Taxpayers may be polarized on most issues these days, but there’s one thing that unites all of us: We hate it when the government wastes our money. That’s why it might be time to reconsider the federal dollars that we’re showering on Elon Musk and his companies.
Remember when, without evidence, Elon Musk accused Thailand cave rescue diver Vernon Unsworth of pedophilia via tweet? It’s certainly something the billionaire businessman would like you to forget, as he’s since deleted the tweet and has attempted to backtrack on his initial claim. But, unfortunately for Musk, the whole “pedo guy” fiasco isn’t something he is going to live down anytime soon. In fact, with a $75,000 defamation lawsuit looming and a spate of new information released regarding the incident, Musk will have to endure yet another public reckoning over his questionable behavior.
According to the case documents unveiled recently, Musk’s Twitter spat with Vernon Unsworth was merely the most publicly visible indication of a sustained vendetta. After his social-media rant, Musk received a solicitation from an individual named James Howard-Higgins, who claimed to be a private investigator with potential dirt on Unsworth. After spending more than $50,000 to try to dig up damaging information about Unsworth, Musk discovered his so-called private investigator was a complete fraud. But Musk, determined to justify his baseless “pedo guy” accusation, fell face-first into the con.
The incident, ridiculous as it is, raises serious questions. Why would Musk hire a private investigator without properly vetting him first? And perhaps more crucially, why didn’t he just leave the entire situation alone? He already had members of his inner circle at SpaceX and Tesla telling him to drop the subject entirely. But instead of listening to them, Musk decided to double down.
But more than anything else, it’s Musk’s access to federal dollars that should trouble us the most. This increasingly bizarre “pedo guy” incident, illustrating Musk’s profound lack of judgment, is taking place under the backdrop of $5 billion in taxpayer subsidies.
Just recently, Musk sparred with Jim Bridenstine, the head of NASA, over this very issue. Bridenstine called out Musk for failing to adhere to deadlines for SpaceX’s government-funded Crew Dragon launch shuttle. The shuttle is years behind schedule, and Musk has shown little interest in accelerating the Crew Dragon’s progress. In response, Musk stated that the company is moving forward with the shuttle “as fast as we can.” Is it, though? His recent behavior suggests otherwise. He seems like he cares more about winning the news cycle than he does about getting critical national security efforts completed for the government when promised.
Frustratingly, this isn’t the only time the SpaceX CEO’s priorities have been out of whack. Musk’s history is littered with high-profile narcissistic incidents used to drum up press and score headlines instead of doing what’s best for his investors and taxpayer-funded businesses. All too often, taxpayer-funded organizations like the United States Air Force are being caught in the crossfire, providing contracts to SpaceX despite the firm’s general unreliability.
Similarly, in 2018, Musk claimed that Tesla was in production hell, and he was sleeping on the factory floor to make up for a production shortfall of 20,000 Teslas in December alone. But rather than spend all his time correcting the deficiencies in his troubled business, Musk chose instead to heavily promote his new “Not A Flamethrower,” releasing a press-friendly video of himself setting things on fire. Because that’s what you do when your business is in trouble, right? The stunt worked great from a public relations perspective, getting laudatory headlines everywhere from CNN to Business Insider. But his push for favorable news coverage didn’t help Tesla’s production problems; indeed, his company produced only 1,500 cars from October to December.
Musk’s lapses in judgment and baffling business decisions certainly add to his mystique and celebrity status, but his poor choices don’t do any good for those investing in him, including the American taxpayer. Whether Musk is tanking his company’s stock by smoking weed on Joe Rogan’s podcast or launching viral marketing campaigns to distract from business woes, Musk can’t help but make impulsive and rash choices. In a sense, the latest revelations surrounding the “pedo guy” controversy aren’t anything new—it’s just more of the same from Musk.
Musk has reaped more than $5 billion in taxpayer money. But given recent events, his obviously problematic decision-making, and his apparent vindictive streak, the question is: should he? As fun as it is to watch entrepreneurs smoke weed and set things on fire, is it finally time taxpayers stopped funding the Musk Mystique?
David R. Wheeler, assistant professor of journalism at The University of Tampa, writes frequently about technology and culture for outlets such as CNN and The Atlantic.