I very much enjoyed my friend Roger Kimball’s review of the new Elon Musk biography, and, relatedly, his thoughts on the Tesla automobiles that are among Musk’s most successful products.
Musk is a controversial figure for many reasons, not the least of which is that his companies have not been shy about seeking, and securing, various kinds of government benefits such as subsidized loans and tax credits. I don’t have any intention of re-litigating that argument in this space; suffice it to say that there is more government support for, and interference with, private businesses than I would prefer.
Like Roger, I have a bit of a weakness for fast cars, and so I read with some interest the recent explanation in Consumer Reports that it has been forced to recalibrate its 0-100 point ranking system for cars after testing the newest and best version of the Tesla S sedan. Why? “The all-wheel-drive Tesla Model S P85D sedan performed better in our tests than any other car ever has, breaking the Consumer Reports Ratings system.” If a 5,000-pound family sedan that moves at million-dollar supercar speeds without burning any gasoline is your thing, the S is really a remarkable piece of engineering and art, unlike anything else I’ve ever driven.
For what it’s worth, our friends over at Ars Technica insist that the finest car on offer at the moment is the similarly geeked-out BMW i8, a plug-in hybrid with swan-wing doors that offers Lamborghini performance with Honda fuel economy. I’ve not driven one yet, so I withhold judgment.
But this is National Review, not Car and Driver, and I’m not writing this to open up a debate about the merits of high-tech monster cars. Whatever you think of Tesla’s business model—or BMW’s, for that matter—here we have all of the ingredients of what actually makes the world work: real investment, innovation, relentlessly applied intelligence, risk-taking—and failure. Neither Tesla nor its competitors nor Musk’s other enterprises have been without failure. And the result is products that are the best examples of their category that have ever existed. One reaction to that is: “Of course they are—if this year’s cars weren’t better than last year’s cars, why would we buy them? Why would they sell them?” Tesla cars are, at the moment, pretty expensive–about $140,000–but there is some hidden egalatarianism in there: Tesla long-term plan is to build affordable cars for ordinary people, and it is using its current offerings of high-end cars for high-income enthusiasts to subsidize that.
The thing that is a millionaire’s indulgence today will be in your garage tomorrow. We get used to everything—almost everything—we use being the best there ever has been, and noticeably better than it was the day before yesterday. That’s just how things go.
Except our schools. Except our regulatory agencies. Except our retirement pensions. Except our health insurance.
There is a reason for that.