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Elon Musk isn’t funny.
Why our cultural obsession with billionaires gets in our way.
On Saturday, Elon Musk hosted “Saturday Night Live.” Needless to say, he wasn’t funny. If you didn’t catch it...just google “Gen Z Hospital.”
But then, what did we expect? Why would anyone think that a man known for electric cars, space shuttles—and COVID-19 denialism—should be funny?
For Musk’s part, his “SNL” appearance wasn’t ever about the laughs. Like one of SpaceX’s rocket landings, Musk’s appearance on one of pop culture’s biggest stages was precisely choreographed to reputation-launder America’s most cartoon super-villainesque billionaire. Nobody asks their mom to join them for their opening monologue unless they really want to appear innocent and cuddly.
Ultimately, just like his meager attempts to hype his new favorite hobby horse, Dogecoin cryptocurrency, his attempt to wash his reputation clean of the taint of his COVID-19 denialism, union-busting, shoddy workplace safety record, frank tax avoidance, and stock market manipulation rightly flopped (Dogecoin took a 40% tumble as the episode aired).
Musk’s PR blitz follows a well-worn path for despicable billionaires. The last time a (alleged) billionaire hosted “SNL” was in 2015. It was Donald Trump—indeed, while he was running for President. We all know how that turned out.
But all of this forces a bigger question. “SNL” wouldn’t book a guest like Musk if he weren’t likely to attract viewers. What about Elon Musk attracts viewers? It’s the same thing that makes the Gates’ divorce above-the-fold news. America has an unhealthy obsession with billionaires.
And it’s hurting our country. Amassing wealth on its own terms isn’t the problem, per se, it’s that so many leverage taxpayer dollars to build their fortunes and then do everything they can to avoid paying their fair share back into the system.
Elon Musk epitomizes this. In total, Tesla has received $2.2 billion in corporate subsidies. There was the $465 million low-interest loan from the Department of Energy in 2010. His Tesla plant in Nevada was built after they were promised $1.3 billion in tax credits over the next twenty years. And Tesla’s new Texas “Gigafactory” was offered nearly $15 million in subsidies. Indeed, the thirst for subsidies led one Wall Street industry analyst to argue that Tesla’s real product isn’t cars, but subsidies:
Conclusion: In my view, without subsidies, there would be no Tesla. As far as I'm concerned, Tesla's main product isn't the car, it's the subsidies. Without $713 million in quarterly subsidies from the United States alone, I don't think Tesla would be in business.
Oh, and after tweeting that the second tranche of stimulus checks—to bail millions out of the financial consequences of the worst pandemic in over a century—were “not in the best interest of the people,” Tesla revealed that it had taken some of its own, thank you very much.
The issue isn’t that the government is subsidizing an electric car manufacturer to compete with gas-guzzling combustion engines. That’s smart public policy. It’s that the CEO of that company thinks that the government subsidizing his existence is the problem and that he’s doing all he can to avoid paying his share into the system himself. In fact, late last year, Elon Musk moved to Texas...to free himself any pesky state income taxes.
Forcing billionaires to pay their fair share back into the system that created them has become one of a small number of earnest points of bipartisan consensus. Indeed, last month a Pew Research Poll found more than 80% of Americans are bothered that some corporations and some wealthy people don’t pay their fair share of taxes. President Biden’s plan to pay for his American Jobs Plan by raising the corporate tax rate and capital gains taxes are about just that.
Passing policies that force corporations and the wealthy to pay their share should be easy. That is, until it runs up against our cultural obsession with the wealthy. It allows them to use our obsession with their wealth to access platforms like the “SNL” main stage. From there, they cast these policies as personal attacks on them, rather than the broad-swathed attempt at economic justice they really are. Meanwhile, backstage, they continue to use the access and power their wealth affords them to keep avoiding accountability.
And just like Elon Musk, that’s no laughing matter.