Vain, capricious, erratic, spiteful—these sum up the billionaires who dominate our headlines. Any ordinary person with normal amounts of intelligence and common decency could do a better job of being rich.
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If the past few years have taught us anything, it’s that no one should ever feel impostor syndrome again.
You—yes, you, the person reading these words—could be put in charge of a major country or a Fortune 500 company, and you’d probably do a decent job. You don’t need a fancy degree, a superhuman IQ, or a crystal ball. If you possess merely ordinary levels of intelligence, curiosity, humility, and empathy, you’re better qualified for high office or executive power than most of the people currently doing those jobs.
Donald Trump’s presidency was a lesson in this. His massive ego and wild ignorance tripped him up over and over again. He went out of his way to insult and alienate potential allies. He rewarded personal loyalty rather than competence, resulting in a White House stacked with grifters and crooks. He couldn’t pass policies he supported, like repealing Obamacare or building a border wall, because of his disinterest and short attention span. He could have coasted to reelection if he’d even pretended to take COVID seriously.
Now we’re seeing the same thing unfold with Elon Musk.
The blue check debacle
After buying Twitter at an inflated price, firing nearly all its employees, and banning journalists who commented on him unfavorably, Elon Musk’s next agenda item was Twitter’s much-sought-after blue check.
Under Twitter’s old system, the blue check was a stamp of authenticity, given by the company to accounts verified to be the individual they said they were. It was mostly conferred on journalists, politicians, actors, and other influential people, but on a somewhat arbitrary basis. Musk decried this as a “lords and peasants” system and announced that he’d remove the old blue checks across the board. Instead, anyone could pay $8 a month to have one.
This predictably led to a chaos of malicious impersonator accounts. But apart from that, interest flatlined. The program generated just $11 million in three months. That compares to $1.2 billion in revenue over the last quarter that Twitter was a public company.
This shouldn’t have been a surprise. The blue check never conferred any privileges, only prestige. When anyone with a credit card could get one, it was no longer prestigious. Unsurprisingly, few people were interested. Those who did consisted mostly of right-wing trolls, sealioning Musk fanboys, and Russian propaganda accounts—not the kinds of people you’d want filling your mentions.
This was a problem because feeling like you’re rubbing elbows with the movers and shakers was supposed to be the appeal of paying for a blue check. If no famous people had one, there’d be no reason for it to exist.
READ: The Blue Check debacle rears its ugly head—again
It appears Musk realized this, because shortly thereafter, celebrities started getting blue checks again—even though they insisted they hadn’t paid for them, and indeed, many of them loudly protested. The blue check was even slapped on the accounts of dead people.
When some of Twitter’s power users, including the absurdist comedian @dril, started a “block the blue” campaign, they were given the check apparently as a punishment. This led to a cat-and-mouse game where @dril changed his display name—which erases the blue checkmark under Twitter’s rules—only to have it applied again, in response to which he changed his display name again. (As of this writing, he’s managed to get rid of it.)
In summary, Musk has ended up recreating the “lords and peasants” scheme he decried, except worse. Rather than a coveted status symbol, he’s made the blue check a badge of shame and a tool of impersonation that elevates propaganda and sows distrust. And all he got in exchange was a pitiful trickle of revenue.
On top of all this, Musk has spent an inordinate amount of time picking fights with NPR for some reason. He labeled NPR’s account “state media”, which is inaccurate (by his own admission, he didn’t actually know where NPR gets its funding). When NPR announced they’d stop using Twitter to protest this decision, he threatened to turn their account over to someone else. He also raised the price for Twitter’s API (used for automated posting and analysis) to ludicrous amounts, leading organizations like New York’s MTA to announce they’d stop using Twitter to post service alerts.
What would you do with a billion dollars?
The greatest benefit of being a billionaire—one would think!—is that you can afford to take a long-term view.
You can set up and run your own private companies not subject to the fluctuations of the stock market or the pressures of a quarterly balance sheet. You can hire the world’s smartest people and pay them to solve interesting problems with no time constraints. You can fund moonshot ideas and blue-sky R&D without any need for them to turn an immediate profit.
Or, you can use your nearly-infinite resources to provide public goods. You can fund high-quality journalism, generous scholarships for students from poor backgrounds, vaccines for developing countries, or contraception for those who want it. You can purchase land to make it into preserves and wilderness refuges. You can build affordable housing, libraries, universities, clinics, and concert halls. You can step in and pay for urgent needs, like lead pipe removal or flood-damage cleanup, when the government can’t or won’t. And you can do all of these things without caring if they make money, because you’d already have more money than one human can spend on themselves in a lifetime.
Most of all, being a billionaire ought to make you less petty. For better or for worse, possessing that much wealth elevates your existence to a plane far above the concerns of ordinary people. You’ve won the game: you can do literally anything you want with your life, make whatever plans you have a reality. You should have no need to impress anyone and no reason to care about what others think.
Some billionaires have done some of these things. However, Elon Musk is the opposite of all these traits. He’s focused on the extreme short term, taking a reactive, micromanaging, down-in-the-weeds approach. He’s vain and thin-skinned, feuding with everyone, obsessed with the opinions of Twitter users with names like “Catturd“.
In contrast to his image as a big-brain business genius, it seems clear that he makes impulsive decisions with no plan or direction (like, say, buying Twitter and burning tens of billions of dollars on it while neglecting his other companies). For a billionaire tech executive whose acolytes claim he’s focused on the survival of the human species, he’s shockingly small-minded and immature.
Penny wise, pound foolish
To those who say these petty grievances aren’t worth spending so much time on, I agree. The difference is that I’m not the one choosing to spend all my time on them—Elon Musk is! If I were a billionaire with my own electric-car company, space-rocket company, and social-media company, I would simply not care what internet randos said about me.
Even in companies that seemingly fit the vision of long-term survival, Musk can’t get out of his own way. A case in point was the failure of SpaceX’s Starship launch vehicle.
Just a few minutes into its first orbital test flight, the upper stage failed to separate from the booster. The rocket started to tumble and spin, and ground controllers had to trigger the emergency self-destruct. What happened?
When NASA launches a spaceship, there are flame diverter trenches and water deluge systems to absorb the colossal energy of the rockets against the launch pad. Musk, against the recommendations of his own engineers, decided to leave these out to save money.
As a result, the blast of Starship’s rockets turned the launch pad into a crater. Clouds of dust and chunks of concrete were flung in every direction. Some of them crashed into the rocket itself, causing damage to the booster’s engines that may have been the cause of its failure. This was yet another avoidable disaster caused by shortsighted decision-making.
The good billionaire
It seems so easy to avoid mistakes like these. If you were a billionaire (or a president, for that matter), you could surround yourself with smart, qualified people and then—this is the important part—listen to their advice. That alone would result in better decision-making than much of what we’ve seen from actual billionaires.
How do people so ignorant, incurious and impulsive rise to the top?
The scary thought is that these people aren’t on top by accident. Either our system is designed so that only sociopaths can rise to positions of high status; or else it transforms anyone who does rise, ensuring that by the time they’ve reached the top, they’ve left behind whatever humility and empathy they once possessed.
It’s tempting to daydream about how you’d be the “good” billionaire, selflessly using your wealth for the benefit of humanity. However, that may be the wrong perspective to take. It may be that billionaire wealth, like absolute power, corrupts absolutely.