What Is Elon Musk Thinking?

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S1: Maybe it’s because of quarantine or maybe it’s just my own tendencies. But I’ve spent way too much time on Twitter lately, which in my world means it’s been hard to ignore. Elan Musk in between tweets about his company’s Tesla and Space X, you get tweets like cancel, cancel culture. And Minecraft has amazing legs or more significantly on May 11th, saying he’d be defying the public health order that had closed one of his factories in California. He tweeted, Tesla is restarting production today against Alameda County rules.

S2: Sometimes he’s just playing with people. Other times he means it. You know, he uses it as a performance site that I think is that is what he’s doing.

S1: That’s Kara Swisher, the dean of tech journalists. She started Recode posts the Pivot podcast, and she’s covered Elon Musk for a long time. And Kara does not suffer fools. Well, yeah. I was going to ask you this past weekend, he tweeted, take the red pill, which never. Take the red pill is a line from the Matrix. It means basically wake up and see the truth. Yes. It’s a line from a movie, but it’s also become popular with the. All right.

S2: All right. Has grabbed it. But before that, a lot of techies like that line, too. But I think he fully knows the all the implications. I think a lot of people get angry because he knows the implications and he still makes a joke anyway.

S1: The thing about Elon Musk’s tweeting now is that it’s part joke, part performance art and part defiance of public health guidelines, and it has real stakes for his companies and their workers. I asked Kara to help me understand what is going on in his brain.

S2: Let’s separate that many elements, like let’s talk about the many Ilan’s there are. There is the entrepreneur and the risk taker and the creator of things and teslik. No matter what you feel about Elon Musk, that car is amazing. It’s an amazing cars, an amazing accomplishment. He’s moved the status of the car industry into electric vehicles. I think all on his own. And they have followed him. And so in that way, it’s really quite an accomplishment. Then there’s the other eLong, eLong, the bad boy, which he likes to play to, you know, with his sort of loud dating, his loud tweeting, his and everything else. And that’s part and parcel to his real focus, which is he’s almost, I’ve said his word, religious about wanting to get these cars and saving the planet from climate change. He really believes he does. And that sounds grandiose, but he really does believe that we’re in a in an existential crisis around climate change. It’s one of his interests in Mars. So there’s lots of levels of depth to this guy. And at the same time, there’s lots of levels of superficiality that’s almost like indulgent and juvenile. And so you have to sort of it’s hard to mesh the two things.

S3: Today on the show with Kara as our guide. That’s what we’re gonna try to do. Figure out what makes this guy so willing to be provocative online and to play chicken with public health authorities in the middle of a pandemic. And what that says about the tech industry is unchecked power. I’m Lizzie O’Leary, and you’re listening to What Next, TBD, a show about technology, power, how the future will be determined. Stay with us.

S1: Tesla has this factory in Fremont, California. It’s Alameda County, which had a shelter in place order in March. Yep, like a lot of the Bay Area. And and, you know, the Bay Area has won praise for shutting down and saving lives. Yeah. How would you describe. Musk’s attitude toward all of that.

S4: Well, look, this is hurting his business, right? And and he initially when they initially put those in place, he was defying the orders. If you remember, on that list of closures is Tesla. Bloomberg reporting that Elon Musk is keeping the Fremont factory open. And Musk wrote in an email, I will personally be at work, but that’s just me.

S1: He said this resistance to closing isn’t exactly surprising. Earlier in the month, Musk tweeted, The Corona virus panic is dumb. He argued that the death rate was overstated and said he believed the danger of overreaction exceeded the danger of the virus. But after keeping the Fremont plant open for a few more days, Musk eventually announced plans to suspend production and his march turned to April. He seemed to shift his focus to helping with the virus response. He wanted to make ventilator’s pandemic. Elon Musk tweeting that we have extra FDA approved ventilators. If you remember, he offered over Twitter to send some to Mayor Bill de Blasio in New York.

S4: eLong knows how to grab a good headline, doesn’t he? He’s just done it again. Yes, he does.

S1: But then as the weeks went on, Musk’s frustration with the original Fremont plant closure started to show in early May. California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, announced that cell manufacturing would be allowed to start back up. But Alameda County, where Tesla’s plant is, was more cautious. The county wanted to see a detailed safety plan from the company before they signed off on reopening. And Elon Musk being given Musk got confrontational. You know, this all comes to a head on May 8th when Governor Newsome says, all right, fine, some factories can reopen. But the county officials say, Tesla, we want you to wait. And Musk tweets about it. Tesla files a lawsuit against the county. Why go to that point?

S2: They were in his way. They were in his way. And nobody gets in his way. I guess, you know, I mean, like and unlike others, I think Jeff Bezos does it in a different way. He doesn’t say it out loud, but he’s pulling the strings behind the scenes. Right. So even in some ways are sort of being very transparent about his use of force, in this case, his Twitter force. It’s the public opinion is the bully pulpit.

S1: You’ve interviewed him before. You’ve covered him for a long time. I guess I’m hoping you can help me understand for people who are not kind of immersed in trying to figure him out. What’s he thinking when he does that?

S2: I think he’s very passionate. I don’t know what else to say. He’s a very passionate person. And so he gets easily tweaked. He gets easily irritated. He he’s really religious is the only way I can think of. He’s religious about what he’s doing. Whether it’s space or whether it’s cars or climate change or whatever. He reminds me a lot and I don’t mean this as an insult. I mean, it’s a compliment to Howard Hughes. If you look back in history, how did you even though he ended up in the hotel room by himself with a long nails, which was tragic because he had some very serious mental illness. He changed the aviation industry like he was an amazing entrepreneur and visionary thinker that never really got his due because of the end. Right. Because everyone tended to focus on that. But Howard Hughes was a really important figure in aviation and moving the aviation interesting forward. And also Hollywood. He had a lot of really varied interests, very substantive entrepreneur. And he reminds me of him, you know, I mean, that we have these entrepreneurs like this in our history, that we forget that a lot of entrepreneurs have a religious element to their personality. They have to do it. They have to be there. They have to push.

S1: I’m just thinking about his public behavior over the last few years. I’m looking actually the list that you wrote, bankruptcy jokes about the health of his companies. He’s attacked journalists. He baited short sellers. He called a diver in the tie cameras. I said with a Speedo. Yeah. Is there a method to all this? Is there is there kind of like does he get something from this or is he unable to stop himself?

S2: I think he can’t stop himself. He’s talked about it in interview with the last interview I did with him on the record. I’ve seen him since. Was he talked about that?

S5: No. I mean, there’s no question there’s like self-inflicted wounds. In fact, my brother said, like, look, if you if you do a self-inflicted wound, can you please not twist the knife afterwards?

S2: But he’s emotional and he lets you see it. And I think you’re not used to that.

S5: It’s not intentional. No. Well, yeah. Yeah, it’s. You know, when I was your son. A lot of pressure. And you’re not getting much sleep. You’re under massive pressure. And you make mistakes.

S1: As this battle between mosque and Alameda County is played out in public, it’s been predictably politicized. President Trump tweeted his support for reopening the Fremont plant and on a phone call with investors, must called the shelter in place order fascist. And that won him support from people who oppose the lockdown’s. All of this is obviously become a political issue. You have Trump tweeting about it. You have watched them both very carefully. Is Musk courting the president and his supporters? Or is he just being kind of trolly?

S2: No, I just think he’s being eLong. I don’t think he’s courting him. I think he is. He’s expressed disdain. He’s expressed some support. I think it’s complex for him. Where I fall is that this country’s in such a heightened emotional partisan situation. Leaders like that should be very careful about what dog whistles are blowing.

S1: Well, that makes me wonder from a very calculating position. Is there a business risk to all of this if you look at a Tesla customer? They have been left leaning, environmentally conscious, wealthy people. Are they going to be put off by all of this?

S2: Well, he’s done this before, right? It just hasn’t been during a pandemic. You know, the stakes are higher. Yeah, the stakes are high. I think a lot of people are asking like it, like my brother is a good example. He’s sort of center left leaning left in the San Francisco Bay. He’s a doctor. He’s been in the middle of this pandemic. He loves his Tesla, you know, and I think he’s able to separate it from Elon. I think he thinks Ilan’s kind of a jerk. But, you know, some of the products you buy today are made by truly awful people and you don’t think about it. Right. It’s just that the product is so affiliated with him.

S1: When all of this was coming to a head in early May. Elan threatened to take the factory to Nevada or to Texas and California seemed to move pretty quickly to give him what he wanted. All right. Why?

S2: Well, it was headed that way anyway. They were going to figure out a way to settle it. So, you know, I mean, they don’t want him to leave. That’s 10000 good jobs in California. And California’s a more difficult place to operate in these other places. They tend to fall over backwards in other states compared to California. It’s easy for us to say if someone’s threatening you to take away 10000 jobs, you should just tell them to go. Go. Don’t let don’t let the door hit you on the way out. I don’t think that’s really what a public official can do from a taxpayers point of view.

S1: There are about 11000 people who work in this facility in Fremont. Do we know what they think about all of this?

S2: Well, I think like any workplace, there’s varying opinions, right? Some people really like and feel what they’re making is a real, really important for the planet. Other people are like, what the heck? He’s putting me in harm’s way.

S1: Last week after the lawsuit. The tweet from the president and the national news coverage. Alameda County approved Tesla’s safety plan for reopening Tesla, then dropped the lawsuit. Now the Fremont plant is fully open for production again. Right now, this all seems to be sort of breaking. Elon Musk’s way. It’s it’s a, you know, a victory for him if you want to be reductive. I wonder if you think there are consequences when certainly as these things play out publicly, tech companies tend to triumph over government. Yes, they are.

S2: The beginning of this pandemic, as I said, one of the things going to happen is these tech companies are even more powerful than ever. There’s not going to be a reluctance to regulate them. There’s going to be a reluctance to antagonize them because they’ve been so helpful during the pandemic. But in general, you know, Silicon Valley has been a industry without consequence. You know, Wall Street was slapped back during a lot of these financial crises, although they’re as powerful as ever. You know, chemical companies, cigarette companies, all the powerful companies in this country have eventually, once they’ve sort of abused their position, it’s been slapped back. Tech is not, tech is not, and has yet to be regulated in any significant way. Other parts of the world more so here. Not at all. And so the question is, if you live a life of extreme wealth, Midas like fortunes, like no one’s been this rich is rich on the planet and there’s no consequences. Why would you change your behavior until you’re made to? And then who is going to make you? Trump is doing nothing about this, but the Obama administration had plenty of time to regulate these companies and didn’t do so as they were growing in power. And so if you’re worth or your market cap is bigger than most of the countries on this planet, they’re nation states and their nation states without accountability, run by sometimes man voice. Right. Who have no accountability and has have full power.

S1: Well, that makes me wonder. You know, we’re seeing Ilan do his own thing. Our Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, etc.. Going to. Sort of faint that they’re listening to the government in this moment or not Iran.

S2: Eli doesn’t pretend like I appreciate that about him. You know what I mean? He he’s just like. This is what he thinks. The others are much more deft at using lobbying and. Oh, we’re so sorry. We’re here to help. Especially Facebook, which is using this moment for redemption. Right. It looks like they’re doing a pretty good job around anti back stuff and. And health care. Well, you know what? That’s the lowest bar of all time. And by the way, it shows I just interviewed Ambassador Samantha Power and she said something that I thought was really interesting from the Obama administration. She was like the fact that Facebook has been able to do all this good work on Antibalas and add health care information during the pandemic is proof of concept that they can, they can and they just don’t because they’ve decided they political speeches. I mean, they shouldn’t touch. But o health speech, they should. Again, these are governing bodies that are doing things that affect humanity without any accountability. And if you look, if that doesn’t bother you and you think they’re making good decisions. OK. But it seems to me that human history is littered with unfettered power that eventually leads to corruption.

S1: Well, I guess I come away from all of this wondering when down the road we evaluate this episode in the history of Elon Musk, Tesla, Space X, whatever. Is it defining or is it swept away?

S2: Because other than I tend to think Eli Musk is the least of our problems among tech companies, I would look very hard at companies like Google and Facebook, which have real impact across advertising, across discourse or stuff you don’t see. Eli, do you see coming like you do? You just see him coming, right? Like he wants to open his factory, build his cars. Like I’m going to yell until I get to do it. OK. And so it worked. And it does give him the message that if you yell loud enough, you’ll get what you want. But that’s been the lesson of all these tech companies lives. If you either yell loud enough for you. Lobbying hard enough quietly behind the scenes, what’s the difference?

S6: Kara Swisher, thank you very much. Thank you so much. Kara Swisher is the co-host of the Pivot podcast. All right. That’s the show. What next? TBD is produced by Ethan Brooks and hosted by me, Lizzie O’Leary. And it’s part of a larger what next family. TBD is also part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University and New America. And if you missed it earlier this week, I hope you’ll go back and check out Tuesdays episode of What Next? Mary talked to reporter Robinson Maya about Cauvin testing data, what it means and where to get accurate information. What next will be off on Monday for Memorial Day. So Mary will be back on your feet on Tuesday.