After another year of pandemic mitigation measures, vaccine rollouts and health care inequities, Time magazine announced its Person of the Year for 2021. Last year’s selection of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris was, arguably, a snub of the health care workers who have spent the last two years protecting the U.S. — and the world — from 1Covid1-19. But instead of remedying that oversight this year, Time decided to make it much, much worse by selecting the richest man in the world for its 2021 honor: Elon Musk.
Time’s writeup claims Musk is “easily cast as a hubristic supervillain,” but it argues that such a negative framing doesn’t capture how he’s using his wealth and power to reinvigorate the U.S.’s space program and build an electric vehicle company. Like many other profiles of Musk that seek to appear even-handed, the feature outlines some of the challenges Musk and his companies have faced: the lawsuits alleging a deep culture of racism at Tesla, reports of burnout culture at SpaceX and growing scrutiny of Autopilot, just to name a few. But ultimately these issues are sidelined — the price to pay for a billionaire “genius” who is creating our collective future.
The magazine is quite explicit about this. “The man from the future where technology makes all things possible is a throwback to our glorious industrial past,” it states, “before America stagnated and stopped producing anything but rules, restrictions, limits, obstacles and Facebook.” In short, we need Elon Musk to rescue us, regardless of the cost. But is that the truth?
In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, Silicon Valley became the beacon of hope for the U.S. economy. Tech’s gospel — “move fast and break things” — was soon applied to any industry with the expectation it would produce positive outcomes. (It should go without saying that the last few years have taught us otherwise.)
After he founded SpaceX in 2002 and took over as CEO of Tesla in 2008, Musk was perfectly placed to become one of the figureheads of tech’s American renewal. He graced the covers of countless magazines, was the subject of glowing profiles and was favorably compared to Tony Stark, the billionaire arms manufacturer and Iron Man superhero played by Robert Downey Jr. in Marvel’s movies. Musk even made a cameo in the 2010 sequel.
Musk was credited with creating the electric vehicle industry, even though major automakers were working on their own electric vehicles and the government was trying to spur Tesla’s growth — including by financing the company’s expansion through a $465 million loan in 2009.
Meanwhile, SpaceX was built on the idea that humanity should colonize Mars, and Musk worked backward from that premise to determine what could make it a reality. In the process, SpaceX has been accused of overworking and underpaying its staff (it settled a class action lawsuit in 2017 for $4 million), and it was more recently accused in a lawsuit of racial discrimination and retaliating against an employee who reported sexual harassment. In Texas, SpaceX has angered some residents as Musk seeks to rename an area Starbase, as he tests rockets for much longer than was authorized and as he has been building next to a wildlife refuge, allegedly without the proper permits. Musk has even been hit with accusations that his Starlink satellites are a form of “astrocolonialism.”
The entrepreneur claims to be driven by the need to “preserve the light of consciousness” by making humanity a “multiplanetary” species. But this is a quest he’s foisted upon us, with little public debate about whether it’s a desirable future or whether this is the right moment to funnel resources into such a goal.
And he doesn’t lack for resources. Even though he styles himself as an entrepreneurial, self-made man, Musk and his companies are the products of vast public subsidies. A 2015 Los Angeles Times article calculated that Musk had benefited from $4.9 billion in government subsidies and that SpaceX had received $5.5 billion more in contracts from NASA and the Air Force. That included a $1.6 billion contract in 2008, which Musk admitted saved SpaceX from collapse. His companies have received much more since then, even though he pays very little tax.
Yet, as Musk’s net worth has soared, he has remained firmly opposed to plans to make billionaires pay a bit more to fund public programs to address issues like climate change and social inequalities. Musk protested plans for a billionaires tax in the Democrats’ legislative agenda this year. More recently, he said the Build Back Better Act shouldn’t be passed, and he has opposed additional electric vehicle subsidies.
Musk says he's against subsidies, but he has benefited from them hugely. He also still supports federal help for space initiatives like going to Mars. While he talks a big game about the “insane” budget deficit, this isn’t principled opposition — it’s an effort to kneecap the competition.
So while Time says Musk deserves its top honor because of his bold vision for the future, is it really the future we need? As the climate crisis accelerates, poor countries chastise the rich over “vaccine apartheid” and longstanding problems arising from an unequal distribution of wealth continue to grow, does it make sense to recognize someone who stubbornly refuses to take his eyes off the stars — all while hoarding a vast fortune that could be deployed to help address those issues?
Time’s decision could be seen as the continuation of a more than decadelong trend of the media’s building Musk up to be our savior. We could also see it as a continuation of the romanticized Silicon Valley narrative that tech will still save us. (Salesforce CEO and SpaceX investor Marc Benioff purchased Time in 2018, and the valley’s power players have been trying to present a renewed optimism this year.)
But maybe it’s not even that complicated. Maybe at a moment when the culture is obsessed with trying to get rich on speculative cryptocurrencies that shift wildly with Musk’s tweets and when a pandemic has exposed our deepest inequalities (and how hard it is to persuade the powerful to address them), declaring Elon Musk the Person of the Year actually makes total sense.