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2022's Lesson? Billionaires Bad, Actually

At first, 2022 looked like it would be another celebratory year for the extremely rich. In early January, Tesla stock was trading at well over $300 per share. Its CEO, Elon Musk, had recently been named Time’s 2021 Person of the Year. He was Earth’s richest person, an exemplar of capitalism gone right, a visionary building companies that would benefit humanity and not just line his own pockets. He was so intelligent that he purportedly taught himself rocket science, so ambitious that he made the electric car sexy in an effort to stem the climate crisis.

As 2022 comes to a close, the awe Musk enjoyed has turned into shock and jeers. Fans have defectedTesla investors are growing mutinous (at publication time, Tesla stock was languishing around $150). Musk was even recently booed by the audience at Dave Chappelle’s comedy show. In a Twitter poll he posted over the weekend, Musk asked whether he should step down as head of Twitter, saying he would “abide by the results of this poll.” Nearly 60 percent of respondents answered yes.

A similar riches-to-rags story unwound Sam Bankman-Fried, the erstwhile crypto billionaire who told the public he was using the gangbuster profits from a flashy but risky industry to change the world for good — making him a media darling who graced the cover of Fortune magazine in September. Other billionaires soaked in excess, buying private jets and superyachts; he was sleeping on bean bag chairs at his office and thinking of how to donate what he earned. Then, almost as suddenly as he had established himself as an altruistic public figure, his cryptocurrency exchange, FTX, imploded, his billions vanished, and he was arrested on charges of fraud and money laundering, among other crimes. It turned out that his monkish pose wasn’t quite true.


Part of the public’s captivation with billionaires in 2022 is the schadenfreude of watching the powerful tumble. This year also drove home that the ultrarich aren’t privy to greater wisdom or savvier than the rest of us, said Anand Giridharadas, author of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. Musk’s baffling, impetuous decisions and reversals at Twitter, for example, have yanked back the curtain on how Musk leads his companies. He “just revealed billionaires are not smarter than you,” Giridharadas told Vox. “They are people who happen to have a billion dollars or more.”

The revelation that billionaires are not an exceptional group of people except for the size of their net worth marks a schism from the idea that the wealthy are demigods. Silicon Valley’s many billionaires insist that technology will transform and save the world. The infamous robber barons, like Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller, often remade their image, after a career of exploiting their workers, as magnanimous philanthropists.


The larger-than-life personas of billionaires like Musk, Bankman-Fried, and others, which cast them as hyper-intelligent and insightful, gained them a lot of influence. Musk in particular garnered an entrenched fan base for his humanity-saving mission and for his outlandish, troll-y online image. Margaret O’Mara, a professor of American history at the University of Washington and author of The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America, told Vox that the model of the “eccentric genius entrepreneur” has long been used to great success by the nation’s business leaders. “From Edison forward, you have these slightly quirky, very showman-like people,” she said. Edison was an especially skilled marketer who loved to put on spectacular events, such as lighting up the New York Times building in 1882.

Billionaires in America have also long benefited from a tradition of lionizing captains of industry. They were respected as self-made men, and there was a great belief in “the individual savior figure coming in to change everything,” O’Mara said.

“It’s the cowboy, it’s the rugged individualist,” she continued. “The reality is kind of far from the truth — cowboys would ride together.”

Read entire article at Vox