Elon Musk Makes a Comeback
Elon Musk has of course been getting richer by the hour. His net worth was quoted this past week at a figure north of $300 billion. Not bad for someone who had to eke out an existence less than two years ago on a net worth estimated at a mere $20 billion.
Yes, he’s brazenly touted some things and complained about others, such as the dreadful prospect of seeing billionaires taxed by a spendthrift government. Musk summed it up in a tweet cryptically warning that “Eventually, they run out of other people’s money and then they come for you.” In another tweet, he complained that “Spending is the real problem.” He didn’t bother to mention that the US federal government has done a lot of spending to support his megalomaniacal projects.
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When wealthy US citizens say spending is the problem, they mean spending on human and social needs is the problem. True Americans pull themselves up by the bootstraps. Deprived of government spending, decent people would find ways of meeting their own needs. Musk’s particular needs appear to be situated in the $100 billion to $1 trillion range, but he is the first one to admit he is an exception. Ordinary people can get by with much less.
Things may at last be getting back to normal. Musk is still finding ways to be talked about. This breaks a dry spell when there were few of his blockbuster stories such as benign discipline by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), getting sued for calling a heroic British diver a “pedo guy,” or promising and then postponing his conquest and subsequent colonialization of Mars.
Like any other multibillionaire during the COVID-19 pandemic, but on a greater scale, Musk augmented his wealth. He began overtaking the former number one, Jeff Bezos, earlier this year and now has become the undisputed world champion, reaching upwards of $320 billion this week, way ahead of Bezos, who hasn’t yet hit $200 billion. There are days during which Musk’s fortune can jump by more than $30 billion in less than 24 hours.
The reason for the latest leap in his net worth was the news that car rental company Hertz would order 100,000 Teslas. The only problem is that, even after the share price shot skyward following that announcement, Musk tweeted that no deal was actually signed. This led to feverish speculation in the media about what was going on.
CNN Business quotes Dan Ives, a tech analyst at Wedbush Securities, who gave his point of view, analyzing it in terms of a negotiator’s psychology. “We view the Hertz tweet as a game of high stakes poker, with likely legal wrangling going on in the background between Hertz and Tesla. Hertz has already announced the deal and it’s a matter of procedure with getting the deal signed. Musk’s tweet this morning will likely force pen to paper for Hertz,” Ives said.
Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:
High stakes poker:
Another term for capitalism, formerly believed to describe an economic system but now clearly understood to be a speculative game characterized by the player’s skill at bluffing
On November 1, Musk tweeted, “If any of this is based on Hertz, I’d like to emphasize that no contract has been signed yet.” To those familiar with his special sense of humor, this was obviously a joke, since there was no reason to doubt — as Musk’s “if” clause seemed to suggest — that the leap in Tesla’s stock was based on the Hertz announcement. By pretending he doesn’t know, Musk cleverly plays the innocent. He knowingly gives the impression of not understanding or possibly not even caring about the absurd fluctuations of share prices as a result of mob psychology. It allows him to appear as a Warren Buffet-style economic realist who believes that share prices reflect, or should only reflect, economic fundamentals.
Ives may be right to speculate that Musk’s aim is to shame Hertz into firming up the deal, even though there is no reason to think that Hertz might be hesitating. Nobody forced the car company to make the announcement. But Musk may have another trick up his sleeve.
The day the deal is actually signed — whether it’s tomorrow, next week or in a few months — the psychology of markets tells us that the announcement of a finalized deal will send the stock price skyrocketing once again. Not only will that make Musk even richer, but it will also demonstrate his ability to control other people’s behavior in the stock market. That’s how bluffing can pay off in high-stakes poker.
In recent weeks, Musk has also taken to playing with national politics by challenging the Democrats’ persistent chatter about instituting a wealth tax. He followed that up by engaging in a confused debate with a UN expert on the solution to world hunger. He suggested his possible willingness — on condition — to give away $6 billion. In terms of style, it was vaguely similar to his comments on the future share price of Tesla back in 2018. He did both in an offhand way that appeared to mock the “experts.”
Musk demonstrates a masterful ability to exploit the trend of our civilization toward allowing hyperreality — a set of illusions about how the world we live in is constructed — to replace our perception of reality. It’s a game of appearances. Musk appears to be involved in national and world politics, but he isn’t. He appears to be grappling with real problems, but he clearly doesn’t care. It is a game he originally played when he created a non-existent equation between marketing electric cars and solving the climate crisis.
Elon Musk has managed to do what other hyperreal heroes have failed to do. That has positioned him at the center of a moment of US history marked by Donald Trump’s successful and enduring assault on reality. Like Trump, Musk has crafted his identity as the incarnation of an entertainer who pretends not to be pretending, while using every occasion to highlight his skill at pretending.
At this game, Musk outperforms Trump in numerous ways. But the two have followed parallel paths. One created his own version of hyperreal political power, the other of hyperreal financial power. Any serious observer should have noticed that Trump has nothing to do with the reality of politics, in the sense that the term has been understood ever since Aristotle. Politics is the science of how a polis is governed. Similarly, Musk has become the world’s richest individual in record time, but what he has achieved has nothing to do with money in its traditional sense of being a stable measure of value.
Unlike Warren Buffett, who represents another brand of hyperreality, Musk insists on playing with the notion of hyperreality itself, bluntly and brazenly exaggerating every act and utterance to the extent that no one knows whether anything he says or does belongs to the world of concrete reality or exists as an illusion in an elaborate hall of mirrors similar to the device Orson Welles’ used in the final scenes of “Lady from Shanghai.”
Welles should probably be credited as the first public intellectual in America to understand and dare to visually demonstrate the inexorable drift of US culture toward hyperreality. For his pains, Welles was understandably exiled from Hollywood and eventually from the US itself. In his day, reality still had enough of a presence in the nation’s culture to create discomfort with hyperbolic manifestations of hyperreality. Many intellectuals who were beginning to become aware of the drift toward hyperreality understood and admired Welles’ contribution. But they saw it as merely a facet of his personality as a cinematographer. More generally, Americans categorized him as an eccentric. They felt no motivation to understand the meaning of hidden messages in his work. Most stopped showing an interest in his work altogether.
Musk keeps getting richer while saying and doing things Americans find incomprehensible. His latest gambit, in the context of solving world hunger, was to tweet the word “Humankind” followed by lines from an ancient Chinese poem. This has led to more lucid commentary from social media users in China than from all the pundits in the US. When the Chinese say “Musk giving up his wealth is in line with the Communist Party’s push for common prosperity,” they may well be expressing the kind of deadpan humor that hyperreality is incapable of dealing with.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.