Voices: Dear Elon Musk, your net worth is obscene – stop trying to justify it

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Let’s get one thing straight – if Elon Musk doesn’t own a home right now, that’s by choice (REUTERS)
Let’s get one thing straight – if Elon Musk doesn’t own a home right now, that’s by choice (REUTERS)

Tesla CEO and ultimate tech bro Elon Musk apparently isn’t content being the richest man in the world – he also needs to impress upon the rest of us how frugal his lifestyle is.

Speaking in a TED interview on Monday, Musk said: “I don’t even own a place right now, I’m literally staying at friends’ places. I don’t have a yacht, I don’t take vacations, so it’s not as if my personal consumption is high. One exception is a plane – but if I don’t use the plane, I have less hours to work.”

Bring out the tiny violins! The world’s richest man doesn’t have a house! Or a yacht!

Let’s get one thing straight – if Elon Musk doesn’t own a home right now, that’s by choice. His comments, perhaps in a misguided attempt to appear relatable, are a slap in the face to every single person who’s ever experienced homelessness or lived in insecure housing. He’s not exactly struggling to scrape together enough for a deposit on a one-bed flat. To say this is out of touch would be an understatement.

Musk came out with his “rotating through friends’ spare bedrooms” spiel after being asked about people who are “hugely offended” by billionaires, by TED’s Chris Anderson. He said: “For sure it would be problematic if I was consuming billions of dollars a year in personal consumption, but that is not the case.”

I fear Musk has missed the point. Forget “personal consumption” – his net worth (an estimated £207bn) is inherently offensive. Most people on the planet currently live in poverty. Two thirds of people live on less than $10 (or about £7.70) per day. One person in 10 lives on less than £1.50 a day.

Musk has amassed a personal fortune bigger than one person would ever be able to spend in their lifetime (even if they were spending £1m every day for a century), a fortune that’s greater than the GDP of nearly 100 countries and of which only a £4.6bn fraction would be needed to end world hunger. The fact that multi-billionaires even exist in a world where one in three people don’t have access to clean drinking water is a travesty.

Before you sharpen your quills to pen a response informing me that I’m just jealous, or I must have a problem with people who succeed and do well for themselves, let me be clear: that’s not the point. I believe that it is fundamentally wrong to hoard vast amounts of wealth. Musk is defending the indefensible.

Inequality is a social evil. It means suffering and misery and ill health and early death. Musk’s pretence that his life, with his fossil fuel-guzzling private jet and his $43bn (£33bn) offer to buy Twitter, is somehow simple or frugal, should cut no ice with anyone outside of the billionaires’ club.

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Musk is well-known for sniping at people on Twitter on the subject of wealth and taxation – notable examples include Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren – so it might be a bit of a sore point for him.

Unfortunately, his record of philanthropy is considered poor (sorry!) compared to other billionaires, and his donation of $5.74bn of Tesla shares in November last year had the added benefit of hugely reducing his tax bill, which doesn’t exactly scream selflessness to me.

Has Musk’s level of extreme wealth impacted his powers of reason? Does he seriously believe that because he doesn’t own a house (or a yacht) right now, and he only has a private jet for work, his wealth isn’t problematic?

Musk is projected to become the world’s first trillionaire. When he hits that mind-boggling, incomprehensible milestone, I wonder if he’ll choose to spare us the drivel about how unproblematic his “personal consumption” is.

My perfect world is one where there are no children starving, or dying of cholera or dysentery from drinking dirty water; where no one is forced to sleep rough, wrapped in bits of cardboard. And no billionaires.

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