Opinionista Ismail Lagardien 18 June 2020

Having a lot of money is no measure of greatness

It appears that Elon Musk — an entrepreneur to be sure — is a veritable saint among sectors of society, which conveniently ignore whatever wrongdoings or fraudulent things he has been accused of or associated with by respectable news sources. Elon Musk, let’s not forget, is no Nicola Tesla.

It has been a rough few weeks. Having made a conscious decision to try to write about something, anything other than the dreaded pandemic, I made the mistake of assuming that we are a society that has matured, and understands, above all, that there can be no limitations on what can be said or written — within legal and ethical limits, of course. 

So, a week after receiving ugly and quite hateful mail from supporters of the Democratic Alliance because of a piece I wrote about privilege (a few DA Members of Parliament joined in the insults), I decided to write about super-wealthy people, especially billionaires, and why we revere them so much.

I asked, as a general proposition, why we should respect billionaires (and multi-millionaires for that matter) simply because they are super wealthy? I went from the general to the specific, as an example. For reasons of timing and relevance, I referred to Elon Musk — his SpaceX had just delivered two astronauts to the International Space Station, and he was born in South Africa.

Frankly, had I written the piece a few weeks or months earlier, I may have used Isabel dos Santos — herself a billionaire from a southern African country — as an example. A few weeks, or months before that, it might have been Jeffrey Epstein, the multi-millionaire who committed suicide in August 2019, or Harvey Weinstein (who was reportedly cloistered by a billionaires club) or even Bill Cosby. At the time of Cosby’s conviction for rape, Cosby was worth an estimated $400m.

It turned out that using Musk was a mistake. One reader, a business person whom I had never met, was livid. He said that he had worked hard to build his business — which I don’t doubt — and that he treated his employees fairly. He also suggested that while I was questioning the celebration of the super wealthy, I conveniently withheld declaring my own wealth. I laughed so hard I choked on my spit. 

The reader took my comments on Musk personally. He said they were “divisive” and “incendiary”. Dear reader, if you have a weak stomach, don’t read the next sentence. Why do white people always throw “reconciliation” in our faces when we call them out for behaving badly, or when they prance about with some god-given entitlement, but are quick to point out any black misbehaviour?

Anyway, I should lay out what it was that I actually said about Musk, without repeating the column here (there may be copyright issues to contend with). Echoing the New York Post, I asked whether Elon Musk was a fraud.

In July 2018, the New York Post wrote the following: “Musk has been in business since 2002. His stated goal is nothing short of transforming humanity through his products: his electric cars, space travel, and an underground high-speed Hyperloop system. He has yet to succeed at anything [in fairness SpaceX has successfully delivered two astronauts to the international space station (ISS) — we’ll get back to that below] but somehow spins every failure into proof of imminent success. His only accomplishment has been this decades-long Jedi mind trick. Tesla is best known for blowing deadlines and consistently falling short on production.

In November 2017, Bloomberg reported that the company burns through $500,000 per hour. For two years now, Tesla has been suffering an epic talent drain, and in May, two top execs — one the liaison with the National Transportation Safety Board — walked out the door.”

Now, Musk is not Nicola Tesla — that’s the other point I made. Nevertheless, Musk has presented himself as a poster-child for private enterprise and free markets. At the same time, he reportedly (in 2018) spent $1-million annually on lobbyists in Washington. Musk’s cars, according to the Mises Institute, who referred to “Elon Musk’s Taxpayer-Funded Gravy Train” (I purposefully use a fairly right-wing source, so I can’t be accused of using “lefty criticism”), is financed by more than $280-million in federal tax incentives, including a $7,500 federal tax break and millions more in state rebates and development fees. In November 2018, Bloomberg reported that a Tesla solar factory for which New York State paid $750-million, was based on a commitment to create 1,500 jobs. So far, not many jobs have been created, but, as John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, a non-profit organisation focused on government accountability, said:

“These mega-subsidy deals take place in complete secrecy without scrutiny from the public.”

In 2019, Investment Research Dynamics reported that “Tesla will rival Enron as the biggest stock fraud in this century, if not US financial history. To be sure it sells cars that generate revenues. But the alleged profitability shown in Q3 and Q4 financials is likely nothing more than the product of GAAP [Generally Accepted Accounting Principles] accounting manipulation. Musk has been making promises and performance projections which fall miserably short of reality for several years. He overtly violated securities laws with the $420 secured tweet, which cost investors $10s of millions of dollars — longs and shorts.” 

So, let me return, then, to the question I put at the outset. Should we celebrate multi-millionaires, only because they have a lot of money? Does their wealth protect them from scrutiny? 

I would hope not. I do suspect, though, that the business person who considered my column as “inflammatory” and “divisive” may have been upset that I mentioned, “if only for the record”, (as reported in the Telegraph on 25 March 2018) that Musk’s father, Errol, 72, reportedly pulled a Woody Allen, and had a baby with his stepdaughter — Jana Bezuidenhout, 30. Bezuidenhout was reportedly four years old when Errol Musk married her mother.

Or maybe the critic was aggrieved that I used a passage from an Elon Musk interview with Rolling Stone in which he described his father as a “terrible human being… You have no idea about how bad,” he said. “Almost every crime you can possibly think of, he has done. Almost every evil thing you could possibly think of, he has done.”

Musk senior, a millionaire who made his fortune through engineering, disputed that characterisation, but has admitted shooting dead three intruders in his home in South Africa — before the family emigrated. I did not mention the ways in which “intruders” was the ready excuse for the racial hatred that caused the random killing of black people during apartheid. This violence can help us understand the widespread murder with firearms in South Africa today. 

And so, it appears that Elon Musk — an entrepreneur to be sure — is a veritable saint among sectors of society which conveniently ignore whatever wrongdoings or fraudulent things he has been accused of or associated with by respectable news sources. Like most entrepreneurs who swear by free markets and private enterprise, Musk has apparently not explained that he received more than $5 billion in state subsidies. To state a bald opinion: there is nothing noble about making money, nor are you doing god’s work if you’re a banker, as Lloyd Blankfein, Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs, has said.

Money can buy you a good lawyer, but it cannot shield you from scrutiny or elevate you to saintly status. Surely there is nothing “inflammatory” or “divisive” about any of that. It smacks of the one-directional reconciliation that emboldens some people. DM

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