Elon Musk as Time’s Person of the Year

There is nothing wrong in celebrating Elon Musk, who has achieved much of real value.  There are even good messages to be drawn from those achievements.   However there are also plenty of wrong conclusions that can and are being drawn about Musk.  So it’s worth thinking about what’s wrong and what’s right.

Wrong message #1:  We don’t need government involvement in the economy; the private sector can be counted on to get the job done.

Fact:  Tesla was started with Obama-era seed money and Obama-era price subsidies for electric car sales.   SpaceX got going with NASA contracts.  Without government involvement we would have had neither. The major US automakers had to be dragged kicking and screaming to electric cars.   The private sector is not good at supporting novel projects without a near-term payoff.

Wrong message #2:  We can count on smart people like Musk to tell us what to do.

Fact:  High achievers have their limitations and blinders just like everyone else.  Musk’s statement that we don’t need “Build Back Better” because he himself never needed help from anyone is actually typical blindness of the class.  I worked for a successful startup where the four principals fell out with each other almost immediately after we went public—because each was sure he was the reason for success!

Wrong message #3:  In the end we can always count on American ingenuity.

Fact:  Musk is one more example of the importance of immigrants and children of immigrants to the American economy.   Same for Apple and Google.

Wrong message #4:  A few big heroes are what makes for national success.

Fact:  Musk was important as a technical visionary.  No one else recognized that the technological basis existed for an electric car company.  However he also fostered an environment where he could attract the best and brightest to his companies.   The achievements of Tesla and Space X have that broader basis.

What’s more, the Person of the Year could equally well have been given to the many scientists and technologists who gave us the Covid vaccines.  There are more than a few single heroes in our midst.  Big achievements reflect individual contributions of many able people.

I’ll limit the right messages to two:

Right message #1:  Technology matters, and things really can change

Both Tesla and SpaceX are fundamentally new businesses, rethought from the bottom up.  In a very few years they have changed the US economy.

As contrast, a recent book about the Boeing 737 MAX shows what happens a company loses track of the reality of its business in a blind race for profit.

Right message #2:  At all levels individuals can make a difference and should be rewarded accordingly

This is particularly important in technology-driven companies, but not only there.  As noted, that was important not just for Musk himself but also within Musk’s companies.   For contrast, my contacts at NASA and even JPL have described them as stiflingly bureaucratic.  The difference between the SpaceX and the SLS project is undeniable.

Both companies and countries have a tendency to ossify into hierarchical structures that declare themselves to be meritocracies.  Equality of opportunity—including opportunity for real success—is necessary both for individuals and for the success of the overall enterprise.   For society as a whole, we need both a safety net and true opportunities for individuals to succeed.

That, not the pronouncements of Elon Musk, is what makes for success as a nation.