David Brooks / Temerity at the top: Like it or not, America must encourage grandiose ambition
Share with others:
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 who 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, Mr. 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. Mr. 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.
Mr. 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. Mr. 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-wife wrote a brutal but not necessarily persuasive takedown of him in Marie Claire. He's taken a grand total of one vacation in four years, and his romantic life has faltered. As he told Ms. Vance, "I would like to allocate more time to dating, though. I need a girlfriend. How much time does a woman want a week? Maybe 10 hours?"
Mr. Musk is grandiose: a grand lifestyle, grand riches, grand vision and grand verbiage. Playing a computer game with a writer from ForbesLife, he let loose a characteristic burst of vast if vaporous ideas: "You can look at modern history where it's not so much genetics going into battle as a battle of meme structures."
Today, grandiosity is out of style. We've just been through a financial crisis fueled by people who got too big for their britches. We've got an online and media culture that specializes in ridiculing grand people.
Caution rules. The number of jobs created by business startups under President Barack Obama is much lower than under the three previous presidents. The World Economic Forum ranks the competitiveness of nations, and the United States has lost ground in each of the last four years.
But, if growth is ever going to rebound, the United States will need a grandiosity rebound and the policies that encourage rich people with brass: immigration policies that attract people like Mr. Musk, tax rates that encourage risk and government policies that boost them along (SpaceX has benefited greatly from NASA, and Tesla received a big government loan)
Most of all, there has to be a culture that gives two cheers to grandiosity. Government can influence growth, but it's people like Mr. Musk who create it. Stories like his are worth repeating because maybe some reader will think: What grand transformational process do I want to be a part of? If Mr. Musk pinioned his life to the Internet, electric cars and interplanetary travel, what are my projects?
A few ridiculously ambitious people can change an economy more than any president.
First Published September 24, 2012 12:00 am