September 27, 2023
The subject of Isaacson’s last book The Code Breaker, Jennifer Doudna, the coinventor of the CRISPR gene-editing method, served as a reasonable representative of how much women have contributed to the life sciences in recent decades. But Isaacson’s strong suit is unreasonable men, such as Musk, Jobs, and Doudna’s mentor James D. Watson, who wound up dominating The Code Breaker from his supporting role.
Of these three big men, Musk might be the most exhaustingly energetic.
He made his first two fortunes with conventional Internet Bubble software start-ups, the city guide Zip2 and the online financial services firm X.com. (Musk is obsessed with the letter “X.” He also bestowed it upon his rocket ship company, SpaceX, plus his favorite of his nearly countless sons, X Musk; and he has recently renamed his 2022 acquisition Twitter as X.)
I can recall receiving $100 from Musk’s first X in 1999 just for opening an account with them even though I did nothing on X other than transfer my bounty to my real bank account. Silly as it had seemed to me at the time, this “network effect” war between X and Peter Thiel’s PayPal to get bigger than the other paid off when the more profit-focused Thiel eventually persuaded Musk to merge X with PayPal to end their war.
Considering how easy it had been to make money off internet businesses, it was surprising that Musk pivoted next not just to hardware, but to two of the most iconic of 20th-century American heavy industries (but also among the most sclerotic and seemingly least likely to be disrupted). He invested in a boutique automobile firm, Tesla, and started his own rocket company, SpaceX.
He’d been fascinated by rocketry since his unhappy childhood in South Africa, where he had no friends (but he had a brother and three cousins who lived next door who were the genetic equivalent of brothers because their mother was his mother’s identical twin sister).
Like his rival in the rocket business, Jeff Bezos, Musk had grown up reading hard science fiction by Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. (In this century, sci-fi has gotten much more woke and self-pitying. Will it nurture so many high achievers like Musk and Bezos in the future?)
Talking to sci-fi film director James Cameron at a charity dinner in 2002, Musk heard a rationale for why he should indulge in his passion for rockets. Cameron told him that it was too risky for humanity to have all its eggs in a single planetary basket: We needed a survivable colony on Mars in case Lucifer’s Hammer wiped out Earth. (Musk is highly empathetic to humanity as a whole, but less so toward individual humans, such as his direct reports, which he attributes to Asperger’s syndrome.)
But lots of zillionaires have put money into high-end cars and even outer space without making much of a noticeable difference.
Even Jobs had focused on getting elegant and useful products designed, but let Tim Cook handle outsourcing their manufacturing to China. In contrast, Musk followed Henry Ford’s example in focusing on building giant factories to make previously exotic products in America on a mass scale. At a time when U.S. manufacturing seemed dead in the water, Tesla showed that American workers could still compete. Tesla is now up to almost a 4 percent share of the vast auto market in the U.S. and 3 percent in Europe. Its stock market capitalization is $774 billion.
And SpaceX revolutionized the traditionally cost-plus business of rockets by adopting automotive mass production methods to make shooting satellites into orbit much cheaper. The Wall Street Journal reported in July: “Elon Musk’s SpaceX Now Has a ‘De Facto’ Monopoly on Rocket Launches.”
As described by Isaacson after two years of following Musk around, the entrepreneur’s methods remind me of Stalin’s for growing the Soviet steel industry: purge and surge. Periodically, Musk somewhat randomly fires some employees to encourage the others, then leads the gung ho survivors on a Stakhanovite push for greater production for a couple of months. He then vanishes to one of his other enterprises, until he suddenly reappears with some crazy new self-imposed deadline.
One difference (besides not sending wreckers to Siberia, of course) is that Musk has the capitalist price system to direct his fury for streamlining his assembly lines in effective directions. While Stalin succeeded at getting the Soviet economy to smelt more tons of steel, communism was useless at producing complex desirable consumer goods such as Tesla electric cars.
In contrast, Musk obsesses over the cost of each part, relentlessly asking his underlings during surges why they can’t make each item more simple. Musk is convinced that the modern world is a victim of its own success, as rules for how to do each little thing pile up on top of other rules:
“This is how civilizations decline. They quit taking risks. And when they quit taking risks, their arteries harden. Every year there are more referees and fewer doers.” That’s why America could no longer build things like high-speed rail or rockets that go to the moon. “When you’ve had success for too long, you lose the desire to take risks.”
Hence, the 2022 culture clash between Musk and the nearly 8,000 Twitter employees (which he almost immediately reduced to just over 2,000, which caused much-trumpeted but not fatal troubles) was so entertaining. (Perhaps Musk’s favorite movie line is from Gladiator: “Are you not entertained?”) Isaacson writes:
Twitter prided itself on being a friendly place where coddling was considered a virtue. “We were definitely very high-empathy, very caring about inclusion and diversity; everyone needs to feel safe here,” says Leslie Berland, who was chief marketing and people officer until she was fired by Musk. The company had instituted a permanent work-from-home option and allowed a mental “day of rest” each month. One of the commonly used buzzwords at the company was “psychological safety.”… Musk let loose a bitter laugh when he heard the phrase “psychological safety.” It made him recoil. He considered it to be the enemy of urgency, progress, orbital velocity. His preferred buzzword was “hardcore.” Discomfort, he believed, was a good thing. It was a weapon against the scourge of complacency.
When Musk made his $44 billion bid for Twitter in April 2022, I had, after 11.5 years on Twitter, only 40,000 followers. Now, less than 18 months later, I’m at over 100,000.
Presumably, Twitter’s previous management had applied “visibility filtering,” treating me a little like how Stalin handled Mikhail Bulgakov, author of the satire on communism The Master and Margarita: I like you, so I’m not going to shoot you. But I’m not going to let you prosper, either.
Isaacson, the former editor of Time, president of CNN, and now head of the elite Aspen Institute, writes:
During Watergate and Vietnam, journalists generally regarded the CIA, military, and government officials with suspicion, or at least a healthy skepticism…. But beginning in the 1990s and accelerating after 9/11, established journalists felt increasingly comfortable sharing information and cooperating with top people in the government and intelligence communities. That mindset was replicated at social media companies, as shown by all the briefings Twitter and other tech companies received. “These companies seem not to have had much choice in being made key parts of a global surveillance and information control apparatus,” [Matt] Taibbi wrote, “although evidence suggests their Quislingian executives were mostly all thrilled to be absorbed.”
Isaacson acidly observes:
I think the second half of his sentence is more true than the first.
The biographer offers several explanations for Musk’s shift from the center to the right in recent years.
He sent one of his many sons to Crossroads, a $50,000-per-year progressive school in Santa Monica, where the boy declared he was a girl and a communist, and that he hated his dad. Hence, the first Twitter account Musk restored after purchasing the social media company was The Babylon Bee, the Christian satire site that had been banned for “misgendering” Admiral “Rachel” Levine by naming the Biden administration official their Man of the Year.
Also, while Musk was impressed by Barack Obama, who placed a big bet on SpaceX, he thinks Joe Biden is a dope. I suspect a lot of the personal bad blood between Biden and Musk stems from Biden being a 1970s labor Democrat—he’s marching on a United Auto Workers picket line this week—who dislikes Tesla for being nonunion.
But the American union system, with the rights it gives unions to impede productivity improvements that haven’t been negotiated in the contract, would be fatal to Musk’s frequent manic drives to boost productivity. The American system seems peculiarly ill-designed compared with, say, the Swedish or German systems, which manage to reconcile worker power with high quality.
An incident that Isaacson doesn’t mention is the 2021 discrimination lawsuit against Tesla in which a jury awarded a black elevator operator who worked at the Fremont plant for 11 months $137 million for being joshed by Hispanic fellow workers.
Tesla managed to get the payout cut to $3 million on appeal in 2023. Musk tweeted:
If we had been allowed to introduce new evidence, the verdict would’ve been zero imo.
Jury did the best they could with the information they had. I respect the decision.
Culturally, the 71-year-old Isaacson, an impressive example of the best type of Establishment baby boomer, occasionally seems nonplussed by the generation gap between himself and the 52-year-old Musk, who remains a computer strategy game addict. (Recent favorite: The Battle of Polytopia.) Why is Musk so good at both games like Civilization and business? “I am wired for war,” Musk says.
There really weren’t as many nerds back in Isaacson’s day. In contrast to Musk, Jobs was an Italian renaissance cardinal commissioning the finest artists.
Isaacson sums up in his last paragraph for his genteel readers offended by Musk’s tweets (or Xs or whatever he calls them these days):
But would a restrained Musk accomplish as much as a Musk unbound? Is being unfiltered and untethered integral to who he is? Could you get the rockets to orbit or the transition to electric vehicles without accepting all aspects of him, hinged and unhinged? Sometimes great innovators are risk-seeking man-children who resist potty training. They can be reckless, cringeworthy, sometimes even toxic. They can also be crazy. Crazy enough to think they can change the world.