The Robber Barons Had Nothing on MuskRoundup
tags: Gilded Age, capitalism, inequality, Elon Musk
David Nasaw is an emeritus professor of history at the CUNY Graduate Center and the author, most recently, of The Last Million: Europe’s Displaced Persons from World War to Cold War.
Elon Musk is now the proud owner of Twitter. The danger here is not that we have a rogue billionaire in our midst — that has happened before, and it will happen again — but that this one will be in control of what he has rightly referred to as our “digital town square.”
Mr. Musk is the face of 21st-century tech-based, extreme capitalism, just as the robber barons, who built our railroads, and Andrew Carnegie, who supplied those railroads and the builders of modern American cities with steel, embodied the exuberant and expansive industrial capitalism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Mr. Musk has exploited the opportunities emerging in a rapidly disintegrating regulatory state apparatus and acquired a small army of investors and a fleet of lobbyists, lawyers and fanboys (known as Musketeers). He has sought to position himself as a tech genius who can break the rules, exploit and excise those who work for him, ridicule those who stand in his way and do as he wishes with his wealth because it benefits humanity. He’ll rescue the planet with his electric cars and save Ukraine with his satellite systems — but he must be freed of government interference to do these good deeds.
For more than two centuries, American moguls like Mr. Musk have transformed our economy and our daily lives (and enriched themselves) by playing a winning game with governments. They sought and received from those governments enormous subsidies and protection, while demanding that they be left alone to conduct their business as they pleased. The railroad robber barons built their fortunes on government-supplied land on which they laid their tracks and then collected government subsidies for every mile of it.
Carnegie and the steel barons elected Republican lawmakers and presidents committed to protecting their companies’ profits by levying high tariffs on foreign competitors. Mr. Musk’s companies, and his fortune, were built with billions of dollars’ worth of subsidies for his electric-car company, Tesla, and billions more in NASA contracts to ferry American astronauts into space, launch satellites and provide high-speed internet services tethered to his fleet of some 3,000 satellites.
What makes Mr. Musk particularly powerful and potentially more dangerous than the industrial-era moguls is his ability to promote his businesses and political notions with a tweet. The effect of such instant communications is enhanced by his firm understanding of media and market dynamics in this era of meme stocks, day trading, instant communications, misinformation and disinformation.