Time magazine’s decision to make Tesla billionaire Elon Musk its person of the year for 2021 has been criticised because of his attitude to tax, opposition to unions and playing down the dangers of Covid-19.
Musk, who is also the founder and chief executive of space exploration company SpaceX, recently passed Amazon founder Jeff Bezos as the world’s wealthiest person as the rising price of Tesla shares pushed his net worth to around $300bn.
Describing him as a “clown, genius, edgelord, visionary, industrialist, showman”, Time cited the breadth of Musk’s endeavours, from his founding of SpaceX in 2002, to his hand in the creation of the alternative energy company SolarCity in addition to Tesla, the most valuable car company in the world.
But the accolade drew sharp criticism in the United States where Musk is a controversial figure because of his attitude to tax, opposing a “billionaires tax” floated by some. He, along with other prominent super-wealthy people, paid only small tax rates relative to the significant increase in his total wealth between 2014 and 2018 according to a Propublica investigation this year, with Musk paying a “real” rate of 3.27%. While legal, the rates expose the failures of America’s tax laws to levy increases in wealth derived from assets in the way wages – the prime source of income for most Americans – are taxed.
Senator Elizabeth Warren tweeted that the Time decision highlighted the need for the tax code to be reformed “so the person of the year will actually pay taxes and stop freeloading off everyone else”.
Robert Reich, who served as labor secretary in the Clinton administration, said the announcement was a good time to remind people that he “illegally threatened to take away stock options if employees unionized”, an apparent reference to a 2019 National Labour Relations Board finding regarding a tweet in which Musk wrote: “why pay union dues & give up stock options for nothing?”.
Musk also earned controversy in 2020 by playing down the dangers of Covid in a series of tweets and initially kept his northern California factory open despite a local “shelter-in-place” order, before later halting production. The author Kurt Eichenwald said it was the “worst choice ever”.”
The magazine emphasised that its annual acknowledgment was not an award, but rather, “recognition of the person who had the most influence on the events of the year, for good or for ill”.
The magazine also noted the sway Musk holds over an army of loyal followers (and investors) on social media, where he skewers the powerful and also regulators attempting to keep in check an executive that is far from traditional.
Using his 66 million followers on Twitter, he offers outlandish advice to the world and drives even his own followers and investors mad by roiling markets. He was sued by stock market regulators for tweeting in 2018 about taking Tesla private, and they alleged in correspondence to Tesla this year that two further tweets were not pre-approved by the company’s lawyers, as required by a court settlement in the earlier case.
Though it became profitable only in recent years, Tesla is far and away the world’s most valuable car company, at one point this year crossing the $1tn market capitalisation threshold. Traditional heavyweights such as Ford and General Motors combined are worth less than $200bn.
Musk said last month that SpaceX would attempt to launch its futuristic, bullet-shaped Starship to orbit in January. Nasa has contracted SpaceX to use Starship to deliver astronauts to the lunar surface as early as 2025. Musk said he plans to use the reusable ships to eventually land people on Mars.
Time highlighted Musk’s recent admission on Twitter that half his tweets were “made on a porcelain throne”. In its profile of the provocative boss, Time went on to chronicle one of those toilet tweet storms in detail before concluding: “This is the man who aspires to save our planet and get us a new one to inhabit.”
The choice was questioned on Twitter, by users who suggested other figures might be more worthy of recognition this year.
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were Time magazine’s person – or persons – of the year for 2020.
Time has named a person of the year since 1927. The selection represents “an individual but sometimes multiple people who greatly impacted the country and world during the calendar year”, the magazine says. The designation is not necessarily an honor. Rather, it recognizes figures who have “influenced the news, for better or for worse,” according to the magazine.
With Associated Press