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Elon Musk, Gordon Gekko, and the Power of Character

FILE- In this Sept. 17, 2018, file photo Tesla CEO and SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk speaks after announcing Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa as the first private passenger on a trip around the moon in Hawthorne, Calif. Tesla Inc. reports earnings on Wednesday, Oct. 24. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson, File)

“I’m talking about liquid. Rich enough to have your own jet. Rich enough not to waste time. Fifty, a hundred million dollars, buddy. A player. Or nothing.” —Gordon Gekko, Wall Street

It’s said that character is what you do when no one is watching, but sometimes it’s what you do when the entire world is watching.

Gordon Gekko, quoted above, was one of Hollywood’s most memorable villains in the ’80s because he had an absolute lack of character yet possessed a keen moral sense. It might seem oxymoronic for a con and a thief to be able to see in black and white so clearly, but that was exactly his gift. In fact, it was Gekko’s ability to see the corruption on Wall Street that allowed him to exploit it so effectively.

Elon Musk — and despite his flaws I must confess to indulging in some hero worship in recent days — is a dreamer who seems to have developed strong character during the ongoing Wuhan virus shutdown.

There are a few things you need to know about Musk, aside from the fact that he’s one of the richest people in the world.

One thing you need to know is that Musk wants to save the planet. You might argue that the planet doesn’t need saving, and I’d agree. Nevertheless, Musk does believe the planet needs saving, and founded Tesla Motors to help do just that. While I don’t support government subsidies for anything, electric vehicle (EV) tax incentives were there for anyone to take advantage of, but it was Musk’s Tesla EVs that became virtually synonymous with an entirely new industry. Tesla’s rise has been fascinating to watch, too. The company has been in a race with long odds: Could Tesla scale up from a boutique maker of luxury EVs to a mass-market manufacturer faster than the existing mass automakers could master the art of making EVs? With the success of the mass-market Model 3 (rhymes with “Model T”), Musk seems to be winning.

Another thing you need to know is that Musk wants humans to colonize Mars, and that he’s ambitious enough to try to do just that all on his own. Answerable to no shareholders, Musk’s privately-held SpaceX reinvented the space-launch industry from the ground up. Or perhaps I should say “from the sky down,” since his rockets were the first commercially-available launch vehicles that could land safely back on Earth and be reused again and again. Musk invented the reusable rocket — and risked his own fortune — so that he might build a thousand or more of them in order to establish and maintain a major human colony on Mars. Is it crazy for one man to try and colonize a hostile world millions of miles away? Probably. But it’s going to be inspiring as all hell to see him try.

Frustrated by mass transit “solutions” based largely on 19th-century technology, Musk invented the Hyperloop to whisk people around in sealed, low-pressure tubes across continents at hypersonic speeds — and gave the concept away to the world for free. Stuck in traffic on another day, Musk imagined boring roadway tunnels underneath our cities to relieve the congestion. Not long after, he founded The Boring Company. Musk calls it a personal hobby, but Boring already has projects in the works for Chicago, Los Angeles, and the DC-Baltimore region.

It takes a set of brass ones to try to make dreams that big into reality, and it takes real character — whatever Musk’s very real flaws might be — not to become another Gordon Gekko once the money starts coming in.

My favorite Gekko quote — and Oliver Stone’s Wall Street screenplay is full of great ones — is the one quoted at the top of this column. Gekko was explaining the ways of the world to his young student-of-evil, Bud Fox. Players — people with fifty or a hundred million in cash — can’t be pushed around. They never have to wait in line. No one can tell them what to do. It’s called “F-U money” because once you have that much, you can say F-U to anyone, anytime, anywhere.

Granted, the price of being a player has gone up since Wall Street came out in 1987. Tom Steyer was once worth a little north of a billion dollars, and spent a significant chunk of it — around $300 million, it’s said — trying to buy the Democratic presidential nomination. But it was Democratic primary voters who said F-U to Steyer. Mike Bloomberg? Same story, bigger numbers.

Whatever the current figure is for F-U money, Musk has it. Or maybe it’s character, of which he has an overabundance. What I do know for sure is that it took Elon Musk saying “Message received” to the overbearing California lawmaker who tried to say F-U to Elon Musk. As I’m sure you’ve read by now, San Diego-based assemblycritter Lorena Gonzalez tweeted “F*** Elon Musk” after he announced Tesla’s HQ and future projects would be moving to Nevada and Texas, due primarily to California’s heavy-handed and seemingly neverending coronavirus lockdown. Even richer was this moment of glory on Monday:

Half a million Likes for a tweet about defying petty authority while standing up for his employees. Alameda County effectively surrendered on Tuesday, announcing that “the factory can reopen if Tesla adopts safety recommendations in addition to a new plan the company submitted on Monday” while tacitly “allowing” Musk to go ahead regardless. They didn’t dare arrest him on Monday, and Tuesday’s announcement was the smallest of fig leaves over a complete capitulation.

What Musk did? That’s leadership. That’s character. That’s the guts to protect your dreams — not to mention your employees’ livelihoods — from unaccountable political hacks with an agenda.

Musk also sent this email to his people at Tesla:

Just wanted to send you a note of appreciation for working hard to make Tesla successful. It is so cool seeing the factory come back to life and you are making it happen!!

An honest day’s work spent building products or providing services of use to others is extremely honorable. I have vastly more respect for someone who takes pride in doing a good job, whatever the profession, than some rich or famous person who does nothing useful.

Gratefully yours,

Elon.

Indeed.

Gordon Gekko saw the corruption in the world around him, and instead of building something better, he chose to exploit it. Musk stood up to California’s corruptocrats, and they folded almost at once.

Musk’s example will inspire countless others — smaller fry who don’t have anything like F-U money — to stand up to the little tyrants taking advantage during this pandemic. I know this because I’m one of them, and I hope you are, too.