How do we stop Elon Musk from becoming a supervillain? It’s pretty simple

We shouldn’t be seeking to destroy this clever, savvy entrepreneur — but we should be serious about what his latest ventures actually mean

Sid Mohasseb
California
Wednesday 26 January 2022 17:46
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Much like a Bond villain, the world’s richest man can manipulate entire markets with a single tweet. His latest venture could provide the globe with internet access through his Starlink program. If successful, this will make him the single most influential private citizen on earth.

No one man or company should carry such an unprecedented burden of responsibility. However, instead of taxing or regulating Musk to oblivion, it’s time we provided him some real competition. That’s why it’s time for Elon’s rivals to receive the same subsidies that enabled Tesla and SpaceX to dominate in the first place.

Many paint Elon Musk as a technological savior. Yet this fabulously wealthy, eccentric visionary is increasingly resembling the archetypal supervillain, with the power to program minds and travel through space. Musk’s hope for his Neuralink venture is to start implanting microchips in human brains by 2022 to record and stimulate brain activities. His SpaceX venture has provided him the ability to conquer space and even destroy asteroids approaching Earth. Starlink internet service has thus far been available via fiber or high-orbit satellite service. Now, Starlink is in the early stages of deploying what it hopes will be a new era of internet provision.

The desire for global internet coverage is certainly noble. If successful, Starlink could provide access to global conversation for those 3.7 billion people who live without the internet. Such an ambition could be a great economic leveler, especially as one gigabit of data in sub-Saharan Africa costs 40 percent of the average monthly wage.

Given Musk’s track record, Starlink may well become the world’s primary internet provider. However, we could have a serious problem on our hands if and when it fails us. It is simply far too large a gamble to leave the entire world’s communications in the hands of one company, run by one man.

If, or more likely when, Elon Musk achieves his goals, he may certainly be considered a hero. Yet we must remember: everyone starts with the best of intentions. Even Darth Vader wanted to save his family, and the Joker wanted to make the world smile. Musk’s intentions are as praiseworthy as they are high-minded, yet the outcome of his activities may not be so rosy. In short, it’s a case of putting all our eggs in one man’s precarious basket. As the 19th-century British politician Lord Acton famously observed, “absolute power corrupts absolutely”. We should not let our admiration for one man or our greed in riding on his coattails in the market cloud our judgment.

Yet, the impulse to tear Elon Musk limb from limb in an anti-trust crusade is misguided. Like any good capitalist, Musk deserves the capital he accumulates. In many ways, he has made our world a better place, with technological and environmental innovations from Paypal to Tesla. He is the Thomas Edison and the Henry Ford of his generation, and we need more people like him. Instead of destroying Musk, then, we should be nurturing his contemporaries.

Comfort breeds complacency, and there is no place for that in business. In 1870, John D. Rockefeller established Standard Oil Co. Its profits and generous dividends encouraged investors to invest in and support this monopolistic firm.

Eventually, the firm was broken up in 1906 under the Sherman Anti-trust Act. Before then, the government did not truly realize that while a monopoly could deliver a low-cost service to a broad consumer base, the dangers of overwhelming, concentrated power undercut the longer, sustainable value of competition. The same logic, in 1982, lead to Ronald Reagan’s push to break up AT&T, knowing that the lack of competition in a critical infrastructure leaves the country exposed to centralized failings.

Fundamentally, Musk should not be able to monopolize internet access, our space discovery initiatives or the ability to control minds. The way to prevent him from doing this is by subsidizing those companies who are looking to compete with Starlink in low-orbit internet connection. It is to double down on startups who need funding to innovate in the AI and neurosciences field. It is to help others build and operate distributed Electric Vehicle (EV) stations.

Now more than ever, we should support true capitalism and broad-based entrepreneurship. Musk himself has made good use of government subsidies, having received more than $2 billion in government subsidies for Tesla and more recently $886 million for SpaceX. In fact, Musk himself welcomes competition by shunning patents and making his code open-source. He is loudly asking for more competition, and that’s exactly what we should give him.

Instead of pulling down a good leader, we must empower other leaders to rise up. With great power comes great responsibility, and no one person should be entrusted with too much of either. After all, it’s better for humanity if Bond villains remain entirely fictional.

Sid Mohasseb is Adjunct Professor in Dynamic Data-Driven Strategy at the University of Southern California and is a former National Strategic Innovation Leader for Strategy at KPMG. He is the author of ‘The Caterpillar’s Edge’ (2017) and ‘You are Not Them’ (2021)

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