I love Bernie Sanders*. I love his overall mission, his personality, and his superb messaging skills — which I’ve said before are probably the best in the Democratic Party (if you want to say he’s in the Democratic Party). That’s why, after seeing the same surprising and counterproductive attack thrown at Elon Musk a few times over the course of several months, I wrote an article yesterday about why it was an illogical attack and hugely counterproductive.
To be clear: the aim, aside from clearing up apparent misunderstanding, was to help Bernie and his mission much more than it was to help Elon and his missions. I didn’t see the attack as very harmful for Elon, Tesla, or SpaceX (especially since it was so off the mark and anyone following their stories knows that as well as they know tennis balls are yellow), but I did see it as quite harmful to what Bernie is trying to highlight and accomplish. When you embed an obvious falsehood in your messaging, you are hurting your case more than helping it.
It turns out that Elon responded to the article I wrote, which led to Bernie (and a bunch of other people in politics) responding to both Elon and me/CleanTechnica. Naturally, being Twitter and all, nuance was dead, most people commenting probably didn’t read the article, and all kinds of irrelevant points were made in a “discussion” that is probably best visualized as a verbal food fight.
Given how much of a mess that all is, I don’t have much hope of resolving 0.001% of the controversy or misunderstandings, but I did conclude that I should respond a little bit. So, here’s a series of points I’ll contribute in order to at least clear up my position on some things:
1. Yes, we have a serious problem with systemic economic inequality in the United States, it’s as bad as it’s been in about a century, and it is one of the country’s biggest problems. The basic quality of life here is really crappy, and we shouldn’t have anyone suffering from hunger, homelessness, or lack of healthcare in the wealthiest country on Earth. I lived in a much poorer country that had both universal healthcare and a much more competitive private healthcare industry for ~11 years, and I think it’s absurd the United States doesn’t have universal public healthcare and a more competitive healthcare system.
2. I also support Universal Basic Income (UBI) as a helpful, simple, politically sensible solution to some of these problems. A decently formulated UBI in the United States could raise the basic quality of life in the country a great deal. Elon Musk also supports UBI and has said so several times. Bernie has said that he supports UBI, but he typically responds to questions about this in a more nuanced way because he sees UBI as not very being politically viable in the US (that not enough politicians would get behind it), and perhaps also because he knows that a poorly constructed UBI could hurt poor people more than help them. This is a large can of worms I don’t want to open, but the concern is that other support mechanisms for people struggling to get by could be cut and replaced with UBI and that the UBI could be low enough that those people face a net loss rather than a net gain, only worsening their struggle.
Bernie’s way of responding is often to focus on the message that the core goal is to make sure that people are not struggling from hunger, homelessness, or an obscenely low quality of life — and there are ways to solve those problems that are perhaps more politically viable than trying to get a good UBI bill passed in a Congress that can’t pass legislation on things 80% of people support because of Republican obstructionism and similar blockades from some supposedly “moderate” Democrats.
3. Elon is trying to help humanity, agree with him or not. The matters above are not directly what led to my article yesterday. Bernie’s messaging on helping people and fixing a broken, corrupt socio-economic system is important for our society. However, taking a side shot at Elon Musk for supposedly being “greedy” hurts that messaging because many people know it’s a false, misguided attack, if not worse. Elon Musk could have retired rich on a private island decades ago. Instead, he put all of his money on the line and put himself through hell a few times in order to pursue a couple of dreams which are specifically aimed at helping humanity. His mission at Tesla has always been to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy, and his mission at SpaceX has always been to make humanity a multi-planetary species in order to protect it from a potential extinction-level event on Earth (simply a meteor strike could lead to that, for example).
4. You may disagree with a person’s priorities for how to help humanity, but attacking that person as greedy when he is focused so intently on these core missions (while also trying to have fun) is senseless. Bernie responded to Elon’s response by criticizing the way in which Elon is trying to help preserve humanity. Aside from not giving other people (Elon) the freedom to help humanity in the way he sees best, it diverts from the original issue — that he was attacking Elon for his high net worth, and that makes Bernie look bad, not Elon.
Space travel is an exciting idea, but right now we need to focus on Earth and create a progressive tax system so that children don't go hungry, people are not homeless and all Americans have healthcare. The level of inequality in America is obscene and a threat to our democracy. https://t.co/CbMWYnPFUx
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) March 21, 2021
5. Uninformed and faulty covid comments and ill-informed jokes from Elon Musk have nothing to do with the matters above, nor do smears by some major media outlets on him. Want to help advance the messages and matters in #1 and #2? Then don’t create and cling to political or cultural tribalism. Don’t make faulty attacks on very popular people just because you don’t like them for other reasons or to highlight a macro issue. It’s counterproductive to your aim if your aim is to bring more people into your socio-political movement. Stay focused on the goal, not character assassinations.
6. Elon Musk’s mission for Earth is to help stop climate crisis, and much of his wealth stems from the fact that he’s been so successful working toward that goal. Choosing to make him an enemy in a political narrative is absurd and bewildering when one of Bernie’s top issues is stopping the climate crisis. It just doesn’t compute, and I’m only one of many Bernie + Tesla fans who had that response.
7. Elon slides too easily into culture war jokes and lingo, which is a divisive and societally harmful political trend that is largely blown out of proportion by a small percentage of the population for entertainment and political motives, and that is at least part of the reason why some people are getting entrenched in the view that Elon is a jerk who doesn’t care about others. I think heavy involvement in this “culture war” narrative comes from a) not being very politically involved or aware (he’s kind of busy with a few other things, after all), b) having some “bad influences,” and c) personal matters that are really about personal issues/relationships, not about politics or policy. Elon is increasingly a character to hate for some political actors and activists, which is unfortunate, and part of it relates to this “culture war” sideshow. I saw this coming more than a year ago and thought about writing a piece trying to cool off both sides, but I didn’t make time for that and probably didn’t have much faith in it working anyway (because of how much nuance was involved and how difficult it is to get people to see broader perspectives in a long, nuance-filled, passive-aggressive conflict that is built on one misunderstanding after another). In any case, as long as people decide to trade cheap shots instead of trying to be understanding and loving, the worse this relationship will get.
8. Overall, when big personalities are involved, people should consider how much their arguments are advancing a broader issue versus contributing to a TMZ–level or Jerry Springer–like distraction. Circling back to the initial tweet that kickstarted this, in my opinion, it was basically just a Jerry Springer–like distraction. It didn’t advance the mission Bernie’s team has in fighting wealth inequality and injustice. In fact, it pulled people away from that mission. That’s why I wrote the initial article, to emphasize that it’s the wrong approach to take. Reform the system, fight the injustice; don’t start Twitter food fights.
9. The idea that Elon Musk should sell stock to spend money on certain matters you would like him to spend money on is an odd one and seems to go very much against the ethos those critics claim to espouse. Also, done on a large scale, it would result in Tesla losing a great deal of its valuation (other shareholders would logically bail and just jump to another stock if they saw Elon selling a lot of his shares). The idea that you (or I) should get to say how he uses the wealth generated from running highly successful companies — especially when he has his own altruistic goals for what to do with that money — is a step into an egocentric, controlling, punish-the-leader mindset that it’s hard to imagine taking and then publicly pronouncing.
10. Fixing an inequitable and broken system doesn’t have to mean attacking individuals, and it shouldn’t.
11. People don’t seem to understand that Elon Musk isn’t super rich from taking money from people. He’s super rich because companies he cofounded and runs are worth an enormous amount of money because of how effective and transformative they are. He’s not taking money from anyone. Investors are putting money into his companies because of how much his companies inspire people to buy their products or services. Again, you can be upset that so much money is being invested in the stock market while so many people are hungry, but that’s not Elon’s fault just because he has one of the most successful companies on the market.
*I also contributed to his presidential campaign in 2015–2016.
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