The Industry

What Elon Musk Is Teaching Us About Billionaires

It’s not that Twitter matters, it’s that Musk is doing something entirely new with it.

Elon Musk wearing a tux with a white bowtie at the Met Gala.
Elon Musk attends the 2022 Met Gala. Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

It’s hard to find much to say about Elon Musk except for this: He was once the richest man in the world and widely hailed as a genius, or at least respected as an innovator, and he found that inadequate to his emotional needs.

How did it happen? Perhaps he found the role of “Thought Leader” too sedate and constricting. To the extent that noblesse oblige still exists among modern-day oligarchs, I suppose it could feel repressive; the Gateses and Buffets of the world perform good manners and good intentions and end up offering a retiring, cultivated blankness.

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Or—billionaires being subject to experiential distortions most of us will never know—it may be that he found infinite wealth uninteresting. When you grew up rich already and have only grown richer, maybe it’s appealing to operate in an atmosphere of stringent artificial scarcity. If his pleasure lies not in largesse but in the capitalist jouissance of screwing others, it makes sense that the richest man in the world might seek out situations that would endanger his backers, saddle assets with debt, and justify him nickel-and-diming Twitter users while he strip-mines the company, auctioning off chairs and coffee makers and firing janitorial staff such that employees must bring toilet paper from home. This behavior can perhaps best be understood as playing the game on hard mode—ignoring the ease of keeping one’s sycophants happy by attempting to gain new converts despite constantly taking actions guaranteed to piss almost everyone off. Plenty of stand-up comics like losing the room on purpose just to try to win it back.

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Musk is on the record as liking a challenge. He dislikes chess, for instance, for being too egalitarian and insufficiently chaotic: “too simple to be useful in real life: a mere 8 by 8 grid, no fog of war, no technology tree, no random map or spawn position, only 2 players, both sides exact same pieces, etc.” Sure, this declaration was uttered while seeking to downplay the achievements of World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov (who had accused Musk on television of “moral idiocy”; Musk responded by claiming his iPhone could play better chess than Kasparov).

What is clear is that being bound by rules does not read as fun to Elon Musk. Making up rules, though, and arbitrarily enforcing them? That seems to be another story. Musk in his professional capacity appears to have enjoyed (for example) demanding that employees who work from home return to the office immediately—and sleep at work—only to stop paying rent and shut a number of offices down, such that employees (like those in Seattle) are now forced to work from home. There is joy in this, too—in using your power to make others do humiliating things while refusing to abide by any constraints yourself. Musk isn’t bothering to honor rental agreements or employment contracts. He’s looking for ways to avoid paying severance that is owed. He wants to withhold payments from companies he’s in business with until they renegotiate. The model is familiar, Trumpian: No demand others make on you is legitimate, and no demand you make of others is anything less than fair.

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But the thing I can’t stop thinking about is that all this could have been achieved with relative privacy. That’s been his way up until now, anyway; Musk has a long, long record of being a terrible employer, but you might not have heard much about it until recently. Because now, Musk wants attention. He has rebranded as an extremely public troll. That is noteworthy.

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The public move is what makes speculating about a billionaire’s motives, however dreary the exercise, worth doing. Because billionaires are usually private, it is more than a little disorienting to watch one dispense with all that and behave with absolutely no constraints on his conduct. Forget playing the game on “hard” mode. What’s clear is that Musk is simply playing. This is all a game to him—and he wants his obviously despotic conduct (which affects the lives of real people in his employ) to be celebrated. He wants it to be defended as principled, reasonable, and freedom-loving. He also wants it to be funny.

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My colleague Laura Miller argued that there is one simple way to handle all of this: Musk ought to be ignored on the grounds that Twitter is—despite its outsize influence in media and some other areas—so niche in the large scheme of things that owning it amounts to becoming the king of, say, Luxembourg.

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And yet the spectacle, and specifically Musk’s desire to star in it, all feels more sinister to me than I’m quite comfortable admitting. Not because of how much Twitter matters (its importance is surely overblown) but because of the behavior itself and what it suggests is true right now about power and the complete lack of any coherent check on it. This is particularly clear in the “polls” Musk likes to conduct, while promising to “abide” by their results and then repeatedly breaking that promise.

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It’s discomfiting because we know that we have a growing problem with obscenely wealthy mega-oligarchs who have so much power that they don’t have to bear real public scrutiny. They have for the most part honored their end of things by remaining tactfully behind the scenes, moving in rarefied circles, so we don’t have to grapple with what their existence really means.

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But that fragile truce is dissolving. It started with Trump, of course. But Trump’s wealth is nothing compared to Musk’s, and at least Trump was somewhat legible: He was an ego-mad con artist, mainly interested in bilking his supporters and enriching himself and his family. What’s more, Trump is and has long been worried about prosecution; we’ve traveled a pretty long road toward impunity for Trumpish malefactors in this country, but there are a few residual lights of institutional health still flashing that make his law-breaking at least potentially punishable, someday.

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It’s not clear that Musk feels any such concern. Watching Musk tank Tesla’s stock to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars while seeming not to care at all is sobering not because I lose sleep over Tesla stock prices, but because it was comforting to imagine that Musk would—that, as a businessman, he responds to predictable pressures. That is not evident here. In Musk, we see a man with resources so extraordinary he can act as if he’s beyond the reach even of capital and its self-serving systems of accountability.

This isn’t, somehow, and despite being a pessimist, a future I was prepared for. The contours of the dystopias in speculative fiction and thought experiments I consumed were (roughly) that corporations would increase in power and influence until they outgrew and subordinated the nation-state. The mechanics of democracy (or governance) would accordingly come to be pro forma exercises. Sure, you can vote for a president or whatever, but the brands no one has voted for—and their mandate to serve the shareholder—would be the forces actually determining policy and the future of the world.

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In fiction, these companies are typically efficient and logical, even if it is only to serve their own ends. They are also, for the most part, frustratingly anonymous, presided over by hazy boards of directors. Their monstrousness is linked to that corporate facelessness. And even though corporations are, according to the law, “persons,” with all the rights but few of the responsibilities that persons receive, they are actually more like robots. They cannot starve, but they’re also not supposed to do anything for fun.

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My old visions of corporate hell were grim. But it hadn’t occurred to me that the more frightening possibility might be a corporation that is the opposite of anonymous—that is, in fact, helmed by, and subordinate to, a single man with unmet psychological needs for whom the corporation itself barely counts. It is beyond strange to watch the tech companies whose evils one has long read about be not just dwarfed but treated like baubles of no consequence in one rich man’s game.

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I’m discomfited, in short, by the Muskian spectacle. Not because of Twitter mattering but because of what Musk’s mask-off rebrand suggests about where billionaires stand as income inequality has ballooned and institutions have weakened.

One thing I have clocked is how Musk’s evolution into an alt-right shitposter has dovetailed nicely with the conservative fetish for anti-governance. This was more or less Trump’s promise too. It’s a familiar conservative vision that basically fantasizes about breaking things: eliminating the Department of Education, dispensing with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, defanging regulatory agencies, slashing taxes, etc. This idea of freedom defines itself as being against anything that might limit a man’s freedom to do what he wishes, particularly if it interposes protections of any kind between those he wishes to cheat or abuse or exploit. A Wild West, as it were. The point is that an implied but distinct subset of people are noble citizen-agents who deserve freedom (from regulation), and everyone else’s suffering is irrelevant. Bureaucracies and red tape must be slashed through to benefit the former; the latter will have their conduct not just regulated but criminalized to the degree that most enriches and protects the former.

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Anyone who’s been on the internet knows that the Wild West approach favors abusive conduct. Incentivizing antisocial behavior, or at least failing to disincentivize it, tends to help it proliferate. Musk knows this; the self-described free speech absolutist has responded to speech he doesn’t care for on the platform with weird, whack-a-mole-ish inefficiency on the one hand and vengeful arbitrariness on the other. Rules are announced, retroactively enforced, changed, rescinded. There is no principled posture, not even a nod to internal consistency. Musk’s solution to the two-tier system on Twitter that he described as unfair and elitist—the so-called “blue checks” which are sometimes assigned to verified accounts—was not to dispense with them altogether or give them to everyone. No, instead he made them available for purchase with no verification at all. Supposedly doing so adhered to some kind of principle of profit, but ultimately it only brought the most predictable kind of chaos. Indeed, it was an idea so breathtakingly stupid it was almost thrilling to watch thousands of accounts at once pay $8 to impersonate celebrities, politicians, emergency agencies, and brands.

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Musk deploys this same energy when he posts his Twitter polls, promising he will “abide” by them, and then failing to do so. As my colleague Nitish Pahwa wrote back in November, voting in Musk’s polls is both entirely useless and the only  way to provide feedback to a man whose money has insulated him from reality. If he loses a poll, he’ll at the very least, as Pahwa puts it, “lose the democratic cover of his decision and further clarify what’s obvious—that he’s an erratic, likely unreliable leader.” Pahwa is absolutely correct and yet this feels … terrible. As bad or worse than voting in a state where your vote doesn’t matter even the little bit that votes sometimes do.

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Musk tweeted a poll earlier this month asking whether he should resign as CEO. When the “yes” option pulled ahead, I found myself becoming the worst kind of online spoilsport: While people on Twitter who were sick of him celebrated that he was no doubt pouting at discovering how unpopular he plainly is, I started pedantically pointing out that there is actually no humiliating this guy who owns the company doing the “polling” and who has strategically framed the poll such that the “yes” option could describe what he’d already announced he was doing anyway. I typed this into the abyss—Musk’s poll was, it seemed to me, not even a fake poll but a Trumpy way to hijack a particularly bad news cycle for Twitter (Musk had created an enormous amount of bad press by suspending several journalists, citing strange and convoluted rules that were obviously created after the fact, since they weren’t uniformly applied, and then “unsuspending” them).

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But that was wrong too, I think. There’s very little evidence that Musk cares about bad news cycles enough to interrupt them. He doesn’t need to.

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Twitter is a private company whose best qualities can hopefully be replicated elsewhere, but Musk’s conduct as its biggest troll matters. To the extent that his stint as CEO reveals how much a disaffected billionaire can lose without caring—and how exuberantly he feels he can perform that carelessness—and how unafraid he is of any regulatory entity, including the FCC and even the EU, this is a chilling little military exercise demonstrating what billionaires can do. The results aren’t encouraging.

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In the dystopian novel I wish I’d read to prepare for this moment, Musk’s antics aren’t strategic moves in a battle for hearts and minds, because those are wars he no longer needs to bother fighting. This is all a game to him, and it’s one he’s already won. What his fans vote for matters as little as what his critics do; the Muskian assertion that polls are binding, which he makes often, is laced with real irony. And so we’re reduced to psychologizing the man and trying to figure out what he does care about—and what private incentives, if any, he responds to. Because those, in the end, are the ugly and unbalanced rules of power: The less a billionaire cares about anything, the more we have to care about him.

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