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Sometimes when you have your head down sending emails or bidding and offering or whatever people do nowadays, you sort of lose track of the bigger picture, and the bigger picture is that there is this dude out in California who 1) has a spaceship company, and 2) makes the coolest cars in the world. In addition to the aforementioned 1) and 2), he is trying to build something called a "Hyperloop."
How is this not news? Well, in the business world, it is kind of news, but not as big of news as it should be. We are talking about a guy who--and I'm saying this with a straight face--could be responsible for elimination of much of the carbon emissions in the United States, and maybe the world. That would be a pretty big deal, right? And immediately, you start to think of the forces arrayed against this guy.
Obviously we are talking about Elon Musk, who is South African, who moved to Canada, and then, the United States.
He is 42 years old, three years older than me. He graduated from Penn, went to Wharton and also majored in physics. Out of college, he started a small software company that he sold to Compaq for oh, $300 million, then went on to start Paypal, which he sold to Ebay for, oh, $1.5 billion, which he rerolled into SpaceX (not publicly traded), which currently has a $4 billion order backlog for sending satellites and stuff into space. Let me say that again. He has a spaceship company, and sends stuff into space. He is in competition with governments, and winning, because he is hundreds of times cheaper! But do you really want to know why he wants to go into space? Because he wants to colonize, and live on, Mars. He has said in interviews that he wants to die on Mars--just not on impact.
So I am telling you about a guy who wants to colonize Mars, and I would not short this guy, not with your money, because he just might do it in our lifetime. I would not short anything that Elon Musk does, because he is the real deal. I've been around long enough to know what the real deal looks like, and it is Mr. Musk. People don't fall bass-ackwards into $300 million and $1.5 billion paydays, then launch actual rockets into space and build cars that have the highest Consumer Reports rating ever. That is not a coincidence. Guys just don't luck into things like that.
I'll tell you a quick story. I'm sure lots of you already know that I was a band geek in high school, the king of band geeks, actually, the all-time king of band geeks. I was the drum major, the best around. I was a high-energy, enthusiastic guy with a positive attitude. So one of the drill instructors made a small speech before one of our competitions, and singled me out, saying that whatever I had, that something, you wanted to put it in a bottle and sell it. Well, that's the way I feel about Elon Musk, times ten. Did you know that the movie version of Tony Stark in Iron Man is more-than-loosely based on Elon Musk? Did you know that Elon Musk had a cameo in Iron Man 2?
So Elon Musk is pretty busy running this spaceship company that is changing the world (they regularly send stuff into orbit) and running this car company that is changing the world, but he was sufficiently offended by the idea of the biggest boondoggle in the history of boondoggles, this silly "high-speed" rail between SF and LA, slower than a plane and more expensive, and, after accounting for budget overruns, probably more than $100 billion, in a state that can't afford it to begin with--that he drew up this back-of-envelope plan to travel in a pneumatic tube at just about supersonic speeds for maybe 20 bucks. Is he serious?
Deadly serious, but he is too busy going to Mars and eliminating carbon emissions to change public transportation forever, so he drew up the engineering plans, and gave them to everyone, for free, so maybe someone else can build it, instead of the stupid boondoggle railroad. He'd do it himself, but some things you just can't delegate. It will be interesting to see what Moonbeam does with the plans, because it is so obviously a smarter idea, but can you imagine the special interests who are counting on all that money to build the stupid railroad? Elon had better grow eyes in the back of his head, and I'm only half kidding.
Mr. Musk is actually pretty critical of his fellow Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, because they do Instagram this and Twitter that, and it is all internet doo-dads, and he wants people to think bigger, to use their imagination and creativity and business acumen to do something outside of computers, which are all under surveillance, anyway. You can throw his name in with Ford and Edison and some of the world's great inventors, but it's kind of hard to do that with a guy like Zuckerberg, because, in spite of writing the best massively scalable computer program, and connecting people from around the world, and starting this whole gifted and talented camp, you have to admit that Facebook, while it makes people's lives better, is not really a game changer. Going to Mars is a game changer. Hyper tubes are a game changer. Even Paypal was a game changer, of a smaller order.
So the thing that fascinates me about Musk is that he is almost from a different era, a time when people actually thought big and executed on it. I mean, can you imagine how groundbreaking the automobile industry was in its day, coupled with assembly lines? And this is sort of what Thiel and Kasparov were talking about, you can go on and on about the smart phone and the iPhone, but at the end of the day, it's just a computer, and computers have been around for years. It's not really an invention. So what inspires people to invent?
Any time you talk about Atlas Shrugged, people either get really happy or really unhappy, but let's deconstruct something for a minute: Rearden Metal. That's a Hyperloop type of invention, requiring lots of imagination, creativity, and business acumen. Why did Hank Rearden invent it? To get rich? I make the Family Feud XXX sound on you. No, he did it because it was cool, for the pure joy of it. He didn't much appreciate what happened afterwards, but those are political and philosophical questions which we are not going to address here. But Thiel and Kasparov are partly right, maybe: why have we gone so long without inventions? Where did everybody go?
I don't think the answer to that question has anything to do with politics or regulation; it's still very easy to start a corporation or LLC in this country, and even if it someday involves more paperwork, if you have dreamed up the Hyperloop, you will probably take the time to figure out the red tape. And if the rewards are great enough, how you are taxed really isn't important. So what causes people to dream things up and what causes them to play Xbox?
Funnily enough that gold is making a comeback, because gold is the opposite of Elon Musk. If you buy gold, you are essentially playing Don't Pass on civilization. The gold bugs may not like this statement, but it would be nice if we didn't have to use gold. It's not terribly convenient. Paper money is better. If you could trust people to do the right thing, and not debase their currencies, then paper money would be superior to gold. And you go through these periods of time where you have technological progress and stable currencies, where people can be trusted, and then you go through these awful periods of time where you actually go backwards in time and currencies get trashed because people are lazy and shiftless, where they cannot be trusted. The last twelve years has been the latter. It's funny that we found out recently about NSA surveillance, because all of this cool "tech" innovation over the last twelve years, well, every keystroke has been monitored and recorded. Doesn't seem much like progress to me, not compared to the automobile, or the television. Seems like we are almost going backwards in time. So people who have bought gold, like me, are engaging in the ultimate act of pessimism.
Up until recently, I've been right. Things have gotten worse, not better, and the gold position has made money. And I continue to be pessimistic on civilization. You see, if you think carefully about what Elon Musk is trying to do, in making the world a better place, he is running headlong against people who will try very hard to protect the status quo and their own interests. Energy companies. Auto and auto parts manufacturers. We have already seen car dealerships try to keep him out of New York State. You know what's funny about the Hyperloop thing? When he said that he wasn't going to build it--my heart sank, and yours did, too. Why--because we all know if he doesn't do it, it won't get done. I'm not just talking about the engineering aspect of it, but going up against all the people who stand to gain from snail rail. It can be exhausting.
But in 2013, we don't help people like Elon Musk, we hurt them. We tear them down. I don't know if movies like Elysium have always been around, or if this is a new phenomenon, but Elon Musk is one man against the entire world, a world that would willingly tear him to pieces. He accepts the challenge, and even smiles about it, at least on camera. He is winning now, in a minor way, with TSLA (disclosure: I own shares of TSLA) stock going to the moon, but this is the easy part. Used car salesmen in upstate New York will be the least of his problems. There are an uncountably infinite number of people who would like to see him fail.
Gosh I hope he succeeds. In 20 years, I hope we are all driving Teslas and zipping around in Hyperloops and Musk himself is conducting operations from Mars. But I doubt it. Not because I don't believe in Elon Musk, because I do--but I believe more strongly in the potential for civilized society to tear itself apart. I think about a world we live in, where thousands want to be President, a Congressman, or a Senator, but there is only one Elon Musk. One creator against thousands of destroyers. I'd like to grab dinner with Elon someday. I'm a creator, too, but in a very minor way. It's the same phenomenon, really: one writer, against thousands of critics.
What little kid decides they want to grow up and become a critic, anyway?