Saturday open thread for night owls. Aronoff: The case for nationalizing Elon Musk

Saturday open thread for night owls. Aronoff: The case for nationalizing Elon Musk

Kate Aronoff at In These Times writes—The Case for Nationalizing Elon Musk. When companies like SpaceX make it big, they’d be obligated to return some portion of their gains to the public infrastructure that helped them succeed, expanding the government’s capacity to facilitate more innovative development:

On Tuesday, Elon Musk launched some stuff into space. The SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket was shot into the Solar System, tailed by a Tesla Roadster blasting David Bowie songs, reportedly the fastest car ever to be released into orbit. Each Falcon launch is only expected to cost around $90 million—a bargain in the world of extraterrestrial exploration.

Scientific American gawked, “Elon Musk Does It Again,” praising the “bold technological innovations and newfound operational efficiencies that allow SpaceX to not only build its rockets for less money, but also reuse them.” That view—shared by several other outlets—fits comfortably with the Tony Stark-like image Musk has crafted for himself over the years: a quirky and slightly off-kilter playboy genius inventor capable of conquering everything from outer space to the climate crisis with the sheer force of his imagination.

One of Musk’s long-term goals is to create a self-sustaining colony on Mars, and make humanity an interplanetary species. He hopes to shoot two very wealthy people around the moon at some point this year. Musk has invested an awful lot of public money into making those dreams a reality. But why should Americans keep footing the bill for projects where only Musk and his wealthy friends can reap the rewards? Enter: the case for nationalizing Elon Musk, and making the U.S. government a major stakeholder in his companies.

The common logic now holds that the private sector—and prodigies like Musk, in particular—are better at coming up with world-changing ideas than the public sector, which is allegedly bloated and allergic to new, outside-the-box thinking. Corporations’ hunt for profits and lack of bureaucratic constraints, it’s said, compel cutting-edge research and development in a way that the government is simply incapable of. With any hope, more of these billionaires’ breakthroughs than not will be in the public interest.

The reality, as economist Mariana Mazzucato argues in her 2013 book The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths, is very different. Many of the companies that are today considered to be headed by brilliant savants—people like Steve Jobs and, yes, Elon Musk—owe much of their success to decades of public sector innovation, through repackaging technologies developed over the course of several decades into new products. Take the iPhone, essentially a collection of Defense Department research and National Science Foundation-grant projects packed into one shiny machine.

“The prospect of the State owning a stake in a private corporation may be anathema to many parts of the capitalist world,” Mazzucato writes, “but given that governments are already investing in the private sector, they may as well earn a return on those investments.”

As she notes, Musk’s future-oriented empire—Tesla Motors, SolarCity and SpaceX—has benefitted from around $5 billion in local, state and federal government support, not to mention many years of foundational public research into programs like rocket technology. SpaceX itself exists largely for the sake of competing for government contracts, like its $5.5 billion partnership with NASA and the U.S. Air Force. The U.S. Department of Energy invested directly in that company, as well as in Tesla’s work on battery technology and solar panels. The latter is perhaps the biggest success story of the Department of Energy stimulus grant that also supported Solyndra, a solar energy company reliably held up by the Right as an example of the government’s failure to make wise investment decisions. “Taxpayers footed the bill for Solyndra’s losses—yet got hardly any of Tesla’s profits,” Mazzucato notes. […]

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BLAST FROM THE PAST

On this date at Daily Kos in 2011—House GOP meltdown over budget cuts: 

Basically we’re seeing two factions in the GOP these days, the ORCs and the YATs.

The first are the Opportunist Republican Cynics (ORCs), and they are still the dominant faction. They are led by John Boehner, and they are basically the same people who drove America’s economy into the ground under George W. Bush. They’ve regained power thanks to tea partiers, Fox News, and a willingness to parrot the doomsdayer teahadist rhetoric about spending and debt, but they also understand that actually following through on what they promised would be a political disaster of epic proportion. The problem for ORCs is that they don’t have anything else to offer because they last time they were allowed to drive policy decisions for the GOP, they ended up thoroughly discrediting the party.

The other faction are the Yelling Angry Teahadists (YATs). They don’t control the GOP leadership, but there’s enough of them that the GOP needs them to maintain its majority. The YATs believe everything they said during the campaign about how Obama is the second coming of Karl Marx and how spending is destroying America. They really believe the only way to save America is to eliminate the deficit and they believe the deficit can be balanced by immediately cutting spending by hundreds of billions of dollars. And they believe the rest of America agrees with them. YATs are the only Republicans with any real enthusiasm, but that’s mostly because their ideas haven’t yet been discredited by the test of reality.

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