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Newsletter | September 13, 2023

Elon Musk’s Private Interests Should Not Dictate Public Policy

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Elon Musk’s Private Interests Should Not Dictate Public Policy

This newsletter was originally published on our Substack. Read and subscribe here.

Last Saturday, in preparation for the release of his new biography, Walter Isaacson published an excerpt of “Elon Musk” in the Washington Post. The 2,000-word extract outlined the increasingly complicated role Musk has come to play in the war between Russia and Ukraine. 

By deciding to deploy SpaceX’s Starlink satellite technology, Musk became an essential part of the Ukrainian government’s wartime communication infrastructure. Musk’s actions—which came almost immediately after Russia’s invasion, were initially largely pro bono, and, as Isaacson notes, map onto his longtime obsession with being a superhero—initially garnered praise from Ukrainian soldiers, ministers, and even President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. However, Musk’s interference has recently come under much needed scrutiny with his supposed full-throated support waning with each passing day of war.  

This information is not necessarily new, as reporting at the time began to note holes in Musk’s cape. For example, in October 2022, outlets like the Financial Times reported that Ukrainian soldiers experienced disruptions to their Starlink connectivity when operating in certain Russian-held territories. Likewise, a CNN report during that same month revealed Musk’s intentions to discontinue satellite services altogether if the Pentagon didn’t start paying up “more than $120 million for the rest of the year and […] close to $400 million for the next 12 months.”

Those reports were both corroborated and expanded upon in Isaacson’s excerpt, which details Musk’s growing disinterest in being “in this war.” In a particularly illuminating few paragraphs, Isaacson describes how Musk refused to enable Starlink coverage in Crimea—ultimately thwarting a Ukrainian sneak attack:

“‘This could be a giant disaster,’ he texted. I went behind the bleachers to ask him what the problem was. He was in full Muskian crisis-hero-drama mode, this time understandably. A dangerous issue had arisen, and he believed there was ‘a non-trivial possibility,’ as he put it, that it could lead to a nuclear war — with Starlink partly responsible. The Ukrainian military was attempting a sneak attack on the Russian naval fleet based at Sevastopol in Crimea by sending six small drone submarines packed with explosives, and it was using Starlink to guide them to the target […] What the Ukrainians did not know was that Musk decided not to enable Starlink coverage of the Crimean coast. When the Ukrainian military learned that Starlink would not allow a successful attack, Musk got frantic calls and texts asking him to turn the coverage on. Fedorov, the deputy prime minister who had originally enlisted his help, secretly shared with him the details of how the drone subs were crucial to their fight for freedom. ‘We made the sea drones ourselves, they can destroy any cruiser or submarine,’ he texted using an encrypted app. ‘I did not share this information with anyone. I just want you — the person who is changing the world through technology — to know this.’” (It is important to note that the above passage reflects the Post’s post-publication corrections to Isaacson’s original characterization of events.) 

That passage caused enough backlash to warrant clarifications from both Musk and Isaacson, and has sparked speculation into the reason for Musk’s heel turn. Potential explanations have included:

While the true reason for Musk’s capricious behavior remains up for debate—and is likely a combination of the aforementioned factors—the damage this concentration of power has wrought is irrefutable. And regardless of the specific reality of the Crimea incident, Musk’s power is only increasing. Musk has neither the credentials, expertise, nor popular support to act on behalf of those directly implicated in the war, yet continues to do so simply by virtue of his wealth.

This dynamic is also reflected in the outsized influence Musk has over US domestic policy. Ronan Farrow’s recent piece in The New Yorker demonstrates how the businessman’s ventures in media, space exploration, and transportation have effectively granted him “shadow control” over government action: 

“In the past twenty years, against a backdrop of crumbling infrastructure and declining trust in institutions, Musk has sought out business opportunities in crucial areas where, after decades of privatization, the state has receded. The government is now reliant on him, but struggles to respond to his risk-taking, brinkmanship, and caprice. Current and former officials from NASA, the Department of Defense, the Department of Transportation, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration told me that Musk’s influence had become inescapable in their work, and several of them said that they now treat him like a sort of unelected official. One Pentagon spokesman said that he was keeping Musk apprised of my inquiries about his role in Ukraine and would grant an interview with an official about the matter only with Musk’s permission. ‘We’ll talk to you if Elon wants us to,’ he told me. In a podcast interview last year, Musk was asked whether he has more influence than the American government. He replied immediately, ‘In some ways.’ Reid Hoffman told me that Musk’s attitude is ‘like Louis XIV: ‘L’état, c’est moi.’ ”

A byproduct of Musk’s increased authority over governance is the adoption of the “move fast, break things” attitude that has come to define Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. Farrow’s piece details a particular instance where Musk blatantly ignored F.A.A. dictates in order to test launch one of his SpaceX rockets:

“Staff at SpaceX’s Starship facility, in Boca Chica, Texas, spent December of 2020 preparing for the launch of a rocket known as SN8, then the newest prototype in the company’s Starship program […] The F.A.A. had approved an initial launch date for the rocket. But an engine issue forced SpaceX to delay by a day. By then, the weather had shifted. On the new day, the F.A.A. told SpaceX that, according to its model of the wind’s speed and direction, if the rocket exploded it could create a blast wave that risked damaging the windows of nearby houses. A series of tense meetings followed, with SpaceX presenting its own modelling to establish that the launch was safe, and the F.A.A. refusing to grant permission […] Musk was on site in Boca Chica when SpaceX launched anyway. The rocket achieved liftoff and successfully performed several maneuvers intended to rehearse those of an eventual manned Starship. But, on landing, the SN8 came in too fast, and exploded on impact. (No windows were damaged.) The next day, Musk visited the crash site […] His tweets about the explosion were celebratory, not apologetic.”

Yet, despite such brazen behavior, Musk’s influence over government policy doesn’t seem to be diminishing anytime soon. In fact, Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer (NY) is hosting Musk (and other tech billionaires) for a closed-door meeting on artificial intelligence. Given the disinterest our elected officials have in removing Musk and his ilk from decision making opportunities, the least they could do is ensure the establishment of proper oversight mechanisms. Thankfully, Elizabeth Warren has been spearheading efforts to do this very work—but she needs more support.

And, yeah—there’s a reason why we at RDP spend an enormous amount of time and energy on anti-monopoly issues. The very existence of several ultra powerful corporate titans is at odds with democracy and thus a truly free country. America needs not only renewed antitrust enforcement, but a rethinking of the broken intellectual property system that mints ever richer billionaires even as Americans die earlier and earlier after living lives in an angry country driven apart by economic inequality. While Musk may think he has Mars as a backup plan, the rest of us have only this planet to live on and cannot afford to live at the whims of egoists like Musk.

Follow the Revolving Door Project’s work on whatever platform works for you! You can find us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Mastodon, and Post

Want more? Check out some of the pieces that we have published or contributed research or thoughts to in the last week:

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The Revolving Door Threatens the Integrity of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

PHOTO CREDIT: “Elon Musk” by dmoberhaus is marked with CC BY 2.0.

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