Raise your hand if you think it’s a swell idea to give an oligarch sole power to decide who wins battles during wars such as the one Ukraine is fighting against Russia.
Plus the power to decide what can be said on the Internet and to control development of our nation’s transportation, communications, energy and space systems — and, perhaps, artificial intelligence.
Isn’t this too much of a good thing?
We are speaking of Elon Musk, the world’s richest man, who drove the electric vehicle revolution. We thank him for this service.
Musk is a man of many troubling parts and peculiar passions. But let’s not go there.
Let’s go here:
Today our government finds itself in an unprecedented state of dependence on the whims of one famously erratic billionaire for much of what’s needed to defend our nation and keep its economy running.
“There is only one thing worse than government monopoly. And that is a private monopoly that the government is dependent on,” former NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine told The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow in a recent article describing Musk’s “shadow rule.”
Private monopolies — surprise! — have the power to hold governments hostage.
The table was set for Musk’s accrual of power in the 1980s when Ronald Reagan privatized, and thus profitized, our governments’ essential functions.
NASA, the departments of defense and of transportation, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration are among government entities where Musk’s influence has become inescapable, Farrow reports, “and several of them now treat him like a sort of unelected official.”
Meddling in war
Musk shut off the Ukrainian military’s free access to his 4,500-satellite Starlink communications system when its military launched an attack on the Russian navy off Crimea, a new biography by Walter Isaacson reports. As a result, that naval attack failed. Farrow adds that Starlink service also went dark in five cities where battles were ongoing, forcing Ukrainians to retreat.
Musk then proposed his own “peace plan” giving Russia Crimea and told the United States that if it didn’t pay him $400 million to keep it going, he’d shut Starlink off in Ukraine.
As Starlink’s owner, Musk acted within his rights. Which is why it would be ever so much more convenient if We The People’s military had its own Starlink system rather than being held in thrall to an unaccountable, unelected, undependable oligarch.
Musk now provides Starlink technology in Ukraine under contract with the U.S. military. He claims he cut off Ukrainian access because he became worried that Vladimir Putin would retaliate with atomic weapons. Or was he worried about harming business prospects with China?
Musk in any case disabled Starlink coverage on the Crimean coast without telling the Ukrainians. They were “now going too far and inviting strategic defeat,” Musk imperiously declared.
Yale historian Timothy Snyder argues that Musk’s unilateral decision to cripple the Ukrainian military only “increased the chances of nuclear war” because Musk chose “to give in to the nuclear blackmail, thereby encouraging more of it.”
Even Musk himself asked Isaacson: “How am I in this war?” Musk said he had expected Starlink to be used only for entertainment and peaceful purposes.
Saved by Elon?
There’s a common thread of profound naivete that runs through the stories of tech oligarchs. Consider Mark Zuckerberg’s deer-in-the headlights demeanor when it finally seemed to dawn on him that his friendly Facebook had morphed into a socially destabilizing monster.
It is said of Musk, a devotee of science fiction, that he has a hero complex. “Elon desperately wants the world to be saved. But only if he can be the one to save it,” says Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI.
Meanwhile, Musk thrives on taxpayer largesse. His SpaceX rocket is the only way NASA can get its crews aboard the International Space Station. Previously we relied on … um … Russia for this service.
How about building our own rockets, people? Hello?
Musk’s Tesla “seeded so much of the country with its proprietary [EV] charging stations that the Biden Administration relaxed an early push for a universal charging standard disliked by Musk,” Farrow reports. Musk did agree to make his super-fast chargers available to all makes of vehicles.
However, his chargers siphon up much more user and vehicle data during recharges than others do, according to Adam Rogers at Business Insider. He predicts ownership of this data may become a more valuable commodity for Musk than his vehicles.
Musk decides for the Pentagon whether its officials can tell you about the military’s dealings with him. A Pentagon spokesman told Farrow that he would arrange an interview regarding the Pentagon’s relationship with Musk only if Musk agreed. “We’ll talk to you if Elon wants us to,” he said.
Say what? When did “Elon” buy our military?
Promising “free speech” reforms, Musk bought Twitter and turned it into X, proclaiming: “I believe free speech is a societal imperative for a functioning democracy.”
“This is flimflam,” Harvard historian Jill Lepore tartly responded in The New Yorker:
“Twitter never has and never will be a vehicle for democratic expression. It is a privately held corporation that monetizes human expression and algorithmically maximizes its distribution for profit, and what turns out to be most profitable is sowing social, cultural, and political division …
“Nor has Elon Musk, at any point in his career, displayed any commitment to either democratic governance or the freedom of expression.”
Solveig Torvik lives near Winthrop.