An open letter to the prickly businessman, whose visions are running up against harsh reality.

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Dear Elon,

In this age of fake casual egalitarianism, where billionaires wear T-shirts or suits without ties, I know you won’t mind me calling you by your first name.

Sorry you’ve been going through a rough patch.

First came delays with the Tesla Model 3, the electric car that is part of your effort to revolutionize and disrupt the auto industry. Who could know that mass production of automobiles was so difficult? After all, what’s more than a century of hard-won experience among the Big Three compared to your famous ‘tude?

Then you got tetchy during the earnings call, when these impertinent rubes were asking questions that, you know, Wall Street analysts are paid to ask.

You’ve had some beefs with the press over how they’ve covered you. New York Times columnist Bret Stephens called you “the Donald Trump of Silicon Valley,” and not in a good way.

Laying out Tesla’s numerous troubles and challenges, he wrote, “The brilliance is Musk’s Trump-like ability to get people to believe in him and his preposterous promises. Tesla without Musk would be Oz without the Wizard.”

Things got worse.

On the Daily Beast, science and tech writer Erin Biba said, “Female journalists who cover Elon Musk have the same personal rule: Mention his name on Twitter at your peril.”

She continued: “That’s because there is an army—mostly young, mostly white, almost entirely men — that marches behind him. These MuskBros, as we call them, make it their mission to descend on women who criticize Musk, and tear them to pieces. I know, because it has happened to me. More than once.” And these were offensive personal attacks, not technical disputes.

You quickly tweeted, “At risk of stating the extremely obvious, I am against threats of violence & abusive epithets in any forum. Please do not use them in my name or at all.”

But the damage was done. And you couldn’t resist the condescending opening phrase to your comment. Based on your swagger on social media and elsewhere, why is it “extremely obvious”?

You don’t like journalists who aren’t cheerleaders, I get that. You should get that it’s our duty to stray, ask tough questions, be skeptical. After all, you co-founded a digital ad product back in the 1990s. My former bosses at the late Knight Ridder used it, to little effect. But even this brush with the press might have been educational.

Instead, you now threaten to set up a website “where the public can rate the core truth of any article & track the credibility score over time of each journalist, editor & publication.” You proposed calling it Pravda, after the former Soviet “news” organ. LOL.

Whether proposed in jest, bluster or seriousness, I say: Bring it on.

You claim we’re all about “misleading clickbait.” I’m so busted. All these years of my writing about derivatives, macroeconomics, trade flows, rent seeking, externalities — yes, all code for “Lindsay Lohan nude!” You caught me.

I can’t wait for the ratings from when I offend supporters of President Trump or the outrage activists animating the Seattle City Council. I hope your Pravda offers negative stars.

Finally came last week’s capper: A Tesla Model S on autopilot crashed into an unoccupied police cruiser. If true, this marks a new milestone in artificial intelligence — where a machine can accomplish the same as a three-sheets-to-the-wind human. Well played, sir.

It’s not all your fault, Elon.

So many years of fawning coverage (yes, the media have their blind spots, too). “The 21st century industrialist.” Comparisons with the fictional Tony Stark (Iron Man).

You hit it big with PayPal and used your billions to co-found Tesla and found SpaceX. You promise us a “hyperloop” futuristic train on Earth and a human colony on Mars. You wow Angelenos with visions of an L.A. super tunnel.

The reality is rather different. Tesla has disappointed in its quest to become more than an accessory for the wealthy.

SpaceX and some competitors, including Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, hold some practical value for getting cargo, and perhaps people, into low Earth orbit. But while the technology is more advanced, we’ve been in this location since the early 1960s. No doubt your rocketry is impressive, but we can’t know it’s better stuff than a well-funded NASA would have produced.

You’re too young to remember, but NASA and an army of private-sector contractors landed men on the moon starting in 1969.

Maybe here we get to the heart of the matter, Elon.

America once did great things.

John F. Kennedy famously said in 1962, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” It was not a boast, not a come-on. It was what we did as Americans, for all our divisions and imperfections. We built transcontinental railroads, birthed the Wright brothers and led the world in science and industry.

We’re still imperfect and seem more divided than ever. But we don’t do great things anymore. We cut, privatize, kill visionary projects, shred the safety net. All in the service of tax cuts for the wealthy, poisonous “conservative” and libertarian ideologies and letting Wall Street loot the wealth it took more than a century to create. Endless wars don’t help.

We won’t do the hard things now. We won’t even do the basics, such as building the efficient subways and high-speed rail networks that are common in every other advanced urbanized nation. Addressing the existential threat of climate change, a “goal (that) will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills,” to use JFK’s words, is beyond us. Easier to keep drilling, fracking and burning.

No wonder, then, that so many are willing to be mesmerized by comic-book futurism, especially when it merges with the cult of the billionaire entrepreneur. The latter holds that an individual who becomes enormously rich by being clever in one field must be supremely wise in many.

Such an environment couldn’t help but breed hubris. But you would have to tell me, Elon.

I won’t hold my breath for your answer.


Jon Talton