any moves the CEO might make that would be detrimental to American goals and interests. It’s reasonable, for instance, for SpaceX to request that the Pentagon start picking up the tab for Starlink service to Ukraine – the European Union has already begun to consider footing the bill itself – but any contract should contain legally enforceable mechanisms to ensure SpaceX maintains service regardless of what Musk tweets or who he talks to on any given day.
The U.S. government could also view and treat Starlink and its main American competitors, most notably Amazon’s proposed Project Kuiper constellation, as critical public goods. If the public is going to pay to use these services, after all, it might as well have a say in how they’re run and make sure they’re available when needed - especially when it comes to national security. Indeed, the U.S. military already relies on Starlink for internet services and connectivity between unmanned aircraft, ships, and underwater vehicles – largely because competitors like OneWeb and Amazon have yet to launch their own constellations.
There are a number of possible ways the government could do this, starting with formal agreements between the government and these companies. Amazon, for its part, has already announced that it will install laser communications terminals on its satellites that the Pentagon can use to transfer data to its own military constellations on orbit. Contracts or other legal agreements with individual companies could grant the U.S. government privileged use of these private satellite constellations when needed, much in the same way the Defense Production Act requires companies to give priority to certain government orders when invoked.
Another potential option could be for the government to acquire equity shares in these companies, much in the same way it did in automakers like General Motors and Chrysler and major banks in the wake of the 2008 financial crash. These shares need not be as large as the stakes the public held in the banks and car companies after 2008, but they would give the public a seat at the table and exercise a stabilizing influence when it comes to erratic public pronouncements of corporate figures like Musk. A public financial stake in Starlink could help alleviate any concerns about Musk personally, but in the interest of fairness it would probably require similar investments in Project Kuiper and other private constellations.
Finally, the Federal Trade Commission and other regulatory agencies should keep a closer watch over Musk’s business activities – with a particular eye to their foreign policy and national security implications. Musk’s potential purchase of Twitter ought to raise eyebrows, at the very least, as should his ambition to create an “everything app” along the lines of Chinese social media platform WeChat. Indeed, the government should block the sale of Twitter conditional on legally binding agreements on Musk’s other businesses, especially those in China.
For all Musk’s flighty personal behavior, however, companies like SpaceX and Tesla do serve important national goals and receive significant public support as a result. Whatever approach we may wind up taking, it’s clear that his antics need to be reined in one way or another. Musk himself needs to be a better corporate citizen, one who recognizes that he’s the ongoing beneficiary of several important partnerships with the American public – and that accordingly he has responsibilities to both the U.S. government and the American people that extend well beyond his contractual obligations.
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