CJ Werleman explores the Tesla CEO’s contribution to discussions around the Coronavirus crisis and why his need for personal recognition in such times is dangerous.
Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of Tesla, has an extraordinary talent for turning existing ideas into booming commercial enterprises. He didn’t invent the electric car, but he turned a start-up into a $150 billion valued market leader. He certainly didn’t invent the rocket ship, but he has turned space exploration into a commodity via his privately owned SpaceX.
His genius is to foresee the future of consumer demand and then supply it with uber-cool and cutting-edge products. But, if the predictions, observations and remarks he has made during the COVID-19 pandemic have taught us anything, it is that the man’s intellect and wisdom starts and stops with his ability to market, sell and grift – and the news media should stop pretending otherwise.
On the same day as a report revealed that 36 million Americans have lost their jobs in the past two months, ushering in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, Musk unlocked the first tranche of his $55 billion compensation package – despite furloughing thousands of workers and inflicting deep pay cuts ranging from 10 to 30% on his active employees, according to a Tesla HR memo obtained by Forbes.
On Saturday, Musk threatened to close his manufacturing plant in Fremont, California, and take away jobs from thousands of his employees if the state continued to deny him the freedom to risk the health of his workers by sending them back to work in defiance of stay-at-home orders, which he has been whining about incessantly and often absurdly since his company’s first-quarter earnings were released.
It is not his complaining and woe-me odes that should concern us, however, but rather his dangerously moronic, comically ridiculous and deceptively self-serving analysis of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has contributed towards the undermining of the country’s fight against the virus by drowning out the messages and pleas of actual public health experts.
Musk has nearly 35 million social media followers. His every tweet is amplified to hundreds of millions more by both the US and international news media, which have bestowed upon him the status of a Nostradamus-like sage as a result of his business success. But, when Musk isn’t talking about widgets and gadgets, he demonstrates the intellectual sophistication of your everyday used car salesman or the former condominium broker who currently occupies the White House.
“The coronavirus panic is dumb,” tweeted Musk on 7 March, when the US hadn’t yet recorded its first known COVID-19 case or death. Two weeks later, on 19 March, he tweeted: “Based on current trends, probably close to zero new cases in US too by end of April.”
It is now the second week of May and the US has recorded 1.5 million cases at a rate of 30,000 per day, and 80,000 deaths at a rate of nearly 2,000 per day, according to John Hopkins University. Clearly, Nostradamus Musk is not.
More concerning, however, is the fact that Musk has demonstrated he is unable to interpret data beyond a surface level understanding nor place a single data point within its broader context – as evident in the way he tweeted a graph showing hospitals in California to be “half empty” to support his campaign against the state’s social distancing measures. It suggests that Musk is deceptively or ignorantly unaware of a multitude of mitigating factors, including the fact that the state had been under partial lockdown for six weeks at this point in time, that hospitals had postponed elective surgeries and routine care in preparation for a surge in COVID-19 patients, and that the state has experienced a dramatic decline in motor vehicle and workplace injuries as a result of the stay-at-home orders.
But, it gets worse. Musk has espoused quackery and utter nonsense regarding COVID-19, including claiming that children are “essentially immune” from the virus, that dangerous and unproven drugs are worth considering as treatment, that shelter-in-place orders are “fascist”, and that public health officials are “unelected and ignorant” and “lack plain common sense”.
Rushing to the ‘Rescue’
Wherever you find crisis, you find grifters – or rather those who see fear and uncertainty as an opportunity to turn the media’s spotlight and the public’s gaze towards themselves. On this score, Musk, like Donald Trump, demonstrates unrivalled genius.
On 24 March, Musk promised to ship more than 1,000 procured ventilators to COVID-19 distressed hospitals around the country before producing more at his Tesla factory – a promise that put his name and Tesla in the headlines of every newspaper and television news station in the country and throughout the world; a level of publicity that it is impossible to put a dollar value on. But Musk never delivered. Instead, he sent bi-level positive airway pressure machines, which are used to treat apnoea, and do little for those with severe COVID-19 symptoms, unless they are converted into advanced machines.
It is not the first and only time Musk has sought to hog the limelight in times of distress. In 2018, when the global media’s attention was fixated on 12 members of a boy’s football team that had become trapped in a Thai cave, he offered to come to their rescue by sending a mini-submarine. When one of the eventual volunteer rescue scuba divers, a British citizen, accused Musk of using the tragedy as a “PR stunt”, the Tesla CEO responded by calling him a paedophile on Twitter – a baseless and slanderous smear that landed Musk in court on defamation charges, which he later beat in a federal court in Los Angeles last year.
“As long as Elon Musk continues to produce amazing products and add tens of billions of dollars of shareholder value, he will continue to play by a different set of rules than the rest of us,” Scott Galloway, a professor at the New York University Stern School of Business, told The Washington Post. “Is it the errant missives of an eccentric billionaire? Or is it dangerous? And the answer is yes and that it is.”
Far from being a sage or a fountain of wisdom, Musk is a smear artist who peddles conspiracy theories and disinformation while asininely tweeting “give people their rights back!” and “FREE AMERICA NOW”. But, more than that, he represents all that is unholy and inhumane about 21st Century capitalism, with his disregard for the health and wellbeing of those whose lives he is willing to risk to further enrich himself and his shareholders.
“You may look up to him, but he’s only looking down on you,” tweeted an anonymous individual from the Pennsylvania Treasury Department’s official Twitter account.
It is high time the news media portrays Elon Musk accordingly.