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Elon Musk is Not a Progressive Superhero

— November 12, 2018

Tesla workers with untreated injuries waiting hours for a Lyft to the hospital? That’s not the only reason that Elon Musk is not a progressive superhero.

There’s a certain kind of idealist who believes that technology will save us all. Maybe you know someone like this. Their solutions for the predicament of climate change involve an electric car in every driveway and solar panels on every roof. Their vision for the future of business and the problem of poverty is more enlightened leadership. Those leaders, of course, will be genius-level humanitarians who use their powers for good, while allowing us to keep all the conveniences of our energy-heavy lifestyle intact and moving forward. The ne plus ultra for the techno-faithful is to leave this world behind and live among the stars. These lines of thinking tend to converge on one man, lately: Elon Musk, the mind behind both Tesla and SpaceX who has become a kind of demigod in the religion of progress. Unfortunately, Elon Musk is not a progressive superhero.

A few days ago, Elon’s spacefaring Tesla Roadster, which he launched atop a Falcon Heavy rocket last February (having failed to secure payloads from NASA or the Air Force) reached its first apogee, the point in its orbit where it’s furthest from the Sun. At least, that calculation is based upon tracking the car’s trajectory for a few weeks after launch. According to Ben Pearson, who runs a website dedicated to tracking the roadster and “Starman,” the mannequin strapped into the driver’s seat, there haven’t been any updates since March. Tracking such a small, dark object is now beyond the scope of any instrument other than the Hubble Space Telescope, and frankly, it’s not worth Hubble’s time to follow Musk’s marketing stunt.

A full frontal image of "Starman" strapped into a spaceborne cherry red Tesla roadster, with Planet Earth in the background. The car and the planet are illuminated from the left by the Sun.
It turns out that Elon Musk can afford to launch his favorite car into space for funsies, but providing sufficient medical care for injured Tesla workers is just too expensive. Public domain official SpaceX photo via Flickr. CC0 1.0

As the Tesla Roadster was reaching its furthest, darkest point, so too was Musk experiencing a dark ethical moment. The Center for Investigative Reporting recently released disturbing new revelations about the lack of consideration for worker safety at Tesla auto factories. It turns out that Elon Musk can afford to launch his favorite car into space for funsies, but providing sufficient medical care for injured Tesla workers is just too expensive. The report alleges that rather than calling 911 and sending injured workers to the emergency room in an ambulance, they could wait for hours while arrangements were made to have them conveyed in a Lyft. Likewise, workers with “chest pain, breathing problems, or extreme headaches” were sent away without being properly examined, and temp workers weren’t served in the clinic at all. If worker safety and timely medical treatment are priorities, then Elon Musk is not a progressive superhero.

Incidents and accidents at Tesla plants are nothing new. Tesla’s recordable incident rate has been above industry standard for years. An investigation last April showed that while the industry averaged 6.7 recordable injuries per 100 workers in 2015, Tesla’s rate was 8.8. The rate of serious injuries was even worse, with Tesla reporting 7.9 per 100 workers in 2015 as compared to an industry average of only 3.9. In mid-2017, Musk emailed his employees to reassure them that safety mattered. He went so far as to promise to go down to the factory floor himself and perform the same tasks that resulted in worker injuries. Worker injuries went down – as they did across the industry – but is that because Tesla covers up and under-reports incidents, as the Center for Investigative Reporting has repeatedly alleged? If so, then Elon Musk is not a progressive superhero.

Doubtless, Musk’s heart is often in the right place. He did donate water filters (but not pipe replacement) for homes and schools in Flint, MI. But his “planet-saving” electric cars are only as eco-friendly as the auto industry that makes them and the energy sources that indirectly power them, generally natural gas, coal or nuclear. His businesses depend upon government subsidies (including SpaceX, which, along with Jeff Bezos and Blue Origins, is poised to become the foundation for President Trump’s “Space Force” boondoggle), which may be why he contributed $38,900 the “Protect the House” PAC to help Republicans in Congress defeat Democratic challengers. His labor safety scandal is the icing on the cake. Any way you slice it, Elon Musk is not a progressive superhero. He’s a human being, just like the rest of us, whose brightness grows and dims depending upon how close he is to the Sun.

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