What’s An Elon Musk Cost?

“What’re thoughts on this Elon Musk fella, Barnaby? Do you know who I’m talking about?”

I do, yes. I have a few thoughts, yes. None informed enough to offer a fair assessment of the man, the myth, the legend, to someone like my good old friend Cecil who, as we sit over our bowls of breakfast, if you consider a gussied up risotto ‘breakfast’, skims through a seemingly lengthy New Yorker article on the man, the myth, the legend, with the genuine curiosity of someone new to the subject.

“I have heard of Elon Musk, yes,” I answer.



I am uneasy with the concept of billionaires. Such accumulation of wealth strikes me as unnatural. Some hoard newspapers. Others, millions upon millions upon hundreds of millions of dollars. Neither seems healthy nor particularly beneficial to the greater good.

“He is a man of our time,” I demur, trying not to impose any sort of rigid opinion that establishes boundaries where this conversation might go. Cecil brought the topic up. Allow him the space to arrive at his own conclusions. Lord knows, I could gain some fresh perspective by learning a thing or two.

Cecil continues to read his magazine and takes another spoonful of food while nodding vaguely at my response.

“So far,” Cecil says, finally, having finished a mouthful, eyes still on the pages in front of him, “Mr. Musk strikes me as wholly unremarkable. I mean, remarkably wealthy, obviously. But… I’m pages and pages into this article and I still have no idea how exactly he made all his money. Do you know?”

I didn’t. Not fully. Some sort of fortune early on in the tech boom. Parlayed it into his billions through acquisitions and self-promotion. Bought into Tesla and marketed it as his own. Now wants to colonize Mars.

In a nutshell. Again, I am not biographically well-versed. Only with the most passing of interest.

“Says here that he co-invented some internet doo-dad,” Cecil tries to recall from his reading, “I don’t know exactly, some program or what do they call those things for your computers or phones?”

“Apps?” I offer. “Applications?”

“Yeah, maybe,” Cecil accepts, not entirely convinced though. “And then he used that money to get in on the ground floor of other… whatevers, applications, whatever, that really made it big, made him the serious cash. What was the one again?” Cecil thumbs back through the article.

The particulars elude me. It’s the pattern that matters. Get in low. Get out when the going’s good. I’m told there’s a certain divination at work. The best minds always sense which way the wind is going to blow before the wind actually blows that way. Everyone else is left to mop up the mess.

“PayPal!” Cecil declares. “That’s the one. What is it, Barnaby? PayPal?”

A convenience? It’s all basically about convenience. For the consumer, mostly. Citizens are just too stuck in their old ways. Dinosaurs. Citizens. Democracy.

“I think it’s some sort of online or digital pay system, Cecil,” I venture. “You can pay for things with just a click of the mouse. All you need to do is hand over your personal and financial details.”

This statement draws Cecil’s attention up from the article.

“I take it by the tone of your voice, Barnaby, that you don’t approve.”

Approve, disapprove. It’s the way of the world. I am no Luddite although there are times when it feels like the machines need to be dismantled.

“It strikes me as an update, Cecil,” I try to explain. “An adaptation rather than a true innovation which might warrant the rewarding of such an embarrassment of riches. Might,” I emphasis, my mask of objectivity slipping.

Scooping up the last bits and pieces from his bowl and stripping them from the spoon into his mouth, Cecil goes back to the article, pondering more than reading, it looks like to me. Finishing off his mouthful, he quietly places the spoon into the bowl and pushes aside. He delicately dabs his lips.

“It says here, Barnaby, that he didn’t invent or design the Tesla. He just bought the company. But here I was thinking, Well, whatever else his shortcomings, he created the Tesla. Not that the idea of an electric car is new but he revived it—”

“Big time,” I interrupted. “Made his name synonymous with the idea about electric cars.”

“Said it would be self-driving by…”

Cecil looks back at the magazine on the table in the hopes of the answer jumping out at him.

“… some time around now. But it says here that it’s not even close, not really. Which is fine, whatever, marketing, self-promotion, it is what it is, bank on it at your peril. Self-driving or not, electric cars are good for the environment, at least better than all our combustion engines for sure, but then he’s got his other company… something X, he seems to like the letter a lot, I don’t know why, for science fiction reasons, I guess, firing all these rockets up into space, SpaceX, that’s it, all these rockets up there for satellite communications or whatever, internet linking or whatever. I mean, how environmentally friendly is that, Barnaby? Shooting rockets into the sky?”

“Almost like environmentalism doesn’t even factor into the equation.”

“Right. But here’s the other thing, Barnaby.” Cecil was on a roll now. “All those satellites of his up there, a lot of them subsidized by the U.S. government, by the way, they’ve become crucial to the Ukraine against Russia. It’s how they communicate, organize their defenses and offensive strategies. And sometimes the screens just go blank. The U.S. military has to phone Elon Musk and ask why. Can you imagine? One guy, a private citizen, and the greatest military force on the face of the planet, the good ol’ U S of A, has to get him on the blower and ask for help. That’s… That’s… And he claims to even had conversations about the war with Vladmir Putin! Can you imagine, Barnaby? That is some, I don’t know, Lex Luther level of… I don’t know if you’d call it villainy but what’s another word for it?”


Despite my avowed disinclination in the subject, I was going to have to read this article, it having converted my old friend Cecil from an unfamiliarity with Musk to alpha level comic book bad guy in what? Feature length New Yorker article, ten thousand words? Persuasive, and I’m already leaning that way.

“But that may be giving him too much credit though, Barnaby,” Cecil continues in between sips of coffee. “Lex Luther had personality! This guy, this Elon Musk. What did I say before? Unremarkable. Kind of repugnant and not at all compelling. What happened to the good bad guys, Barnaby? The ones you sort of secretly cheered for?”

The were probably all just fictional characters, I thought. Gene Hackman as Lex Luther. In real life, they were just bad guys, rich bad guys. Sociopaths rather than evil geniuses. How many railroad workers saw George Pullman as a good bad guy? What about the Pennsylvania steelworkers? What do you think their views on Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick were? Beneficent bosses? Bad guys, but compelling?

No, that comes with distance. A century plus of fawning biographies and strategic philanthropy. In reality, and in their time, evidence suggests that they were, the robber barons, the lot of them, agents of destruction, building the future under the guise of progress while laying waste to the present, not their present, of course, the present of everyone else around them.

Musk and his ilk are their progeny. Products of a gilded past, a belief that great wealth confers wisdom, sound judgment, character, further deformed by our weakness for current dissipations, economic hucksterism and Ayn Rand intellectuality. A man of our time, for our time.

“All dollars and no sense if you ask me, Barnaby,” Cecil says, having moved on, evidently, to another article. “That’s what it is. All dollars and no fucking sense. Pardon my French.”


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