HOW DID HE GET IT?
In the mid ‘80s, Elon Musk’s dad Errol was en route from South Africa to England to sell a plane. But he made a random stop in Zambia and wound up buying half of an emerald mine. That’s how the Musks got rich. Errol gave $28,000 to Elon so he could start his first company called Zip2. He also got $5k from his brother Kimbal Musk, and $8k from their friend Greg Kouri. The company was founded in 1995 and they developed city map guides and listings to sell to online newspapers. Basically the Yellow Pages, but online. The actual company Yellow Pages would launch their own endeavor doing this in 1996. They called theirs Banana Pages. The early days of the internet were fun.
Let’s back up a few steps and talk about early Elon. I can’t figure out his timeline at all. I’ll list out the facts as I’ve read from various profiles and interviews. He was born in Pretoria, South Africa on June 28, 1971. Profiles of Musk fawn over how Elon wrote and sold a videogame when he was twelve. He called it Blastar, and it was 176 lines of BASIC code he wrote on a SpectraVideo computer that produced an extremely stripped down version of 1978’s Space Invaders. The magazine PC and Oce Technology bought it for $500. When my accountant dad was a kid he coded a football game on the same computer. He called it Fredball and it was about 200 lines of code. Elon is not special.
According to Errol, when Elon was 16 he got his first lesson in economics. He and his brother took emeralds from the family safe while Errol was sleeping and sold them at a Tiffany store. Tiffany bought the stones for $800 and $1200. When the brothers went back to the store later they saw the $800 stone in a ring with a $24,000 price tag on it. Again, this isn’t an endearing window into his future persona as a “genius.” It’s stealing jewelry from your parents and selling it at a pawn shop. And it’s cementing an extractive worldview.
After getting his diploma (presumably in 1988), to avoid the mandatory service in the South African military (honestly, good call), Elon enrolled in University of Pretoria and took classes for 5 months while waiting for his documentation to move to Canada. He moved to Canada in June of 1988. He lived with one of his mom’s relatives (his mom, Maye, was born in Regina, Saskatchewan). He went to Queens University in Kingston, Ontario in 1989, transferred to UPenn-Wharton in 1992 and graduated with physics and econ degrees there. Queens refers to him in alumni publications as “Elon Musk, Com’94” and says he spent freshman and sophomore years there. UPenn-Wharton alumni publications refer to him as “Elon Musk (W’97, C’97)”. So he graduated UPenn-Wharton in 1997, but he’s said multiple times that he got into a PhD program at Stanford in 1995, started Zip2 there and dropped out 2 days into his program? I don’t understand this timeline.
But the timeline doesn’t really matter. However it really shakes out, there is another story that usually gets framed as a cute Visionary Learning to be an Entrepreneur story but is actually just gross. While at UPenn, he and his roommate rented a 10 bedroom house and ran an illegal nightclub out of it. They named it Oracle and charged $10 at the door. On some nights attendance would be as high as 500. The story is often told that he’d stay upstairs and play video games by himself as the parties raged on below him. It wasn’t just making a couple bucks to buy the booze for having parties with his friends, it’s another story of him acting extractively, illegally profiting off of people with no regard for their well-being.
Anyway, after four years of transcribing the Yellow Pages, Compaq bought Zip2 in February of 1999 for $305 million. The purchase was on the heels of their $220 million acquisition of shopping.com. Compaq was bolstering their search engine, AltaVista with these buys. Elon got $22 million from the sale, his brother got $15 million. Compaq’s investments did not pay off. In February of 2003, after the internet bubble burst, Yahoo! scooped up AltaVista for a comparatively paltry $130 million.
In November of 1999, Musk took his $22 million from the Compaq sale and got richer by thinking, "How about a bank, but online?” Truly genius stuff. He named it X.com. Four months later he sold the company to the internet’s other online bank, Confinity, brainchild of Peter Thiel. Confinity became X.com and its 15 or so initial employees, mostly from Stanford and University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, would later be known as the Paypal Mafia.
They were able to skirt many banking regulations by insisting that their product was not a bank, because it’s not fractional-reserve banking. It varies from state to state and from country to country, but basically, since the company is classified as a payment intermediary it’s not liable for any fraudulent claims (unless the buyer happens to use a credit card, thanks to Carter’s Electronic Funds Transfer Act of ‘79).
Musk remained the CEO of the new Confinity/X.com venture for 7 months and the company futzed around trying to make infrared banking transactions between Palm Pilots happen. Peter Thiel took over in October and renamed X.com to PayPal. Elon fought to keep the name X.com, but the board outvoted him because it looks like a porn URL. 2 years later, PayPal was bought by eBay and Musk received $165 million from the sale. 17 years later, Elon bought X.com back from PayPal for an undisclosed sum for “sentimental” purposes.
WHAT DOES HE DO WITH IT?
Once Elon got that $165 million payout, he decided it was time to go to Mars. He came up with ’Mars Oasis,’ a plan to put a greenhouse on Mars. In October of 2001 he went to Moscow with some buddies to buy space-faring ballistic missiles. The Russian companies the Mars Oasis team met with (NPO Lavochkin and Kosmotras) laughed the team out of the room. There’s a story that one engineer even spat on him. Four months later Musk and his team went back, but this time they brought a CIA friend, Mike Griffin, with them (Griffin worked for CIA’s venture capital department, In-Q-Tel). The Russian companies ordered a missile on the second trip, for $8 million. Musk stormed out of the meeting because the price was too high and vowed to build his own.
Fifteen months and $100 million of his own cash later, Musk officially started SpaceX in May 2002. In 2006 they launched their first rocket; it failed. Two more launches failed in 2007 and 2008. In September of 2008 their first rocket finally made it to orbit. In 2009 he promised he’d put a man on Mars in 2020. In 2018 he launched his Tesla Roadster into space, but didn’t sanitize it first, inadvertently contaminating space with human bacteria.
In July of 2003, Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning started Tesla Motors and got to work on the Tesla Roadster. They wanted to make a cool-looking, lightweight, affordable, all-electric car because GM discontinued and demolished the EV1. If you haven’t seen it, the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car is good, and it breaks down how GM developed and produced a successful, popular, cool looking and semi-affordable zero-emission electric car in response to California’s new laws requiring automakers to produce 2% of their fleets emission-free by 1998, 5% by 2001, and 10% by 2003. But GM simultaneously put their legal teams to work to fight the mandates, and of course Big Oil was there to fight these new regulations as well. GM also made it so you could only lease the EV1, not buy one. As soon as the California Air and Resources Board caved and reversed the mandate, GM stopped producing EV1s. GM produced and leased 1,117 EV1s from 1996-99, and by 2003 they managed to take back almost every last one of them. They literally crushed the cars and figuratively crushed the momentum of zero-emission cars.
So Eberhard and Tarpenning started Tesla. But producing something like the EV1 without the money and resources of a company like GM is hard. A year later, they went looking for funding. Musk invested $6.5M in 2004 and became chairman of the board. He took over the design of the cars, which was basically just taking electric car technology developed by the existing electric car conversion company AC Propulsion and sticking it in Lotus Elise shells. Tesla sold 2,045 Roadsters from 2008-2012. In 2009, Musk sued Eberhard and Tarpenning for the right to be called a co-founder. He won. Eberhard and Tarpenning are no longer with Tesla. Today, Tesla’s board includes his brother, James Murdoch (son of billionaire Rupert Murdoch of Fox News) and Larry Ellison (the thirteenth richest billionaire in the world who recently bought the sixth largest island of Hawaii).
At Tesla, Musk and his gang of fellow billionaire board members do not pay their workers a living wage. They have union-busted, violated labor laws and fired workers for whistle-blowing about the safety of the cars’ batteries. They also opened up their factory during the global pandemic while some employees tested positive for COVID-19 and fired workers who decided to stay home despite promising unpaid leave.
While we’re talking about Tesla, in my eyes there are two reasons why people buy them: the environment and the class-status. Let’s break down each of those.
Zero-emission cars are a good thing! But that’s not quite what you get when you buy a new Tesla. Their large lithium-ion batteries require unethical and environmentally costly mining of lithium in China and cobalt in Congo. And they’re priced and sold as luxury cars. If the point of Teslas is to save the world from carbon-emissions they’d be affordable for everyone and have smaller, more modest batteries. If it’s the environment you care about, just buy a used Nissan Leaf. It’s smaller battery yields the same range as the Teslas and a used car is more environmentally friendly than a new one. While we’re at it, the most environmentally friendly car you can have in your lifetime is likely the one that’s already sitting in your driveway. Better still, organize and fight against big oil and the corrupt systems that are setting the world on fire. It will have a bigger impact than your individual consumer buying power. We can’t buy our way out of our environmental crisis.
Okay so what about that class-status? Teslas are certainly a marker of class-status, although it’s tough for me to see why, beyond the exclusivity and price tag. Apple products are kind of in the same boat, except they actually look nice. Teslas are ugly. They look like the second-gen Ford Fusion. With the exception of the original Roadster, the one Musk ripped off from Lotus, those were cool looking. High society isn’t just about aesthetics though, there’s plenty of ugly mansions. The problem is Teslas are not sophisticated either. Musk puts video games in the center console. He named the vehicles Model S, Model 3, Model X and Model Y so it spells S3XY all together. The SUV is a van with butterfly doors. There’s a Rick and Morty reference in the cars’ voice app... oh, yeah, and they spontaneously catch fire! Apple products are at least well-built. There was that MacBook Pro battery fire saga I suppose, but for the most part the build quality on Apple products is best in the category. Before we give Apple too much credit they also suffer from a Tesla design flaw: proprietary bullshit. In the same way that you can’t easily upgrade your MacBook’s RAM without going to the Apple store, you can’t change a Tesla tire without calling Tesla roadside assistance. In fact, you can’t even jack up a Tesla without a special Tesla jack. In general Apple products are designed with user experience in mind. In a Tesla, that bigass center console with the video games is also the only place in the car for climate control and the radio. No knobs or switches or any kind of tactile reinforcement means you have to take your eyes off of the road and navigate the touchscreen UI just to turn the air down. These are not classy cars. These are ugly, over-priced, badly built cars designed by an adult tween. Just get a Lexus and give me the $20k you saved. I’ll put it to better use than Elon would, I promise.
I haven’t even touched on The Boring Company yet; Musk’s tunneling enterprise that has finally answered the question “What if we had the subway, but didn’t have to sit next to poors? And it was only for Teslas?” Oh, and the Boring Company also sells flamethrowers. And holy crap, I forgot about Neuralink, that brain chip company he started in 2016 whose latest goal is to stream music directly to your brain.
C’MON HE MUST DO MORE WITH HIS BILLIONS THAN INVEST IN HIS OWN NEW, CHILDISH ENDEAVORS?
There’s gotta be a good reason for the media deification. Maybe he’s generous and charitable with his fortune? Let’s talk about Musk’s "charity" "work."
In July of 2018, three years and five months after the mayor declared a state of emergency, Musk pledged to help Flint, Michigan solve the water crisis. He donated bottles of water and 500 bicycles. This was the same month where Musk had his SpaceX engineers design and make a "kid-sized submarine" to try to rescue the Thailand junior soccer team that got stuck in a cave. Musk, his team, and his child sub arrived in Thailand, but once they walked Thai officials through their plan, they were told that it wasn’t practical and most of the kids were already out. Musk responded to the criticism in the way any of us would, by spending $52k on a private investigator, instructing them to find evidence of pedophilia on one of the Thai spelunkers and calling the spelunker "pedo guy" on Twitter. Later the spelunker sued Elon for what certainly seemed to be an open and shut case of defamation. But Musk won the suit.
After three months of backlash about these "charitable" acts, Musk donated $480k to pay for UV filtration devices for water fountains in twelve Flint schools in October of 2018. The filters were to be installed by January of 2019, but installation was delayed until the fall.
In March 2020, three months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Musk decided to help "work on ventilators,” even though he didn’t think they would be needed. He promised he’d deliver 1,000 ventilators to NYC and California hospitals and he got some good press about it for a little bit. Turns out that once again he didn’t quite deliver. The ventilators he delivered were CPAP and biPAP machines made by ResMed with the Tesla logo printed on 8.5"x11" and stuck on the box. Sonoma Valley Hospital said they received six CPAP machines. Mammoth Hospital said they got ten biPAP machines. LA County Department of Health Services said they got 100 biPAP machines. CPAP machines are about $500, biPAP machines around $1200. Ventilators cost around $20,000-$50,000. Moreover, ResMed themselves say "CPAP devices are designed to provide only PAP (positive airway pressure) and would require significant rework in order to function as a ventilator."
Musk’s reaction to this round of bad press has been to double-down. Since getting called out, he’s been melting down on Twitter. He’s been denying the science and severity of the pandemic, prematurely sending his employees back into his factories. That Barstool Sports asshole was also tweeting about how COVID-19 is an overblown hoax, and Elon encouraged him to run for office.
Speaking of elected offices, let’s list off a few of Elon’s political donation highlights. His first donation ever was in 2003: 2 stacks to W. He maxed out to pro-Trump Rep Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) in 2014 and in 2017. McCarthy has a 3% lifetime grade on the environment from League of Conservation Voters. Seems like a big contradiction for the guy who’s saving the planet to be funding a politician responsible for destroying it. Some other names on his OpenSecrets page: Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Hillary Clinton (D), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Obama (D), Harry Reid (D-NV). It’s pretty standard for billionaires to fund both sides of the aisle but it is another example of something he participates in with no ideology or purpose beyond his own benefit.
Elon Musk is obviously undeserving of the massive wealth that he’s accumulated. He’s also undeserving of the heaps of praise that he collects. How are people continually duped by this guy? It’s maddening. Sure he’s got his bootlicking finance bro fans on Twitter, every billionaire has that by default. But Musk somehow has the world convinced that he’s a genius. I bet 9 out of 10 of your well-meaning co-workers think so. Even Star Trek wrote him into canon as a genius, when Captain Lorca name drops him alongside The Wright Brothers (inventors of the airplane in the 1900s) and Zefram Cochrane (inventor of warp drive in the 2060s) in an episode of Discovery. Come to think of it, that wasn’t the real Captain Lorca, it was an imposter from an evil mirror universe where humans embraced authoritarianism, capitalism and imperialism instead of democracy, socialism and exploration.
Well I’m not convinced. By now you’ve probably picked up on that. I think he’s juvenile and dumb. He’s said a few times that he’s a socialist. The billionaire, union-busting socialist. The tent’s not that big. Maybe he’s just fucking with us now, in which case there’d be even more reason to party after we redistribute his wealth and tax the shit out of X AE A-XII’s inheritance. The man is not a genius, not a visionary, not a Thinker of the Century. He may be the Grifter of the Century, though.
IN THE NEWS
No, Elon Musk's Starlink Probably Won't Fix Iranian Internet Censorship Sam Biddle, The Intercept, 9/27/22
Elon Musk Is Convinced He's the Future. We Need to Look Beyond Him Paris Marx, TIME, 8/8/22
A SpaceX flight attendant said Elon Musk exposed himself and propositioned her for sex, documents show. The company paid $250,000 for her silence. Rich McHugh, Insider, 5/20/22
Eat the Rich Episode 43: Elon Musk with Ken Klippenstein 7/17/20
Deconstructed with Mehdi Hasan: Is Elon Musk a Fraud? 5/14/20
JackAMFM: Elon Musk Pedo Guy and Shane Is Out 9/17/19
Grubstakers Episode 67: Elon Musk 2.0 featuring James Adomian 5/20/19
Chapo Trap House Episode 228 Excerpt: "Elon Musk" Defends his Child Submarines 7/15/18
Grubstakers Episode 2: Elon Musk 2/11/18