Commentary

We need fewer Elon Musks if we want to reshape capitalism & save the Earth

SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk at the SpaceX Falcon Heavy Flight 1 post launch press conference on February 6, 2018
SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk at the SpaceX Falcon Heavy Flight 1 post launch press conference on February 6, 2018Photo: Daniel Oberhaus/Wikimedia Commons

In his New York Times editorial commentary, published on November 16 and entitled, “Want to Save the Earth? We Need a Lot More Elon Musks,” reporter and opinions columnist Thomas Friedman argues that capitalist entrepreneurs, who connect with valid and reliable scientific methodologies and research, can solve the problems of climate change plaguing our planet.

While he values grassroots activists and acknowledges that “we need a few more Greta Thunbergs,” Friedman contends that we also need “a lot more Elon Musks” to do so. Evidence of Musk’s commitment to environmentally harmful business practices and wealth hoarding, though, show otherwise.

Related: Billionaire Richard Branson’s space flight was expensive. You paid the cost & didn’t know it.

Friedman acknowledges that the capitalist system has previously contributed to the problem, as government have granted large subsides to petroleum companies to extract toxic chemicals from the ground, which has resulted in the human-made global crisis that jeopardizes all life on the planet.

He, therefore, promotes the prospect that if “we can begin to reshape capitalism” itself to halt and potentially reverse the Earth’s environment and climate to a more natural state by what Friedman refers to as “the best of American capitalism.”

“We will get there only when Father Profit and risk-taking entrepreneurs produce transformative technologies that enable ordinary people to have extraordinary impacts on our climate without sacrificing much — by just being good consumers of these new technologies,” Friedman wrote.

He continued: “We need to re-energize our innovation ecosystem to where government funds basic research that pushes the boundaries of physics, chemistry and biology and then combines that innovation with immigration policies that amass the world’s best pools of engineering talent and then unleashes that talent — propelled by risk-takers — to invent new clean technologies to slow global warming at the warp speed and scale we need.”

While this is all well and good, Friedman’s “reshap[ing of] capitalism” does not go deep enough and far enough. He fails to interrogate the massive wealth inequality that accrues enormous benefits to the mega corporations and the few multi-billionaires like Elon Musk. This system inhibits the entry of the talented who lack financial resources from engaging in this risk-taking entrepreneurship.

While the economy has done extremely well for the super-rich lately, household incomes have hardly grown or have grown only modestly for the majority of residents of the U.S. this century. There are numerous reasons as to why: massive technological changes that have rendered human labor obsolete, the decline of labor unions, the eroding value of the minimum wage, and globalization, which often diverts jobs overseas.

Regarding the top 5% of wage earners, their incomes have jumped over the same period. The Pew Research Center found that “Upper-income families were the only income tier able to build on their wealth from 2001 to 2016, adding 33% at the median. On the other hand, middle-income families saw their median net worth shrink by 20% and lower-income families experienced a loss of 45%.”

In the United States, the top 1% of the population has accumulated an estimated 34.6% of the wealth. The next 9% of the top earners accumulated an estimated 38.5%, while the remaining 90% of the nation accounted for a combined accumulation of only 26.9%.

The top financial rewards went only to 400 people, increasing wealthy earners’ combined income in 2020 during the pandemic to $3.2 trillion dollars, an increase of $240 billion from 2019.  These same 400 people accumulated more wealth than the lower 50% of the American population combined.

Some families have the privilege of purchasing two, or three, or four, or five, or even six homes — that they occasionally visit depending on their current mood, like the rest of us choose which pair of underwear to wear for the day. Meanwhile, many of our people, including youth, go homeless.

Let’s dive into Musk and his business practices, since Friedman specifically singled him out. Take this into consideration, as reported by ProPublica: “Musk, who had an actual taxable income of $1.52 billion during the five-year period, paid no federal income taxes in 2018.”

We can evaluate his efforts to save our planet from the destructive effects of climate change, but I must warn you, though, you will need to don your toxin-resistant full-body suits and gas masks.

Let us look first into his SpaceX Starship spacecraft. Darrell Etherington of TechCrunch posed questions about them to Musk in a Twitter interview. Musk stated “that the spacecraft is being designed with the plan of flying it for an average of three flights per day, each carrying over 100 tons of payload per flight, for a total of more than 1,000 flights per year, per vehicle.”

In the same interview, Musk mentioned that he is planning to build a fleet of 1000 of these space vehicles by the end of this decade.

According to the Energy Consulting Group, each SpaceX starship and booster launch will require approximately 1000 tons of methane in the form of liquified natural gas. “This works out to be about 150 mmscfd per Starship, or about 150 billion cubic feet of methane/natural gas per day (bcfd) for a fleet of 1000 rockets. 150 bcfd of natural gas is roughly equivalent to 25 million barrels a day of oil,” the group found. “…In essence, Mr. Musk is suggesting that US demand for natural gas could grow dramatically over the next 10 or so years due to SpaceX activity.”

For Musk’s Tesla automobiles, he has announced an agreement with Glencore, one of the largest global commodity trading firms, to purchase cobalt from the Democratic Republic of Congo for Tesla lithium-ion batteries. Though Musk has plans one day to use safer materials for his batteries, present reports indicate that exposure to pollutants from these cobalt mines substantially increases the risks of serious birth defects in children including limb abnormalities and spina bifida.

In addition, Musk has priced his cars out of the reach of people with moderate incomes, and he maintains non-union plants. This is certainly no way to “restructure capitalism.”

Thanks largely to his SpaceX division, Musk could potentially become the world’s first trillionaire, which would additionally expand the income and wealth gap.

So yes, we see a redistribution of wealth in the United States — but certainly not in equitable ways. Workers create goods and services through labor that is detached and alienated from their personal lives and personal interests, thereby amassing inordinate wealth for the owners and executives.

Few actually “succeed” when millions of people have been shut out of the economy. Few actually “succeed” when people do not have the money to spend on the goods and services in the stores owned and managed by the rich.

Rather than look to mega corporations and billionaires like Musk to get us out of the climate crisis through the inherently flawed system of monopoly capitalism, we must make our tax system more equitable. As the system now exists, taxpayers are subsidizing the rich to build and promote their creations at the expense of the rest of us.

Several Democrats in Congress, including Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Ron Wyden (D-OR) have proposed increasing taxes of the super-rich.

Sanders and Warren have called for a 3% total annual tax on wealth exceeding $1 billion and a 2% annual wealth tax on the net worth of households and trusts from $50 million to $1 billion.

The chance of such a “wealth tax” actually passing into law is virtually nil to none, owing to the lobbying and payoffs of the super-rich to their legislative puppets in Congress.

Yet Musk, who maintains the highest net wealth of anyone worldwide, staunchly resists paying his fair share in taxes.

When Sanders tweeted that “we must demand that the extremely wealthy pay their fair share. Period,” Musk was so offended by the notion that he offensively responded, “I keep forgetting that you’re still alive,” and claimed “Sanders is a taker, not a maker.”

I agree with Thomas Friedman that we must “reshape capitalism.” But I do not wish to see any more Elon Musks, or Bill Gateses, or Richard Bransons, or Jeff Bezoses, or any more billionaires polluting space.

I want, instead, to see real opportunities for anyone who has the talent and desire to create more partnerships between themselves and companies with science. I want to see a fairer and more equitable tax system.

Let us then truly “reshape capitalism.” But we’ll need a lot more Greta Thunbergs and far less Elon Musks to do so.

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