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The Great Elon Musk Debate

Is he a techno-hero, ushering us closer to the future? Or is he a villain dragging us toward dystopia?

Elon Musk wearing a spacesuit Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Outer space is everywhere: Not only are we physically surrounded by it, but we’re inundated with images of it, both real and fictional. NASA’s long-lived Cassini mission is ending this week, just after its even longer-lived Voyager mission marked its 40th anniversary. SpaceX is about to launch the most powerful operational rocket in the world. Star Trek is returning to TV, The Martian author Andy Weir is returning to bookshelves, and Destiny 2 and a new Metroid release are bringing gamers back to the stars. Please join us at The Ringer as we celebrate and explore the cultural resonance and science of space all week long.


Kate Knibbs: Here are some facts that aren’t up for debate: Elon Musk is one of the most powerful people in the world. As SpaceX CEO and founder, he’s the figurehead of the modern space travel and exploration industry. He’s a man of grand and improbable dreams—of building hyperloops, of romancing movie stars, of colonizing Mars. And he has proved himself capable of realizing at least some of his wildest goals. Elon Musk is a mega-rich innovator who wants to, and probably can, fundamentally change the world.

This is where things get dicey. How will he change the world? Is Musk a hero or a villain? Is he the dashing, inventive James Bond or a dastardly Blofeld with better hair? That’s what we’ll be discussing.

Alyssa Bereznak: I will be arguing that—despite his significant ego and affinity for hype—Musk is Actually Good. He is an optimist within an economy powered by cynics, much more interested in addressing existential threats to the human race than he is profiting from them. Not to mention, his enthusiasm for these issues has inspired a fan base passionate about environmental issues, infrastructure, and space exploration. Musk forces us to talk about stuff that matters!

Knibbs: I admire your optimistic take on who Musk is, even if I disagree. But before we get down to the debate, let’s quickly talk about the criteria we’ll use to determine whether Musk is a hero or villain. Taking someone’s moral temperature is a tricky thing. We’ve got five questions that we’re going to try to answer, right?

Bereznak: That is correct. To prevent this conversation from turning into some rambling Quora thread about Elon Musk’s management style—of which there are many!—we came up with some basic criteria. The best kind of business leaders demonstrate their goodwill both in their capital pursuits and human interactions. So our questions address both personal characteristics and business practices. They are:

  1. Is he nice to employees, family, and strangers? Silicon Valley is famous for giving “brilliant jerks” a pass if it means investors get an iPhone or an Uber out of it. But a CEO’s mistreatment of his employees—or anyone else—should never be glorified. Is Musk nice to people?
  2. Is he trying to make the world a better place? Are SpaceX, Tesla, SolarCity, Neuralink, and the Boring Company actively working toward society’s improvement? Can we rest assured they’re not clubbing baby seals or racking up human rights violations in the process?
  3. Does he prioritize moral conscience above business profit? Lots of successful CEOs don’t care who or what they destroy on the way to becoming a famous billionaire. Is Musk one of them?
  4. Does he use his personal fortune for good? Bill and Melinda Gates aim to give away 95 percent of their wealth to charity and have aimed to get rid of polio by 2018. Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, have similar aims with their eponymous initiative. Where does Musk’s philanthropy fall?
  5. Finally, is he honest? This one is straightforward, but is something most CEOs struggle with.

Just so we have some cold, hard numbers on the board, let's say that each category can be awarded anywhere between zero and 20 points. We each have control of 10 points in each category and will dole them out as we wish. Behind-the-scenes negotiations are in some cases permitted. Deal?

Knibbs: As far as arbitrary criteria to judge a person’s moral worth, I think this one’s good! So, to jump right into it, I’ll start off with the first question: Is he nice to employees, family, and strangers?

Now, I don’t know how Elon Musk treats strangers, but he may have some work to do in the interpersonal-relationship department. In 2010 his first ex-wife, Justine Musk, wrote one hell of a column for Marie Claire entitled, “‘I Was a Starter Wife’: Inside America’s Messiest Divorce.” Some choice excerpts:

  • “As we danced at our wedding reception, Elon told me, ‘I am the alpha in this relationship.’”
  • “‘If you were my employee,’ he said ... ‘I would fire you.’”

I concede that it wasn’t gracious of Justine Musk to air the couple’s private laundry in public. Justine hadn’t written her piece out of the blue; Elon had already written about their divorce for Business Insider.

Elon may have matured since then, though, or, at the very least, neither his second ex-wife, Talulah Riley, nor his ex-girlfriend Amber Heard have penned any scorching takedowns of their relationships. And he does seem to be a loving father to his five sons.

But how does he treat employees? Well, one Tesla employee wrote a Medium post in February decrying the working conditions in the company’s Fremont factory, which isn’t great—and Musk responded by sending out an email discouraging unionization and emphasizing how “fun” the company is. A few months later, The Guardian ran an expose on the grueling conditions in the factory. On the SpaceX front, the company settled a class-action lawsuit brought by former employees in 2017, paying out $4 million to workers who claimed they were underpaid and mistreated. Even if Musk is polite to the employees in his immediate circle, it is clear that he has set up business practices that regular workers find to be plainly unkind. I mean, would you want to work for Musk?

Bereznak: OK, fair points. My general assessment is that Musk is not gushingly nice, but still has a solid moral center. He tries.

I, too, would be horrified if I found myself married to a powerful entrepreneur who repeatedly talked about firing me. But I don’t think it’s fair to judge Musk’s character based on the he-said, she-said of his messy divorce. Plenty of nice people can become incredibly petty when faced with mounting legal fees and public tell-alls. I’m not questioning Justine’s experience, but we should at least keep in mind that she is not an objective third party in this conversation. As a professional writer, she also directly benefited from distilling the ickiest moments from her marriage with Musk in the pages of Marie Claire. Musk’s tell-all wasn’t bitter as much as it was resigned and factual.

Musk seemingly isn’t good at marriage, I think because he wants to spend more time on his company than on anything else. As he said in a 2015 Vogue profile: “You’re not going to create revolutionary cars or rockets on 40 hours a week. It just won’t work. Colonizing Mars isn’t going to happen on 40 hours a week.” Or as Justine said in a viral Quora thread a while back: “Extreme success results from an extreme personality and comes at the cost of many other things.” We don’t know what happened, but it’s possible his failed relationships suffered in part because of his work. And whatever time he does have, he dedicates to his five children—something that even Justine concedes.

For the record, those who have worked closely with Musk don’t describe him as polite; it’s more like a mix of endlessly challenging and frequently inspiring. “It is said that you cannot dream yourself a character; you must hammer and forge one yourself,” wrote Dolly Singh, former head of talent acquisition at SpaceX. If any leader and any company has done that, and continues to do that, it is SpaceX.” Musk’s passion for achieving his company goals is one of the driving forces that pushes employees forward, and people who vibe with his ideologies get much more from working for Musk than they would any other place.

As for the factory situation, putting workers in life-threatening conditions is inexcusable. I have no rebuttal for that. Points off, for sure. But I will say that Musk is one of the few tech entrepreneurs who has kept his factories in the United States. That has, by default, ensured a certain level of pay and safety regulations that are not afforded to the workers abroad who make wildly popular gadgets like the iPhone.

[ 11/20]

Knibbs: I still wouldn’t want to be friends with, married to, or working for Musk, but when it comes to the next question—Is he trying to make the world a better place?—I’ve got to say that I do think he is. I also think that Musk’s idea of the best possible world would be a technocratic hypercapitalist dystopia ruled by Elon Musk. He’s got a savior complex. The road to hell is paved with good intentions and driven on by Tesla vehicles. Musk is in the business of selling a vision of the future, and I do think he buys into that vision—because it involves his companies securing the future of humanity.

Say we come to a point on this earth where shit really hits the fan, and it’s either colonize Mars or die. If Musk succeeds in establishing a stronghold in the world of privatized space travel, he has already said he plans on charging $200,000 a ticket. He would sell salvation. I do think there’s a good chance he would establish some sort of scholarship or lottery or both to open up spots to people who lacked the money (once he’d already turned a profit). But even in that scenario, Musk would be determining who lived and who died. It’s terrifying.

Basically, I think that Musk wants the world to be a better place, but not as much as he wants to have maximum power in whatever world we live in.

Bereznak: It would make sense that you’d focus on Musk’s space obsession to make your point for this category, but that offers an incomplete picture. When you survey all of the companies Musk has created, it’s clear he’s more die-hard future-environmentalist than power-hungry billionaire. SolarCity blazed the trail for commercial and residential solar panel installations, which are good for the environment. (Musk pushed a cousin to start the company on their way to Burning Man one year, and he later acquired it.) Tesla manufactures desirable battery-powered cars, which are better for the earth than their gas-run counterparts. OpenAI, a nonprofit that Musk cosponsors, is dedicated to ensuring artificial intelligence won’t somehow get smart enough to turn against humans down the line (something Musk frequently warns may happen). The Boring Company and Hyperloop exist to simplify the way humans travel.

Musk is a big-picture infrastructure guy who is into extrapolating hypothetical scenarios (ever heard his hot tub soliloquy about how we might all be living in a simulation?) At first glance, it’d be easy to think that SpaceX’s Mars exploration mission is underpinned by dark, self-centered thinking, but I think it’s just the final logical step in Musk’s ambitious set of companies. He doesn’t want to colonize Mars so he can be some kind of intergalactic dictator. He’s doing it because he knows the government won’t. And in the meantime, his mission to improve earth as best he can is undeniable.

[13/20]

Knibbs: Alyssa and I debated the score for the above section for way too long on Slack, with her awarding Musk full points for his efforts and me assigning him three. Thus, the total score for that section is 13/20, which is very high in my book. But that’s fine, because Musk’s villainy really shines through in regard to the next question: Does he prioritize moral conscience above business profit?

Musk’s business model, from top to bottom, is immoral. It’s not his fault, really. His job as a CEO is to maximize profit, not to act as a moral leader. If he prioritized his moral conscience above business profit, he’d be a science teacher, not a wealth-hoarding titan of industry. He hasn’t been paid as much as $78.2 million annually because of his ethics. It’s because he’s a savvy, ruthless businessman above all else.

A good way to showcase Musk’s business-over-morals habits is to look at the way he donates money. Yes, like any good tech baron, he participates in plenty of philanthropic endeavors. I’ll give him one point for doling out charity. I would have also awarded him a point for bailing on Mark Zuckerberg’s FWD.us organization because it supported politicians who were in favor of the Keystone XL pipeline and oil drilling in Alaska, especially since he did it with a pretty memorable kiss-off. “Initially, I agreed to be a part of FWD.us because I agree with immigration reform. But I think the methods that were employed—it was a little too Kissinger-esque, Realpolitik,” he said in 2013. But actions speak louder than words, and Musk has given money to advance his business interests to all sorts of organizations that go against his stated pro-science, pro-environmentalism, pro-immigration beliefs, including the Longhorn PAC and the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Bereznak: “Wealth-hoarding titan of industry” is an unnecessarily harsh way to describe Musk, especially when you consider his origin story alongside that of his PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel. Both of them walked away from the sale of PayPal as incredibly wealthy men. Thiel used his earnings to amass even more earnings, which he then used to fund personal victories in the form of destroying Gawker, an emblem of independent journalism, funding a dystopian seasteading project, and supporting Donald J. Trump for president. Musk, in turn, used that money to found Tesla, a company meant to wean America off of its long, unhealthy addiction to oil, and SpaceX, a company that could streamline and modernize space travel. (There are much easier ways to make money.)

In 2008, when Tesla was floundering, Musk arrived at a board meeting to say he would be raising a round of funding from shareholders, even if he was the only one contributing. He eventually invested $20 million of his own money in cash, a move that shocked the board members, and saved the the jobs of everyone in the company. If he cared more about being selfish and rich than he did about changing the world, then he would’ve walked away right then and there, and followed the path of Thiel.

Yes, the man has a lot of money, and knows how to wield it in the interest of his company. But it’s a means to an end that no science teacher, no matter how heroic, would be able to accomplish on his own.

[9/20]

Knibbs: I already touched on Musk’s habit of philanthropic giving, and since it is the subject of our next category—Does he use his personal fortune for good?—I’ll readily admit once more that Musk has a track record of giving money to good causes as well as bad, and I’m happy to reward him for such behavior. I know you mentioned OpenAI earlier, and I think that sponsoring research into artificial intelligence is an unambiguously worthwhile use of Musk’s money. His Musk Foundation has given money to build solar power projects in areas stricken by disaster, and he also donated $1 million to help create a Tesla Museum at the behest of an internet illustrator, and even my cold socialist heart can admit that it was a heartwarming gesture. I’ll give him seven points! He’s a villain, not a demon!

Bereznak: Thank you, Kate, for being so incredibly charitable with your points. Elon “the Villain” Musk would be so proud to see your giving side. Just to be thorough, I should mention that he has also given $10 million to the Future of Life Institute, a Boston-based organization with similar research goals to OpenAI. And he has served on the board of trustees for the X-Prize Foundation, which funds competitions that help support the development of clean energy technology.

It’s important to emphasize that, not only does he give to these causes, he is constantly discussing them at high-profile events and in media interviews, when he could just use that time to promote his own companies. He’s more than just a silent benefactor, he’s an effective self-appointed spokesperson in the areas of renewable energy, artificial intelligence, and infrastructure development.

[17/20]

Knibbs: And now we’ve come to the last question: Is he honest?

I have two answers for this question, and you’ll like one of them and you’ll hate one of them. The first answer is, yes, Elon Musk is honest, insofar as he can be admirably candid. He admitted that Tesla’s stock was probably overvalued in 2014. And this summer, he answered a Twitter user's invasive query about his mental health with a strikingly blunt existential assessment.

My second answer to this question is that Musk’s occasional conversational frankness might be a type of honesty, but I think that he is a fundamentally deceptive person. I understand why you would see Musk as the good cop to his former PayPal partner Peter Thiel’s bad cop. Musk is very, very skilled at spinning a narrative about his own galactic largesse. He doesn’t just have a tendency to romance actors—he’s damn good at playing the role of a straight-talking, tough-but-fair business leader who wants to push the world into a brighter future. That’s his story, and he has it down pat. But it’s not the whole story. His impact on society is sure to have some benefits, and you outlined some of them earlier: he’s popularizing electric cars, he’s pioneering AI research, he’s filling a void in space exploration. But these benefits will be incidental, and the world Musk is working toward is one that will leave a lot of people in the dust, because it’s a world in which he takes taxpayer money to create transit systems—both on Earth and in space—that will be for-profit entities controlled by Elon Musk. He’s not going to save humanity. He’s going to save the humans who pay him what he demands.

He is not a humanitarian. He is a capitalist with a hero complex—or a villain.

I will give him one point for the Twitter thing, though.

Bereznak: For most of my adult life, I have watched CEOs of pretty much every major company recite boring, canned statements that were clearly written and vetted by a team of PR people. Very rarely do I feel Musk is doing that.

Take, for instance, his aforementioned life simulation theory. That conversation came about unexpectedly at Recode’s Code Conference last year—when Kara Swisher opened the conversation up to questions from the audience, and Outline founder Josh Topolsky randomly asked him a question about whether we’re living in a video game. This is the kind of thing that would startle most corporate figureheads. A question that’s not about my company! From a member of the media! It must be a trap! Maybe they’d blurt out a few words and retreat to a talking point. Not Musk. “I've had so many simulation discussions it's crazy,” he replied. “You've thought about this?" Topolsky asked. “A lot,” Musk confirmed. He proceeded to drag the conversation into very deep territory: “If a civilization stops advancing then that may be due to some calamitous event that erases civilization,” Musk concluded quite darkly. “Either we're going to create simulations that are indistinguishable from reality, or civilization will cease to exist.”

Does Musk sometimes prematurely hype his company’s accomplishments on Twitter? Who doesn’t? Is he aware of the persona that we, the media, have helped craft in his name? Yes, because he can read. Does he play to the traits that are most admired? In an age when everyone needs a brand, it’d be stupid not to. But I don’t see any of those things as dishonest. He may be a little stubborn, a little crafty, but he’s straightforward enough to tell loyalists that if they come with him to Mars, they must be prepared to die. That people are still willing to follow him to space, or work tirelessly at one of his companies, speaks to his heroism. His life’s work as an environmentalist and explorer is inspiring, and represents a cause worthy of sacrifice.

[10/20]

Knibbs: Alright, let’s tally it up. Our final score collectively comes to a lukewarm 60/100, which is much closer to the number that a villain might get than it is to a hero.

My greatest wish is that Elon Musk reads this and decides to renounce his insatiable will to power and/or encourages his factory workers to unionize. In either case I will be very generous in adjusting his score.

Bereznak: I’m not quite ready to admit I was wrong, but let’s just say you won’t seeing me on any SpaceX flights to Mars anytime soon.