If you were going to compare Elon Musk to a character from The Simpsons, the most obvious choice would be Professor Frink, the wayward but genius inventor. But in recent years and, more specifically, the past 6 months, he’s been more like Sideshow Bob surrounded by rakes, blundering into one after the next, hitting himself in the face and looking around for someone else to blame. The belief among his rabid fans that Musk is playing three-dimensional chess is looking shaky. In fact, it seems more like he’s been cheating at Monopoly with a stacked deck. But still, this grudgeful geek’s luck hasn’t run out.
When the Securities and Exchange Commission published a complaint against Musk this week as a result of his aborted bid to take the company private — a saga that involved market-moving tweets and a childish decision to pick $420 as the proposed share price (allegedly to amuse his musician girlfriend Grimes) — it looked like he was finally going to face real consequences. He potentially could have been stripped of his right to act as a director of a public company, removed from Tesla, the electric car company he founded and untangled from his other interests including SpaceX. But that didn’t happen.
Instead, in what a law professor told CNBC news, could be “the quickest SEC settlement in history”, Musk’s punishment for issuing what the regulator had deemed “false and misleading statements” is the loss of his position as chairman of the Tesla board for three years, a personal fine of $20 million and a fine of the same amount levied against Tesla. With a net worth that hovers in the region of $20 billion, usually dipping below that when Musk himself does something idiotic, the SEC’s action is the equivalent of a speeding fine, and the addition of two independent directors to Tesla’s board is likely to be little more than an inconvenience.
Changes in governance at Tesla aren’t enough. Musk needs to drastically alter his personal behaviour and that’s unlikely to happen. As well as the farcical and irresponsible saga around taking Tesla private, recent months have also seen him involved in a bizarre war of words with the rapper Azalea Banks, accusing a man involved in the Thai soccer team cave rescue of being a sex offender, after manically offering up a submarine of his own design as a solution, and smoking weed on video while appearing on Joe Rogan’s podcast. That is not even an exhaustive list of his bizarre, aggressive and immature behaviour.
But, as unlikely as it sounds, all of those controversies are minor compared to the fragile reality of Tesla’s financials — continuing to make huge losses — and the chaotic way the company seems to be operated, best typified by the Heath Robinson-style assembly line in a tent outside its Fremont factory that Musk gussied up to deal with a production shortfall for the Model S sedan. This month alone, Tesla has faced two more worker safety investigations from California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal-OSHA), and there are six other investigations still ongoing. In June, a former Tesla factory worker sued the company, alleging he was fired after alerting management to safety concerns and claimed injuries go routinely unreported.
Tesla’s long-standing antipathy towards unions has also to come to court. The trial, which kicked off in June, is another situation triggered by Musk’s tweets. In May, he wrote, “Why pay union dues & give up stock options for nothing?” Grimes also tweeted — in a message that was subsequently deleted — “literally tried to instigate union vote so y’all wud layoff but UAW can’t get enough signatures cuz they abandoned Fremont plant in the last crash.” The outbursts led to the Union of Auto Workers submitting a complaint to the National Labor Relations Board, which believes Musk’s tweet was a violation of labour law. Tesla says the tweets were taken out of context. Now Tesla is fighting against claims it restricted union organising and retaliated against pro-union workers.
Returning to that Simpsons analogy, you could paint Musk as a kind of Hank Scorpio figure, an avuncular super-villain with a plan to take over the world (or, in Musk’s case, to colonise Mars). They do share a love of flamethrowers. But the comparison breaks down because Scorpio was quite nice to his workers. Musk’s apparent genius doesn’t seem to stretch to treating other human beings all that well. Still, cultivating an almost cartoonish public persona has worked out for Elon Musk for so long, with the added fuel of being tipped as the inspiration for Robert Downey Jnr’s take on Tony Stark, that there’s so far been no incentive for him to change. When you can pay a $20 million penalty and barely feel it, what would it take?
And if Elon Musk has been the rake-fighting Sideshow Bob this year, his future surely lies as a kind of Mr Burns, increasingly wealthy, increasingly bitter, increasingly far from the humanity he so frequently professes to be trying to save. I don’t find Musk admirable, regardless of how many people worship at the altar of his wealth and his wild ideas. He seems to believe that technology can answer almost any question and that his particular solutions are always the best, regardless of the consequences for anyone else. The best thing he could do for the world right now is lose his Twitter password and never request a reset.