Elon Musk thought three major trends would drive the future: the Internet, the quest for sustainable energy and space exploration. He’s got skin in all three games.
Of all the newcomers we’ve seen here lately, one of the more interesting is Elon Musk.The famous entrepreneur isn’t going to live here, at least not yet. But earlier this month he did announce plans to bulk up an engineering center near Seattle for his SpaceX venture. The invitation-only event was held in the shadow of the Space Needle.If the plan happens, SpaceX would join Planetary Resources and Blue Origin in a budding Puget Sound space hub. With talent from Boeing, the aerospace cluster and University of Washington, this offers fascinating potential for the region’s future.Elon Musk sounds like the name of a character from a novel that would invariably include the sentence, “he had not yet decided whether to use his powers for good or for evil.”He is said to have been the inspiration for the character Tony Stark, played by Robert Downey Jr. in the “Iron Man” movies. He’s also been compared to Steve Jobs and even Thomas Edison.The real Musk seems like a nice-enough chap, at least based on his ubiquitous appearances in TED talks and other venues.Even the semidishy essay in Marie Claire magazine by his first wife, Justine, is mostly about the challenge to the marriage as Musk became very rich, very young, started running with a celebrity crowd and exhibited the monomaniacal behavior common to the entrepreneurial tribe.A native of South Africa, Musk emigrated to Canada and finally to the United States, where he received degrees from the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious Wharton School. He left Stanford’s Ph.D. program in applied physics after two days to start a business.In 1995, he co-founded Zip2, an early Internet venture for newspapers. Four years later, he co-founded what would become PayPal. With money from eBay’s acquisition of PayPal, he started SpaceX. He also invested in Tesla Motors, the electric-car company, eventually becoming chief executive. Then there’s Solar City, a major provider of solar-power systems.Musk has said that early on he sensed three major trends would drive the future: the Internet, the quest for sustainable energy and space exploration. He’s got skin in all three games.At age 43, Musk is seven years younger than Jeff Bezos and more than 15 years younger than Bill Gates.His achievements haven’t come without controversy. Tesla played off several states against each other for a battery factory. Nevada, desperate to diversify its low-wage economy, won, if you can call it that.The price tag was $1.4 billion in incentives and whether it ever pays off for the state is a big question. A Fortune magazine investigation showed Musk not merely as a visionary but also a master manipulator with a shaky deal. Musk, no shrinking violet, fired back on his blog.SpaceX is a combination of the practical and the hyperambitious, some would say dreamy.On the practical side, the company is one of those chosen by the U.S. government to resupply the International Space Station. Musk also hopes to put 4,000 satellites in low-Earth orbit to provide inexpensive Internet access worldwide.The satellite venture will be based here, with no financial incentives from the state.But he also wants to make space travel less expensive, generate “a lot of money” through SpaceX, and eventually establish a Mars colony.“SpaceX, or some combination of companies and governments, needs to make progress in the direction of making life multiplanetary, of establishing a base on another planet, on Mars — being the only realistic option — and then building that base up until we’re a true multiplanet species,” he said during a TED presentation.It’s heady stuff. And attractive enough to lead Google and Fidelity Investments to commit $1 billion to SpaceX.Also, in contrast with the “rent-seeking” and financial plays of so many of the superwealthy, Musk actually wants to create jobs and solve practical problems.If there’s a cautionary note, it is that market forces alone can’t address many of our most serious challenges. Indeed, in some cases they make them worse.Worsening income inequality is the work of the hidden hand, unfettered by antitrust regulation, progressive taxation, unions and protections against race-to-the-bottom globalization.If the hidden costs of spewing more carbon into the atmosphere are not priced in, we have today’s market failure exacerbating climate change. Electric cars won’t fix that as long as the distortions favoring fossil fuels remain.So a broken, compromised government that’s cutting research dollars and failing to invest in education and forward-leaning infrastructure is a major impediment.The United States did not reach the moon because of a clever billionaire, but through a national endeavor to serve the public good. I know, that’s “so 20th century.” Also, as Northwestern University economist Robert Gordon might argue, visionaries such as Thomas Edison grabbed relatively low-hanging fruit, with electrification creating huge numbers of jobs. Merely recovering the lost demand of the Great Recession has proved difficult. Another electrificationlike revolution that lifts all boats seems improbable.I’m not sure that’s true. But it will take more than Iron Man to rescue the many Americans still suffering.