Why do billionaires tweet? Is it because they no longer have to earn a living? Or because they’re bored? Or because they spend a lot of time in, er, the smallest room in the mansion? Elon Musk, for example, currently the world’s richest fruitcake, has said that “At least 50% of my tweets were made on a porcelain throne”, adding that “it gives me solace”. This revelation motivated the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson to do some calculations, leading to the conclusion that more than 8,000 tweets over 12.5 years suggests that, on average, Musk “poops” twice a day. (I make it 1.75 a day, but that’s just quibbling.)
So why does Musk tweet so much? One explanation is that he just can’t help himself. He has, after all, revealed that he has Asperger’s. “Look, I know I sometimes say or post strange things,” he said on Saturday Night Live, “but that’s just how my brain works”. Understood. It may also be a partial explanation of his business success, because his mastery of SpaceX and Tesla suggests not only high intelligence but also an ability to focus intensely on exceedingly complex problems without being distracted by other considerations.
There are, however, darker interpretations – shared, it seems by the US Securities and Exchange Commission – that some of his tweeting is not, as it were, involuntary but is aimed at manipulating stock markets. Exhibit A: his announcement on 4 April that he had acquired a 9.2% stake in Twitter sent its shares rocketing upwards – from $39.31 to $49.97 – which meant the value of his holding went from $2.9bn to $3.5bn, giving him a notional profit of $600m in a single day. Nice work if you can get it, eh?
Exhibit B: on 26 April he agrees to buy the company, whose shares were trading at $49.68 that day, for $54.20 a share, which leads Wall Street to conclude that he was paying too much. Then (exhibit C), on 13 May he announces that he is “pausing” his bid pending investigation of Twitter’s estimate of the prevalence of spam bots on the platform – and the share price tumbles, confirming Wall Street’s view of its overvaluation, but also suggesting that Musk is trying to find a way of wriggling out of what is now beginning to look like a foolish deal. And if that proves impossible for legal reasons, stand by for a torrent of tweets portraying himself as a victim.
Where the truth lies in all this is unknowable, at least to a humble columnist, but the thing to keep hold of is that it’s all been driven by Musk’s tweets. There’s method somewhere in the madness, in other words.
On one thing we can all agree, though, is that Musk is sui generis. What then about another insanely rich guy – also obsessed with space exploration – Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder? He bought the venerable Washington Post newspaper in August 2013 for what was effectively small change – $250m. This had the useful side-effect of infuriating Donald Trump. More importantly, it secured the paper’s future. And, as far as we can tell, Bezos doesn’t seem to be driving the Post’s editorial agenda.
Yet Bezos, too, seems to have a tweeting problem. Last week, for example, Joe Biden published an anodyne tweet saying “You want to bring down inflation? Let’s make sure the wealthiest corporations pay their fair share.” Up pops Bezos, saying “the newly created Disinformation [Governance] Board should review this tweet, or maybe they need to form a new Non Sequitur Board instead. Raising corp taxes is fine to discuss. Taming inflation is critical to discuss. Mushing them together is just misdirection.” He followed this with what can only be described as a sermonette in Twitter-speak: “In fact, the administration tried hard to inject even more stimulus into an already over-heated, inflationary economy and only Manchin [Joe, the coal-brokerage founder who is also a senator representing West Virginia] saved them from themselves. Inflation is a regressive tax that most hurts the least affluent. Misdirection doesn’t help the country.”
So why is Bezos wasting his time on Twitter? I can only think of two reasons: one bad and one good. The bad one is that he’s bored not running Amazon any more and needs to do some virtue-signalling just to show Musk (and the Twitterverse) that other billionaires are available. Though, as Politico’s Jack Shafer puts it: “Twitter fulminations may give Bezos a rush of ego-gratification, but why should the man who owns an entire dairy get such a kick out of sipping from a personal-sized milk carton?”
The more charitable interpretation is that, unlike most proprietors of newspapers, he’s not using the Post as his personal megaphone and using Twitter to indulge his inner child. Like Musk but without the porcelain, in other words. So at least any war between the two of them won’t be a game of thrones.
What I’ve been reading
A strange breed
Life among the Econ. Axel Leijonhufvud’s delightful satirical ethnography, now available as a pdf, of an interesting academic tribe – economists.
A nice essay in the online magazine Aeon by Ann-Sophie Barwich on how the history of ideas still struggles to remember the names of notable female philosophers.
Fighting talk from Maureen Dowd in her New York Times column about US supreme court justice Samuel Alito’s views on women’s rights.