Temerity at the Top
By DAVID BROOKS
I guess we’re all supposed to be talking about how to build the middle class these days and look askance at the top 1 percent. But would you mind if I interrupted this cultural moment to point out that capitalism is an inherently elitist enterprise?
Prosperity is often driven by small enclaves of extraordinary individuals that build new industries and amass large fortunes. These driven, manic individuals are frequently unpleasant to be around. But, if your country is not attracting and nurturing them, you’re cooked.
Let’s take a contemporary example, Elon Musk, who was just beautifully profiled by Ashlee Vance in Bloomberg Businessweek.
For those who don’t read the financial press or the gossip blogs, Musk is a 41-year-old entrepreneur who grew up in South Africa. At 15, he migrated to Canada, worked on farms and at a lumber mill and then got into Queen’s University in Ontario.
After two years, he transferred to Penn, earning degrees in economics and physics. While there, as he recently told Jon Stewart, he concluded that the three areas that would most transform humanity were the Internet, sustainable energy and space exploration.
He dropped out of a graduate physics program at Stanford to help start an Internet map and directory company called Zip2, which was sold to Compaq for more than $300 million.
He took his share of that money and helped create PayPal, serving for a time as its chief executive. When that was sold, he poured his share of his money into SpaceX, a space exploration company; Tesla, an electric car company; SolarCity, a solar power company; and Everdream, a data-center software firm.
SpaceX is the first private company to send a rocket into space. Already profitable, it has a long line of orders to take things into space. Tesla is selling its second model for about $55,000 each. Musk decided to revolutionize three industries all at once and is sort of doing it. His net worth is estimated to be about $2 billion.
Musk also told Businessweek about two other project designs he is working on. The first is something called the Hyperloop, a tube capable of taking people from downtown Los Angeles to downtown San Francisco in 30 minutes. The second is a vertical lift-off supersonic passenger jet that would surpass Boeing. He also hopes to open up a space colony on Mars within 10 or 15 years.
“Boldness of enterprise is the foremost cause of [America’s] rapid progress, its strength and its greatness,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote nearly a couple of centuries ago. Musk is a fountain of bold enterprises, though, of course, he also has the vices of his virtues.
Many employees love him, but there has been at least one blog set up to catalog his mistreatment of those he deems mediocre. He’s run through two marriages already, and his first ex-wi