robber barons

Elon Musk and the Return of Robber Barons


Baseball’s opening day was last week and many people flocked to stadiums around the country. In Birmingham, Alabama, fans went downtown to Regions Park to see the Chicago White Sox minor league affiliate known as the Birmingham Barons. The Barons’ mascot dons a mustache similar to Dudley Do Right’s arch nemesis, Snidely Whiplash. The Barons take their inspiration from the Robber Barons of the Industrial Revolution. The Robber Barons were a small caste of white men who created monopolies to control all forms of production and it took two Roosevelts in the White House to bring an end to their labor and economic dominance. 

The business practices of Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Hearst and their ilk were fairly straight forward. They bought up the competitors that couldn’t be blocked out of any chosen industry. They manipulated federal, state, and local politicians to bend to their will. They kept the public on their side by using propaganda and self-serving goodwill projects. Robber Barons are truly all around us. In Birmingham, they play baseball. On tv, HBO’s show The Gilded Age provides a boring and kind memory. For those without HBO and located outside of the Southern League’s travel schedule; Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and their tech competitors have reborn the robber baron tradition.

While many were preparing for first pitch it was announced that Elon Musk had purchased a huge portion of Twitter stock, shortly thereafter he was invited to join the board. This came only days after Musk posted criticism of the social media giant, stating it did not protect free speech adequately. Strong words coming from a man who fires employees for discussing unions in the company parking lot. In reality, he had placed the order to buy the shares months in advance. The criticism was a cheap trick to drum up excitement, Musk craves to be in the spotlight. 

This week, it was announced that Musk would not in fact join the board. No details were released as to why, but that hasn’t stopped speculation. The most likely scenario is Musk refusing to work as a fiduciary to the company. It would not be in his interest to ensure his actions were always to reinforce the benefit of Twitter or its shareholders. Musk’s interests are only his own. Another theory is he wouldn’t agree to the maximum ownership of roughly 15% that board members are limited. This may be the early stages of Musk manipulating Twitter’s stock price for savings on a hostile takeover.      

    Don’t be surprised if Musk’s name winds up being listed as a co-creator on Twitter’s masthead in the near future. Ego is the driving force behind his actions, just barely edging out profits. And he isn’t alone. Jeff Bezos is certainly the most famous competitor of Musk. Whether it’s their invented space race between Musk’s SpaceX and Bezos’ Blue Origin or the EV fight between Musk’s Tesla and Rivian (a company Bezos is a major investor, though not dealing with day to day duties), their vanity projects regularly rub against the other. 

Bezos takes some matters more seriously than Musk. Instead of spending his time meme-ing Twitter Bezos bought the Washington Post. While the newspaper claims to operate independently from their owner, the action is worthy of suspicion. As for ego driven goodwill, they pursue different means. Bezos has invested heavily in his Amazon Prime streaming service. He put up personal funding to complete The Expanse series (of which this author is shamefully grateful). Musk on the other hand is promising to bring the internet into every home with Starlink. A satellite based internet that will do away with the geographic costs of traditional infrastructure.

    While great for subscribers who sought the benefits of such “goodwill” projects, they invariably provide a secondary market for these billionaires to profit from, user data. The tech world has reached its inconceivable economic heights mainly by making the most of the data users allow its barons to harvest. Zuckerburg became a billionaire by collecting every click and interest a person may have. Bezos’ Amazon knows what you are going to buy next before you know it yourself. Musk will have access to loads of data coming from those Starlink IP addresses and is certainly going to get access to Twitter’s data. 

It’s probably why Trump has made a half-hearted grifter’s attempt to create his own social media site. Musk and Bezos have grown their wealth by astronomical bounds over the past few years. They’ve done so with almost zero oversight. Trump and Musk both claim “free speech” as their main criticism of social media and why a change is necessary. In reality, they see an institution that is in their way and they want to crush it while making a quick buck. There is no Dudley Do Right to stop Snidely Whiplash. The metaphor gets complicated when you substitute train tracks for the internet and consumers for the damsel tied to the tracks. Hopefully the similarity between Musk smoking a blunt and Snidely Whiplash brings it all together.

Snidely and Musk

Since Ronald Reagan popularized the myth of trickle down economics, Republicans and neo-liberal Democrats have been chipping away at the institutions that could police the billionaire class. Regulations have been slashed so thoroughly that even if the government had the urge to stop these Hindenburg’s of the tech industry, it wouldn’t have the strength to do so. If history does repeat itself, maybe we can find solace in another trust busting president to come along and curb their practices. Otherwise we should expect any institution in their way to be moved by whatever means possible. All the more reasons for the unionization sweeping much of the country to prepare for a long fight.