Much of the conversation surrounding Musk’s wealth and that of his fellow centibillionaires focuses on their ranking relative to each other. But in the case of Twitter, different comparisons are more telling.
Musk’s $44 billion deal for the social media company is 55 times the value of one of the tranches of aid the Biden administration sent to Ukraine to help repel the Russian invasion. That’s 22 times the cost of the coronavirus tests the government sent Americans free of charge earlier this year.
Yes, most of Musk’s fortune is in Tesla stock, rather than cash. But if his fortune of around $240 billion were liquid, he would have as much money as the world’s 13th largest sovereign wealth fund, just after Dubai’s Investment Corporation and Singapore’s Temasek.
One way of looking at Musk is just another super-rich person spending an obscene amount of money on an entertaining hobby. The wealthy have always found imaginative ways to spend their money, whether they’re snatching up T. rex skeletons and tennis tournaments or building billion-dollar mansions and superyachts the size of cars. ‘a district. (The Washington Post is perhaps Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ most traditional hobby: the barony of the press has a much longer history than, say, building giant clocks in the mountains of the United States. West Texas.)
These purchases may seem flashier or more forgiving than a social media service, which after all is a revenue-generating activity. Still, the most expensive of them seems like a trifle compared to the $44 billion Musk pays for Twitter. That money could buy 2,327 Bugatti La Voiture Noire coupes or 335,621 Tesla Model S Plaid cars. That’s 88 times the amount a Norwegian billionaire is investing in the REV Ocean, a huge research vessel with yacht-like finishes whose mission is to save the waters of the world.
Then there’s this: the nature of Twitter matters as much, if not more, than the money it cost Musk to buy it.
By announcing the acquisition, Musk described Twitter as “the place of the digital city where vital questions for the future of humanity are debated.” This makes the service look more like a public good than a private good. And that’s the nerve-wracking part of watching Musk, an individual, wielding the kind of resources and power we more often associate with a state.
Given Musk’s reliance on online drama, it’s reasonable to worry about how he might rule his new fiefdom. tell your partner she could be a simulation or getting high on the air with podcast host Joe Rogan are relatively benign acts on a historical global scale of powerful people behaving strangely. But Musk is erratic and eccentric enough to watch him rack up power feels risky even though it could ultimately be constrained by the debt it took on to buy Twitter, or by the laws other countries pass to govern its operations.
Musk’s Twitter buying isn’t the first time he’s embarked on something resembling public office, either. As the United States has downplayed the importance of human exploration of space, private companies such as Musk’s SpaceX (and Bezos’ Blue Origin) have stepped in to fill the void.
Musk’s ambitions to colonize Mars may not come to fruition in his lifetime, if someone does. But his vision raises the prospect that private enterprise could beat a nation-state on the Red Planet. Think: the conquistadors operating without the support of the Spanish Empire.
Futurist novelist Kim Stanley Robinson writes frequently about what he calls “metanationals,” fictional corporations so large that they turn nation states into customers and pursue their own alien — or transplanetary — agendas. But Robinson’s dreams of competing private space elevators and super-corporations sending ambassadors to Mars don’t include people as rich and powerful as Musk can become.
That said, it’s worth remembering this: even technokings have to deal with entrenched bureaucracies and the basic realities of the problems they’re trying to solve.
Musk’s personality and supreme self-confidence won’t magically reconcile the wildly divergent demands Twitter users are making of the service. He may be able to tweet his way to an inflated market value for Tesla, but he can’t post his way to Mars. And while the “town square,” in Musk’s mind, can be a fun debating society, in the real world, the clash of ideas that Twitter enables can have fatal consequences.
Heavy is the head that wears the crown. By buying Twitter, Musk may be looking for his happiness. But it also adds to its burden.