book review

Book Review: Walter Isaacson’s Spellbinding ‘Elon Musk’

At a retreat over the summer, one of the attendees was rather rich and rather famous in the technology space. Having made enormous sums of money in a variety of startups and corporate settings, this entrepreneur had started all over yet again.

My question to him was if he still had the energy to pursue the impossible when failure to achieve it would in no way shrink his own living standards, along with those of his family. He well understood the question, only to comment that one reason he accepted venture capital funding (despite not needing it) was to keep the outside pressure on him. It wasn’t exactly the same as being in full start-up mode, but as close as someone worth hundreds of millions could approximate.

This conversation came to mind quite a lot in reading Walter Isaacson’s excellent new biography of Elon Musk, appropriately titled Elon Musk. Long after Musk’s fortune (one measured in hundreds of billions) was of the world’s greatest variety, Musk was (and still is) acting like Alabama coach Nick Saban at the end of championship games that his team has already won: stern, uncompromising, unrelenting. Yelling.

In Musk’s case, he somehow finds the time to direct herculean energy to companies that include Tesla, SpaceX, Solar City, Neuralink, the Boring Company, a robot company bent on creating humanoids (Optimus), throw in Twitter, etc. etc. etc. Back to this review’s introduction, at one point Isaacson (he shadowed Musk for two years) found himself at an Optimus meeting during which a frequently dissatisfied Musk told his employees to “Pretend we are a startup about to run out of money.” Well, yes. If Musk’s ambition, like that of the unnamed entrepreneur, were beaches and splendor, then we wouldn’t be reading about him. For Musk it’s about creating things against all odds. A major reason he’s very rich has to do with the fact that he’s always in start-up mode.

Musk needs to operate on the proverbial edge. As he explained it to Isaacson in 2021, “When you are no longer in a survive-or-die mode, it’s not that easy to get motivated every day.” In Musk’s case, it seems he’s always putting the proverbial chips on the table. He put his first $13 million from Zip2 into what became Paypal, the $250 million from Paypal was directed to SpaceX ($100 million) and Tesla ($70 million) among others, only for those two alone to nearly bankrupt him. Capital gains provide him with the means to continually pursue the impossible.

It brings up two points that can’t be made enough. To read Isaacson, along with past Musk biographers like Ashlee Vance and Jimmy Soni, is to see just how impressively foolish is the Federal Reserve, “easy money,” “costless capital” narrative that pundits from both sides of the ideological spectrum routinely write about in all-knowing fashion. Supposedly cash was “free” from 2009 until recent years. One hopes these always on the sideline commentators pick up Isaacson’s book, or ideally all three. The most persistent theme in each is how Musk has routinely stared death and bankruptcy in the face. Money is never easy.

Hopefully from this simple realization they’ll also happen on another truth: not only can the Fed not create credit, it also rather crucially cannot create time. At one point in the midst of Musk’s Twitter acquisition, and while in conversation with Isaacson, this singular individual juggling multiple companies and multiple kids, admitted that “I think I just need to think about Twitter less. Even this conversation right now is not time well spent.” Musk clearly wasn’t insulting Isaacson. At the same time, imagine what a day is like for Musk. One guesses is that following him would exhaust the follower. It’s a quick hint to Isaacson that a book about what it was like to shadow Musk might actually be more interesting than the book about his subject. And that’s saying something.

Needless to say, Musk doesn’t nor can he waste time. There’s the famous Brian Billick (Super Bowl winning coach of the Baltimore Ravens) quip about arriving for work a half hour before Jon Gruden says he does, and more broadly about how NFL coaches have a tendency to claim an overused sofa at team offices. Is this true, or is some of this just talk? In Musk’s case, his shadow confirms the 7-day weeks, sleeping on the factory floors, plus in the words of Musk, the expectation that he would “pull a rabbit out of the hat” over and over again, as the norm. Not only is capital never cheap or “costless” as the simpleminded claim, neither is time. Musk’s is spoken for. Economic growth is a consequence of indefatigable people being matched with capital. The Fed’s influence could not be overstated enough.

So is education and its value overstated. Isaacson reports that the principal at Musk’s elementary school in South Africa thought he was retarded. Musk himself looks back on school and comments that “I wasn’t really going to put an effort into things I thought were meaningless.” After which, what could Musk’s teachers and future professors teach him? Isaacson reminds readers with some regularity that Musk had designs on changing humanity through “the internet, sustainable energy, and space travel.” It all reads as ho-hum now in a sense, but it’s ho-hum because people like Musk have, or soon will, achieve their once ridiculed goals.

Indeed, in a book full of classic re-tells of business stories, Isaacson writes of Kimbal Musk (Elon’s brother) meeting with the head of The Toronto Star about Zip2’s (Zip2 Musk’s first startup, a searchable database of companies married to mapping capabilities), only for this seasoned executive to ask him “Do you honestly think you’re going to replace this?” “This” was a thick Yellow Pages book…

Of course, this is what the wealth unequal do, and more important it explains how they become wealth unequal in the first place: they pursue notions of commerce that, if they’ve actually been thought about by established businesses or businessmen, they’ve been ridiculed. Entrepreneurs like Musk don’t meet needs, rather they lead them. Which is another reason to be grateful for rich people. Absent them, how would the most ridiculed ideas be given a chance to succeed?

As readers know, or should know, Musk’s career has been defined by achieving in the face of enormous skepticism. Only the rich have the means to lose money on business ideas that are viewed as outlandish. Musk is both a doer and investor, which says so much.

Having made $21 million on Zip2, Musk directed $13 million of it to what became PayPal. Musk, Peter Thiel, Max Levchin and the other free thinkers at PayPal were literally trying to digitize banking and payments at a time when something north of 90% of all transactions were still completed via U.S. Mail. Isaacson writes that Musk earned $250 million in the sale of PayPal, a company that at present has a $59 billion valuation. At times it’s been higher than $300 billion. Shout it from the rooftops that the unequal get that way by leading us in directions we never knew we wanted, but that we wouldn’t return from.

Having made $250 million, Musk put the proverbial chips on the table again. One of his ventures was a $70 million investment in Tesla. Isaacson notes that Michael Moritz, one of the world’s greatest VCs, explained to Musk while turning him down for funding that “we’re not going to compete against Toyota,” that the whole Tesla concept was “mission impossible.” At present, Tesla’s market valuation at $743 billion is more than double that of Toyota’s. Sometimes investors focused on investing in the impossible pass on what exceeds the bounds of impossible. A $743 billion valuation is all the evidence one need of just how much Musk reaches when he gets to work.

Crucially, it’s more than that. In thinking about how many times Tesla nearly went bankrupt (Isaacson writes of how Musk’s second wife’s family – Talulah Riley – literally offered to mortgage their house to help Musk with several hundred thousand dollars – he wouldn’t allow it), it’s difficult to forget the ridicule formerly endured by Jeff Bezos. An appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno comes to mind, during which Amazon’s lack of profitability became a laugh line for the host as Bezos squirmed uncomfortably. In Musk’s case, it was more than endless laughter about his electric car company. It’s instead Isaacson’s anecdote about how by 2018, “Tesla had become the most shorted stock in history.” Shorting is a crucial driver of market progress, and also the riskiest market speculation of all. This is how deep-seated skepticism about Musk formerly was. Even the smart money thought his ideas were completely nuts.

That so many were so short Tesla shares requires mention in concert with Musk’s present status as the world’s richest man. A major driver of his wealth has come from the run-up in Tesla shares. As Isaacson explains it, around the time that the world’s most prominent “short” (Jim Chanos) “declared that Tesla stock was basically worthless,” Musk “made the opposite bet. The Tesla board granted him the boldest pay package in American history, one that would pay him nothing if the stock price did not rise dramatically but that had the potential to pay out $100 billion or more if the company achieved an extraordinarily aggressive set of targets, including a leap in the production numbers, revenue, and stock price.” It was an all-or-nothing bet on himself, and Musk bet correctly. Just as money is never “easy,” neither is wealth creation. Musk’s wealth is born of miracle after miracle. And it’s also a consequence of a relentless of focus on costs.

In thinking about costs, to read Isaacson’s book is to be reminded of why, when politicians claim they’ll run the government like a business, they’re lying. For one, governments aren’t in the business of innovation, of offering something better or all new. Really, who if they have a good idea would hatch it in government? From there, governments are never in “survive-or-die” mode simply because they can always count on inflows from those in actual business world, including Musk. According to Isaacson, Musk himself is a major benefactor of the federal government. In 2021, his tax federal bill was $11 billion, the largest in history.

Back to government and business, Isaacson’s book really hums when he writes about Musk’s focus on costs. With the SpaceX rockets, Isaacson notes that Musk “did not try to eliminate all possible risks,” and he didn’t because he couldn’t do so while also aiming to be the low-cost provider of rockets into space. In which case, Musk was and is always looking to get rockets into space with fewer and fewer expensive inputs. In Musk’s words, “If we don’t end up adding back some parts later, we haven’t deleted enough.” And while Boeing’s space business employs 50,000, Isaacson indicates that it’s 500 at SpaceX. These are but two of many reasons that SpaceX is such a bargain for the federal government. Though wise minds can argue the good or bad of a “U.S.” space program, they can’t pretend that Musk is some kind crony ripping off the taxpayer.

This is important, particularly considering the desire of libertarians over the years to claim that Musk is a “crony capitalist.” Libertarians in particular would gain so much from reading Isaacson and others. To see how unlikely the success of SpaceX and Tesla were, to see how close Musk came to financial ruin more than once, is to understand that no “crony capitalist” would have ever pursued either venture. As mentioned in the discussion of time, Musk in so many ways has no life so dominated are his days by at least “a hundred command decisions,” decisions that will not infrequently be wrong. SpaceX isn’t a crony exploit when it’s remembered how substantially Musk undercuts the competition, and then the $7,500/car that normally wise free thinkers (I consider myself a libertarian, albeit minus all the world-is-ending pessimism) focus on completely misses the point: if we ignore that every maker of electric cars enjoyed and enjoys the same tax credit per car sold, we can’t ignore Tesla’s strategy, which was “to enter at the high end of the market, where customers are prepared to pay a premium.” In other words, a $7,500 tax credit was meaningless to initial Tesla buyers, but the quality of the car wasn’t. When the Model S won Motor Trend’s 2012 Car of the Year, the vote was unanimous. Libertarians have rendered “crony capitalist” and “rent seeking” meaningless by casting aspersions on seemingly all who allegedly receive government handouts. What they miss is that the problem isn’t crony capitalists, rather it’s a federal government that has its hands in everything.

Isaacson doesn’t spend too much time on the coronavirus crack-up by the political class, but that’s one of the book’s many good qualities. Put another way, the chapters in Isaacson’s accounting of Musk are short. This allows him to touch on all manner of subjects and business happenings, but not so much that the biography is slowed down. There’s a little bit about everything. Still, he spends enough time on the virus panic by the political class to point to Musk’s oh-so-correct assertion that “The harm from the coronavirus panic far exceeds that of the virus itself.” Indeed. The virus had been spreading for months, it had been in the news since early January of 2020, and people were adjusting. Freely. As even the New York Times admitted after politicians panicked, it was in the “red” U.S. states that locked down last in which people were taking the biggest precautions. On the matter of health and living, force is superfluous. At the same time, expert control is the stuff of crises. The experts won. Musk could have seen it coming. Isaacson quotes Musk as observing from “the algorithm” that informs decision-making at his companies that “Requirements from smart people are the most dangerous, because people are less likely to question them.” If there’s one line I would remove from own book about the virus panic (titled, When Politicians Panicked), it would be the one about how the federal government’s only role in 2020 should have been “be careful.” I was wrong. Freedom, and freedom from the experts, is most important when we know so little about what perhaps threatens us.

Unknown to me until Isaacson’s book is that Musk was a co-founder of OpenAI with Sam Altman. How does he do it!? Disappointing to this non-techie is Musk’s own skepticism and fear of AI. My own view is that precisely because AI will enable machines to surpass humans, the future is amazing. It will be defined by more and more of us working all the time not because we have to (4 and 3-day work weeks will be the future, as I argued in The End of Work), but because we want to. And we’ll want to because the automation of so much will free us to specialize in wonderful ways. Just as parabolic skis turned intermediates into experts on the slopes, AI will amplify the genius that resides within all of us. Not according to Musk. Isaacson reports that he views AI as “our biggest existential threat.” It doesn’t sound like him.

Musk also fears falling birthrates. That he does contradicts his fear of AI. Think about it. If machines are poised to do and think for us, logic dictates that the babies lucky enough to be coming into the world now will be the productive equivalent of thousands from the past.

Most appealing were Musk’s comments about the why behind his products and services. About the Cybertrucks that many no doubt await, Musk has been clear that “I don’t care if no one buys it,” that “I don’t do focus groups.” Amen. Entrepreneurs once again lead consumer desires as opposed to meeting them.

Most economically informative in a book that could teach economics exponentially better than the textbooks actually used to teach economics, was Musk’s comment to Isaacson that “If you make things fast, you can find out fast.” Please use the latter as a metaphor for the healthy nature of recessions. During recessions, we rush to mistakes because we’re forced to. Recessions are the recovery, contra interventionist politicians who delay the recovery with wasteful spending. Capital is limited as this book makes clear over and over again. How counter to reason and logic that politicians and economists believe government spending is necessary during downturns. Quite the opposite.

Most uplifting beyond the world’s richest man constantly inventing the future is Neuralink, yet another Musk creation. One of the aims of this corporation is to “restore full-body functionality to someone who has a severed spinal cord.”

Are there weaknesses? My take is that the first 100-200 pages of the book didn’t grab as quickly as the final 400 did. There were also odd insertions that don’t indict Isaacson, but do indict the economics of modern publishing. There quite simply isn’t enough editing. After one of the SpaceX rocket crashes on Kwajalein, Isaacson inserted apropos of seemingly nothing that brother Kimbal “tried to cheer everyone up that evening by cooking an outdoor meal.” It read as out of place, and what validates this assertion is that later in the book Isaacson explains that Kimbal’s cooking had periodically calmed corporate nerves before. Eighteen pages later Isaacson wrote of Musk’s 6,000 square foot house in Bel-Air, then in the very next paragraph he writes of a “tender” period in Musk’s marriage to first wife Justine, when “they would walk to Kepler’s Books near Palo Alto, arms around each other’s waists.” The two anecdotes didn’t go together.

Early in the book, Isaacson writes of the first internet boom, “when one could just slap .com onto any fantasy and wait for the thunder of Porsches to descend from Sand Hill Road with venture capitalists waving checks.” Isaacson knows better. He knows better from Musk himself, but also because he’s written so much about Silicon Valley genius. It’s never that easy. That he’s written a book about Musk certifies Musk as a genius, only for Zip2 and PayPal to be created amid the first internet boom. Musk never had it as easy as Isaacson describes it when the internet first became a thing, and he hasn’t had it easy since.

From Isaacson’s wonderful book, readers will understand why Musk hasn’t nor will he ever have it easy. “Fantasy” is difficult, and even more difficult to find financing for. In which case, we can be grateful that Musk’s ambitions are much bigger than money despite money being a highly worthy driver of ambition. Musk really is trying to change the world given his view that the “arteries harden” of civilizations that “quit taking risks.” How fortunate we are to have Elon Musk, how fun it is to read about him, and how exciting if we could know now whom Isaacson will write about ten years from now. If we could know, we would be worth many millions, and perhaps billionaires by the time the book comes out.

Republished from RealClear Markets


  • John Tamny

    John Tamny is a popular speaker and author in the U.S. and around the world. His speech topics include "Government Barriers to Economic Growth," "Why Washington and Wall Street are Better Off Living Apart," and more.

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