A week ago, City Journal published “Crazy Like a Visionary,” a review essay I had written about Ashlee Vance’s new biography of Elon Musk, the man behind Tesla Motors, SpaceX, SolarCity, and sundry other starry-eyed, high-tech enterprises.
As I explained in the essay, my interest in “Green energy” and interplanetary space travel is minimal at best — or, to be more accurate, I am indifferent to space travel. I like it here on terra firma, thanks very much, and I am positively hostile to the Green Lobby, which is full of cynical opportunists like Al Gore, who have greatly enriched themselves by pandering to liberal smugness, and fraudulent mountebanks like Michael Mann whose preposterous “hockey stick” graph sums up in a single mendacious image so much that is wrong with global warming climate change hysteria.
“Environmentalism,” the philosopher Harvey Mansfield observed more than twenty years ago, “is school prayer for liberals.” It seemed almost funny then, when the eco-nuts were but a fringe phenomenon. Now that they’re making government policy on a national scale (the war on coal, e.g.), the humor has palled. The word “sustainable” has been transformed from a reliable emetic into a weapon in the war against prosperity.
When it comes to energy, in short, my own view was summed up by the Manhattan Institute’s Robert Bryce: what the world needs now is cheap, abundant energy, period, full stop, end of discussion.
It follows that I am an enthusiastic proponent of fracking — frack early, frack often is my motto — for the simple reason that I think you want to have as much energy as possible as cheaply as possible. The recent collapse of oil prices — the other day oil was trading at under $40 a barrel — has made fracking less economically attractive, but I expect that is a temporary condition.
I mention these disclaimers because the burden of my essay was to celebrate the achievements of Elon Musk, the “visionary” of my title. This turned out to be too much for some of my readers.
“Musk’s greatest success is as a tax-farmer,” fumed one commentator, “a fact glaringly overlooked by his hagiographers. And the Mars fetish is on a par with the mad religiosity of Jim Jones.” “Musk is a free lunching huckster,” concluded another serious thinker. “Kimball is a dolt.”
I’ll leave that last comment — along with the witty “What a ghastly prose style!” — to one side. But I think it is worth pausing over the criticisms of Musk and the issue of government subsidies.
I’ll be brief about Musk himself. The chap Ashlee Vance portrays is a fascinating specimen: driven, talented, personally difficult and professionally demanding. Like Steve Jobs, with whom he is often compared, he is a perfectionist who can’t countenance anything less than total commitment and stellar performance. Some knowledgeable observers agree with another CJ commenter that Musk is “just another fraud.” No evidence was adduced for that judgment in the comment, but it is perhaps worth noting that the animus it expresses finds echoes elsewhere. In a personal communication, a friend who is a successful investor noted in response to my piece that he had shorted Tesla and SolarCity and opined:
The Tesla bubble rivals the dot com excesses. Green technology + scam accounting + crony capitalism + dishonest CEO = Tesla.
I agree that that tabulation spells disaster. But does Tesla belong on the right side of the equals sign? I am going to leave the charges of “scam accounting” and dishonesty to one side because I have no way of adjudicating the charges. But in a larger sense, I think we can say that the proof will be in the pudding, which is still on the boil. Maybe it’s all an elaborate Wizard of Oz fabrication and Elon Musk is but a cackling jokester manipulating a congeries of shiny baubles. Maybe.
At the end of my piece, I quoted the investor Peter Thiel, an old rival of Musk’s at PayPal, which they collaborated on in the early 2000s:
We had a blanket rule against investing in clean-tech companies for about a decade. … On the macro level, we were right because clean-tech as a sector was quite bad. But on a micro level, it looks like Elon has the two most successful clean-tech companies in the U.S. … [Y]ou have to ask whether his success is an indictment of the rest of us who have been working on much more incremental things. To the extent that the world still doubts Elon, I think it’s a reflection on the insanity of the world and not on the supposed insanity of Elon.
Of course, Thiel might be wrong. To make a decision about that, we would need to have some agreed upon metric of success and a timeframe within which it would have to be accomplished. There is no doubt that Tesla is a risky venture. But that’s what capitalists do: they take risks. Sometimes they pay off. Often they don’t. Time, the ever eloquent, will eventually tell.
“But capitalists should not indulge their risky ventures with government, i.e., with my money!” That’s the more general criticism about Musk and Tesla. In the course of my essay, I quoted a recent Los Angeles Times article that claims Musk’s businesses have received some $4.9 billion in government subsidies. “Musk and his companies’ investors,” the article concluded, “enjoy most of the financial upside of the government support, while taxpayers shoulder the cost.”