When Greed is Fear

"A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing."

-Some dandy who pulled his position in TSLA the day after Elon Musk toked up on Joe Rogan

”Greed is good.”

-Adam Smith, a Scottish proponent of the free market, who wrote The Wealth of Nations. In line with the illusion of deregulation, greed’s logical terminus is economic lawlessness. Yet there’s something to be said about incentive. Pimping the environment out to the free market, though no panacea, has done a curiously Darwinian thing: it’s subjected climate change to our value of survival, applying economic pressures equal to the severity of its consequences.

The markets reacted to Elon Musk’s insignificant nibble of pot on The Joe Rogan Experience by shaving 6% off TSLA the following day. But let’s refrain from gross naivety: Tesla’s brief dip didn’t represent a disparity between Wall Street’s procrustean ideas of how a CEO should behave and the unpredictable realities of innovative genius. With today’s tech execs microdosing acid and ‘meditating at various altitudes’ at Davos, Musk’s non-toke shouldn’t surprise anyone with shares in FAANG. Smoking pot is about as normal as Mr. Market’s pluralistic ignorance – if everyone else is short on Tesla, you better be too. Indeed, the aftermath of Musk’s podcast appearance simply reminded us of Wall Street’s childish contretemps, like siblings that quibble and make up a thousand times before lunch, while their parents conduct the real business of running the house.
Sometimes, however, the kids start paying attention to grownup stuff. Particularly when sensing threats to their parents’ marriage, which is essentially what happened back when Musk flirted with taking Tesla private. In many cases, however, a divorce from Wall Street poses to make the kids quite happy – as if finally the fighting was just going to stop. Yet Musk’s claims to having secured necessary funding were like the suspicious stories surrounding an affair; a leveraged buyout was impossible given Tesla’s finances, and a hybrid transition, with larger shareholders leaving their equity with the company, likely would’ve left the children – i.e. the ‘unsophisticated investor’ – out in the cold.
So a few weeks and a blunt later, and we’re back where we started. Elon is still Musk: the flamethrower-toting, tunnel-boring, cosmically-mesmerized engineering prodigy who will sooner anger his shareholders during a podcast than use that time to build a more conventional business plan. And Wall Street – well, Wall Street is still divided on matters of Musk. On one hand, sensible investors deride Tesla’s halting operations and poor capital management. On the other are legions of Muskovites, the mica-like millions of Tesla faithful who will follow Elon past the Oort cloud – or, at least, underneath Los Angeles.
Those opposed to him are seldom restrained when given opportunities (plural emphasized) to lambast him, taking every chance, it seems, to prove why they wouldn’t touch him with a twenty-foot pointer. It’s ironic, however, that those investors with no real stake in him are the most outspoken. Their ire reveals a fear that runs deeper than losses, a primitive fear rooted in their inability to understand how he hasn’t failed yet.
But neither has he consecrated his legacy. His position is still tenuous. Tesla is almost annually in the red, their P/E ratio is currently N/A.
Yet Musk doesn’t really seem to care. At least, not beyond Wall Street’s pestering. In fact, when you think about it, his is the sort of innovation we normally see in wartime. During World War II, for example, Great Britain, despite getting fleeced by the lend-lease deal with the US, perfected radar and cracked Enigma. Germany godfathered space travel with the V2 rocket, but only when they were on the cusp of total defeat. And, though flush with new riches and the promise of power in a new world order, the United States made their share of progress under duress, not the least of them being the refinement of Penicillin. Such advances represent but a fraction of those made during the war. Among the fighting nations was a feeling of dire necessity, which gave carte blanch to innovators. Musk, amid growing affirmations of climate change and, more importantly, the transfer of economic power to tech, seems to instill the same sort of belief.
Maybe – just maybe – he represents something greater than a new economy, something we’ve seen only a few times in the last few decades. For doesn’t Musk harken back to one Steve Jobs, whose ‘inimical’ obsession over features had him ousted from what was, thanks in overwhelming part to him, the first company to cross the trillion-dollar threshold? Doesn’t Tesla remind us of Facebook, when they were just an overgrown startup too cool to run ads? How about when Amazon was just another dotcom that tanked like all the others? The point is, we’ve been here before. We’ve maligned the genius before. They wouldn’t follow the rules, the Mason-esque codes of sound business practice, and we feared what that meant.
Whether he succeeds or not, we should all be happy that Musk plays for the good guys. And perhaps there’s something to be said about the renewable substance fueling his engine (including, quite literally, The Boring Company’s plans to repackage dirt exhumed from tunnel projects into bricks sold for cheap, or give away to affordable housing projects for free). His self-proclaimed corniness, his platitudes about not fearing failure, they don’t sound so corny or platitudinous stacked next to what he’s been able to accomplish. Sure, Tesla’s stock could tank tomorrow, its plants turned into an ossuary of futuristic chasses, Musk left to toil over less immediate dreams of colonizing Mars. But the fact is, no one else can do what he does, which is innovate as if the world depends on it.