Elon Musk

Sam Pizzigati: Billionaires like Musk won't save the world

Will we be bar-hopping here soon?

Will we be bar-hopping here soon?

Via OtherWords.org

Will Mars save humanity? Or will our savior be billionaire Elon Musk?

Musk, the CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, humbly believes that we don’t have to choose. Mars will save us, he promises, and Musk himself will engineer this Mars miracle.

In 2019, Musk claims, SpaceX will start making short trips to Mars. By the early 2020s, his company will begin colonizing the Red Planet with a human population.

Why this feverish haste to set foot on interplanetary terra firma?

Musk sees a new “dark age” descending on our precious Earth. Another world war — or some environmental collapse — appears likely to threaten us with extinction, he fears.

Mars strikes Musk as our ideal refuge, the place where humankind will heroically regroup and eventually “bring human civilization back” to our mother planet.

And we can even have some fun in the process. The Mars colony that Musk envisions will have everything from iron foundries to “pizza joints and nightclubs.”

“Mars,” he quips, “should really have great bars.”

Reporters have become accustomed to this sort of visionary whimsy from Musk. The billionaire, In These Times says, has crafted his image as “a quirky and slightly off-kilter playboy genius inventor capable of conquering everything from outer space to the climate crisis with the sheer force of his imagination.”

This carefully cultivated image has proven extraordinarily lucrative.

Investors now value Tesla, his 15-year-old car company, at around $60 billion — not bad, note Wall Street watchdogs Pam and Russ Martens, for a firm that “lost almost $2 billion last year and has never delivered an annual profit to shareholders.”

But Musk remains supremely confident that his enterprise on Mars will take root and prosper. He’s betting a good chunk of his fortune on that.

Or rather, he’s betting a good chunk of taxpayers’ fortune.

Musk owes his billions, as commentator Kate Aronoff points out, to the billions in direct taxpayer subsidies his companies have received over the years — and the billions more in taxpayer-funded research into rocket technology and other high-tech fields of knowledge.

So Musk is essentially investing our billions in his own pet projects, everything from the Mars gambit to establishing a mass-market niche for high-tech flamethrowers.

None of this is going to rescue humanity anytime soon.

Indeed, if Musk really wanted to ensure humankind a sustainable future, he wouldn’t be plotting escapes to Mars or marketing flamethrowers to the masses. He’d be challenging the global economic status quo that’s left him phenomenally rich and our world phenomenally unequal.

This inequality may well pose the greatest threat to our well-being as a species. Stark economic divides invite armed confrontations.

Inequality and conflict, Norwegian scholars observed last year in a major report for the United Nations and the World Bank, remain “inextricably linked.” They found that “inequality influences the outbreak and dynamics of violent conflict,” going all the way back to the ancient Greeks.

In more recent years, researchers have made great strides in understanding the actual pathways in unequal societies that turn conflict violent. But huge gaps in the research are still frustrating our understanding.

What we do know: Hawking high-tech flamethrowers is never going to save humanity. Neither will bar-hopping on Mars.

Sam Pizzigati co-edits Inequality.org, where an earlier version of this appeared. His latest book ,The Case for a Maximum Wage, will be published this spring.




Llewellyn King: Why doesn't Musk get more respect?

Elon Musk stands inside a rocket that is awaiting assembly.     -- SpaceX photo

Elon Musk stands inside a rocket that is awaiting assembly. 

-- SpaceX photo

I present to you the strange case of Elon Musk. Whatever he does, his detractors, or at least his minimizers, seem to control the narrative.

When his Falcon Heavy rocket — the largest and most sophisticated flying today — blasted into space on Feb. 6, there should have been a national outpouring of unabated joy.

Yet it only briefly edged out the news coverage of the GOP memo, emanating from House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, (R-Calif.) and its Democratic counter-memo. The greatest show on earth had it all: a rocket you could watch ascending, shedding its reusable stages and flying away, whimsically, with a sports car for a payload.

It was a showcase of American technology and know-how. It was a clear statement that the individual can still triumph in the United States.

President Trump acknowledged the achievement, which was probably hard for him because he and Musk don’t see eye to eye on global warming or much else. Musk’s visions are wildly futuristic, like populating Mars, while Trump is a man firmly rooted in the glories of the United States as an industrial power tethered to past strengths. Also, awkwardly, Musk is an immigrant who might have been kept out under Trump’s policies.

But the general indifference and in some circles antipathy to Musk goes far beyond politics. We embraced Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg as tech heroes, the faces of the future. Musk less so or not at all; maybe because we have narrowed our view of what is exciting tech to the internet and its collaterals.

Although he made his first $500 selling a game program when he was 12, and his first billion as a founder of PayPal, Musk’s real claim to fame is as an engineer and physicist. His Tesla electric car may not survive as the industry leader, but today it is out front.

His rocket may not be the future of heavy-lift space vehicles, but it is the leader today: cheaper and with reusable stages. His SolarCity is not alone in seeking to convert idle roofs to electricity sources, but it is a big player. And Musk’s batteries, though disappointing at the outset, may yet make grid-free houses a reality.

Yet Musk’s detractors are legion and effective. I know quite a few and they range from an electric company chairman (who accused him of lying and denounced him to me in the most vociferous tones), to financial seers (who question the viability of any of his companies), to conservatives (who believe that he has misused government funds, and his “private” company owes everything to government support). The transportation industry, almost to a man, believes Musk’s plan for an underground, people-mover vacuum tube is nuts.

I, too, have been in the ranks of the detractors, at least in part. I sought to have him correct a whopper about nuclear versus solar power. He had his sums wrong by a factor of hundreds.

Yet you have to love Musk for thinking on a scale that hasn’t been seen for over half a century. He is a throwback to the great builder-engineers of the past: men who built the bridges, canals, dams and railroads, and electrified the United States.

As a nation, we used to be devoted to the big, the bold and the futuristic. Now, we’ve developed sophisticated ways of defeating big projects.

After the 1960s we lost our passion for the big idea and the big machine, from nuclear power plants to big civil engineering. The late, great Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-New York, lamented this lack of courage to go big on a project.

Westway — the highway for New York City’s West Side — was defeated partly to protect the striped bass in New York Harbor. Moynihan said, “There is a kind of stasis that is beginning to settle into our public life. We cannot reach decision.”

I don’t wish to live on Mars, I don’t want to be whisked in a tube from Washington to New York. I’m even undecided whether I want to ride in space — but try me.

I don’t know whether Musk will go broke, whether he’ll overreach or whether he’ll give the whole world a new frontier. But until (and if) a better dreamer comes along, I’m glad we have him reaching for the planets.

On Twitter: @llewellynking2

Llewellyn King (llewellynking1@gmail.com)  is executive producer and host of White House Chronicle, on PBS.

Llewellyn King: Elon Musk and the power of celebrity

Elon Musk and then President Obama  at the Falcon 9 launch site in 2010.

Elon Musk and then President Obama  at the Falcon 9 launch site in 2010.

Agents of change are not always welcome. Seldom, in fact. Take Elon Musk, unquestionably an agent of change and not universally celebrated by his peers.

The public loves Musk, who has promised them pollution-free solar power, electric cars, space travel and an underground, intercity transport system called “Hyperloop,” in which they will be whisked in vacuum tubes on magnetic cushions at more than 800 miles an hour. He has hired Boeing  to build the tunnels for the system.

More, Musk has attacked artificial intelligence and its use in weaponry as a threat to humanity. In this, he has fed into the general unease about artificial intelligence.

Recently, the chairman and chief executive officer of one of the largest electric-utility holding companies unloaded on me about Musk, accusing the inventor of being “dishonest,” “lying” and using fraudulent data in pushing SolarCity, his rooftop solar company. Also recently, a nuclear scientist with creative credentials denounced Musk to me as a showman, a media darling, a hoax and someone who had used too much government money, particularly at SpaceX, his reusable- rocket company.

The automobile industry wishes that Musk had stayed in his native South Africa rather than beginning a student odyssey, which saw him studying in Canada and at Stanford University before making his first fortune with PayPal.

It is true that Musk has used some debatable numbers. Three years ago, he told the Edison Electric Institute annual meeting that more electricity from solar panels could be generated from a nuclear power plant site than from the solar plant. That was a huge blooper: the equivalent of saying the economy of Liechtenstein is larger than that of the United States.

One expects people whose whole life is tied up in math, from rockets to electric cars, to get their sums right. Yet Musk glides on, like some blithe spirit, changing things as he goes. Changing them in fundamental ways.

And we should applaud his progress.

The arguments over Musk's creations end up as a battle between technological incrementalists and a disruptor. His critics are incrementalists, moving forward slowly and steadily.

Incremental change is the compound interest of technology. Look no further than today’s automobile to see how it has improved and changed incrementally over the years.

Then look to Musk and his Tesla: It is standing the automobile industry on its ear. So much so, The Economist magazine has heralded the death of the internal-combustion engine.

Change agents can be unsung heroes. James Watt was when he was creating the condenser that made steam power viable, and Bill Gates when he was helping to write the original Windows operating system, and Mark Zuckerberg when he was playing around with Facebook.

But by and large, hero inventors get the job done faster and with more ease. All the cited inventors found hero status later, but they might have gotten there faster with the public cheering them on — and loosening the financial strings — if they were known names with which to to begin.

Wall Street is cool to unsung inventors and cannot control itself when a name inventor goes to market. That is why Tesla has a larger market cap than General Motors, why Apple is the largest company in the world by some measures, and why Elon Musk and other celebrity inventors will shape our future faster and more dramatically than a lot of quiet evolvements.

Woe betide the technology-based industry that lacks a celebrity, a Pied Piper, to conquer the public imagination. Exhibit A might be the nuclear industry, which  has achieved incredible things in making clean electricity through high science, but languishes today. Its last hero was Adm. Hyman Rickover, in the 1950s.

The book on celebrity invention could be said to have been written by one of the greatest American inventors: Thomas Edison.

He knew the power of a headline. His rival Nikola Tesla, less so.

Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of White House Chronicle, on PBS. His e-mail is llewellynking1@gmail.com. This first appeared in Inside Sources..


Llewellyn King: Alternative energy threatens electric grid

On Feb. 3, 1960 in Cape Town, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan shook up what was still the British Empire in Africa by telling the Parliament of South Africa that “the wind of change is blowing through this continent.”

His remarks weren’t well received by those who that thought that it was premature, and that Britain would rule much of Africa for generations. The British ruling class in Africa – the established order — was shaken.

But Macmillan’s speech was, in fact, a tacit recognition of the inevitable. It was the signaling of a brave new world in which Britain would grant independence to countries from Nigeria to Botswana and Kenya to Malawi. Britain would not attempt to hold the Empire together. His speech was seminal, in that Britain had signaled that things would never ever be the same.

To me, the appearance of investor and entrepreneur Elon Musk at the Edison Electric Institute’s annual convention in New Orleans was a “wind of change” moment for the august electric utility. It was a signal that the industry was coming to terms, or trying to come to terms, with new forces that are challenging it as a business proposition in a way that it hasn’t been challenged in a history of more than 100 years.

But whereas Britain could swallow its pride and start a withdrawal from its former possessions, the electric industry faces quite a different challenge: How can it serve its customers and honor its compact with them when people like Musk, who is the non-executive chairman of the aggressive company SolarCity, and a passionate advocate of solar electricity, and Google are moving into the electric space?

At EEI’s annual convention, Musk didn’t tell his audience what he thought would happen to the utilities as their best customers opted to leave the grid, or to rely on it only in emergencies, while insisting that they should be allowed to sell their own excess generation back to the grid. Musk also didn’t venture an opinion on the future of the grid — and his interlocutor, Ted Craver, chairman and CEO of Rosemead, Calif.-based Edison International, didn’t press him.

Instead Musk talked glowingly about the electrification of transportation, implying — but not saying outright — that the electric pie would grow with new technologies like his Tesla Motors’ electric car.

The CEOs of EEI’s board were ready for the press by the time they held a briefing a day after Musk’s opening appearance. They spoke of “meeting the challenges as we have always met the challenges” and of “evolving” with the new realities. Gone from recent EEI annual meetings was CEO talk of their business model being “broken.”

The great dark cloud hanging over the industry is that of social justice. As the move to renewables becomes a flood, enthusiastically endorsed by such disparate groups as the Tea Party and environmentalists, the Christian right and morally superior homeowners, and companies like SolarCity and First Solar, the poor may have difficulty keeping their heads above water.

The grid, a lifeline of U.S. social cohesion, remains at threat. Utilities are jumping into the solar business, but they have yet to reveal how selling or leasing rooftop units — as the Southern Company is about to do in Georgia — is going to save the grid, or how the poor and city dwellers are going to be saved from having to pay more and more for the grid while suburban fat cats enjoy their sense that they’re saving the planet.

My sense is that in 10 years, things will look worse than they do today; that an ill wind of change will have reduced some utilities to the pitiful state of Amtrak — a transportation necessity that has gobbled up public money but hasn’t restored the glory days of rail travel.

People like myself — I live in an apartment building — have reason to fear the coming solar electric world, for we will be left out in the cold. The sun will not be shining on those of us who still need the grid. It needs to be defended.

Llewellyn King (lking@kingpublishing.com) is host of  White House Chronicle, on PBS, and a longtime publisher, editor, writer and international business consultant. This column was previously published in Public Utilities Fortnightly.

Llewellyn King: The case for American knighthoods

I may have a faded English accent, but I am a true blue American, and I have been for five decades. I do not think that everything that comes across the Atlantic from Britain ought to be adopted here.

I do not believe that there is any virtue in driving on the other side of the road. And I do not believe that every British television program is unassailably wonderful.

While I think that the House of Commons is a fabulous entertainment, but it is not necessarily the best way to govern the United Kingdom, particularly in this time of nationalist stress. I have lived in London, but I do not yearn to take up residence there again.

However, there is one feature of British life that I think would benefit the United States substantially: the introduction of an honors system to reward exemplary people in our society.

What titles we have in the United States are clung to. Former senators still call themselves senator; governors, governor; and ambassadors, ambassador. A few Ph.D.s persist in calling themselves Dr., and most people would like to have a title other than Mr., or Ms. in front of their name. Even firmly republican countries in Europe, like France and Italy, have clung to their aristocratic titles.

Well, we do not want an aristocracy here, but it would be grand if we could single out contributions to our well-being with a nifty title. Various eminent Americans have been awarded honorary titles, but they can not use them. What is the point of a title, if you can not call a restaurant and say, “Sir John Doe, here. I would like a table by the window.”

Here are some exceptional people who I would make honorary knights or dames:

Arise, Sir Brian Lamb, creator of C-SPAN and a massive contributor to television and the understanding of American politics.

Arise, Sir David Bell, a dedicated general practitioner, who treats victims of Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, in the northwest corner of New York state. Bell has tended indigent patients since the disease broke out in the village of Lyndonville, N.Y., in 1985.

Arise, Sir Joe Madison (The Black Eagle), activist and broadcaster, who has championed the cause of justice for African-Americans and has fought modern slavery in Africa.

Arise, Dame Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony, who is a visionary conductor and a great contributor to the public good through her promotion of American music and classical music, her mentorship to young musicians, and her founding of OrchKids, a music education program for inner city Baltimore children.

Much of the British system of honorary titles should be left in Britain. Twice every year, on the Queen’s Birthday and at New Year, a list of new honorees is published, and long-serving but unrecognized civil servants and military personnel hope to be on the list. The types of honors include: Knights and Dames, The Order of the Bath, Order of St. Michel and St. George, Order of the Companions Honor, and Orders of the British Empire.

Just in case you are getting confused, these honors do not include the ancient titles of duke, marquess, earl or lord. But the monarch does mint a title now an again, like Her Highness Duchess of Cambridge, conferred on Prince William’s wife, Kate.

No, you have to keep the honorary title simple: knight or dame, awarded for exemplary achievement or service. On my honors list I would include distinguished people in the arts and sciences, educators, entrepreneurs and inventors, humanitarians, retired politicians (provided  that they promise not to run for office again). I think we should have Sir Bob Dole, Lady Olympia Snowe, and, if she were alive today, Lady Barbara Jordan.

On my watch list for recognition are Warren Buffett, Elon Musk, Wynton Marsalis and Dean Kamen. If you would want to recognize someone in journalism, Sir Llewellyn King has a nice ring.

Llewellyn King (lking@kingpublishing.com) is a long-time editor, writer, publisher and international business consult. He is also exeeutive producer and host of White House Chronicle, on PBS.

Llewellyn King: Rooftop solar energy burns the poor

  Leon Trotsky said, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”  The same thing might be said about disruptive technologies.

The U.S. electric system, for example, may not be interested in disruptive technology, but disruptive technology is interested in it. What Uber and Lyft have done to the taxi industry worldwide is just beginning to happen to the electricity industry; and it could shock consumers – particularly the less affluent – as surely as though they had stuck their finger in an electrical outlet.

The disruptive revolution is not only happening here, but also in Europe, as Marc Boillot, senior vice president at Electricite de France (EDF), the giant French utility, writes in a new book.

Ironically in the United States, disruption of the otherwise peaceful world of electric generation and sale last year was a bumper one for electric stocks because of their tradition of paying dividends at a time when bond yields were low.

The first wave of disruption to electric generation has been a technology as benign as solar power units on rooftops, much favored by governments and environmentalists as a green source of electricity. For the utilities, these rooftop generators are a threat to the integrity of the electrical grid. To counter this, utilities would like to see the self-generators pay more for the upkeep of the grid and the convenience it affords them.

Think of the grid as a series of spider webs built around utility companies serving particular population centers, and joined to each other so they can share electricity, depending on need and price.

Enter the self-generating homeowner who by law is entitled to sell excess production back to the grid, or to buy on the grid when it is very cold or the sun isn't shining, as at night. The system of selling back to the electric company is known as net metering.

Good deal? Yes, for the homeowner who can afford to install a unit or lease one from one of a growing number of companies that provide that service. Lousy deal for the full-time electricity customer who rents or lives in an apartment building.

There’s the rub: Who pays the cost of maintaining the grid while the rooftop entrepreneur uses it at will? Short answer: everyone else.

In reality, the poor get socked. Take Avenue A with big houses at one end and apartments and tenements at the other. The big houses -- with their solar panels and owners' morally superior smiles -- are being subsidized by the apartments and tenements. They have to pay to keep the grid viable, while the free-standing house – it doesn’t have to be a mansion -- gets a subsidy.

It's a thorny issue, akin to the person who can't use Uber or Lyft because he or she doesn’t have a credit card or a smartphone, and has to hope that traditional taxi service will survive.

The electric utilities, from the behemoths to the smallest municipal distributor, see the solution in an equity fee for the self-generating customer's right to come on and off the grid, and for an appreciable difference between his selling and buying price. Solar proponents say, not fair: Solve your own problems. We are generating clean electricity and our presence is a national asset.

EDF's Boillot sees the solution in the utilities’ own technological leap forward: the so-called smart grid. This is the computerization of the grid so that it is more finely managed, waste is eliminated, and pricing structures for homes reflect the exact cost at the time of service. His advice was eagerly sought when he was in Washington recently, promoting his book.

While today’s solar may be a problem for the utilities, tomorrow’s may be more so. Homeowners who can afford it may be able to get off the grid altogether by using the battery in an all-electric car to tide them over during the sunless hours.

The industry is not taking this lying down: It is talking to the big solar firms, the regulators and, yes, to Elon Musk, founder of electric-car maker Tesla Motors. He may be the threat and he may be the savior; those all-electric cars will need a lot of charging, and stations for that are cropping up. There’s a ray of sunshine for the utilities, but it's quite a way off. Meanwhile, the rooftop disruption is here and now.

Llewellyn King (lking@kingpublishing.com), a longtime publisher, journalist and international business consultant, is executive producer of "White House Chronicle,'' on PBS.