To go online and catch the latest tweet from the world’s richest man is to despair for the fate of Elon Musk. Yes, he’s got all that dough and can daily luxuriate in the thrill of having the world pay attention to him. But doesn’t he seem a bit… unhinged?
In fact, Musk reminds me of another out-of-control genius industrialist who revolutionized one industry, came close to transforming another, and made often cruel, tone-deaf pronouncements about the economy, workers’ rights, and much else.
I am, of course, describing Henry Ford.
On the surface, the parallels are obvious.
Ford didn’t invent the internal combustion engine, but he perfected a way to mass-produce automobiles. Musk didn’t invent the electric car, but he sure as hell has made it popular. Musk makes unrealized predictions about the imminent arrival of truly safe self-driving cars. Ford created a one-man commuter airplane called the Flivver, which he said would be the “Model T of the Air.”
And elsewhere in their lives, the two men are eerily—and at times creepily—alike.
Let’s start with their reaction to financial crises.
In 1933, as the unemployment rate in Detroit hit 40 percent, Henry Ford told reporters that the Great Depression was “a good thing, generally.” Almost 90 years later, Musk used the same words when asked about the prospect of a recession. “This is actually a good thing,” Musk tweeted last month. “It has been raining money on fools for too long. Some bankruptcies need to happen.”
Like Musk, Ford seemed to almost relish the prospect of tough times. As banks failed and more than 100,000 families in Ford’s hometown of Detroit were left without resources, Ford told a reporter, “Let them fail. Let everybody fail! I made my fortune when I had nothing to start with, by myself and my own ideas. Let other people do the same.”
Then there’s Musk and Ford’s shared loathing of organized labor.
“Labor unions are the worst thing that ever struck the earth,” Ford said in 1937 as he faced pressure to join the other big three auto makers by signing a deal with the UAW. Displaying his typical paranoid worldview, Ford—a notorious antisemite—added, “Financiers are behind the unions and their object is to kill competition so as to reduce the income of the workers and eventually bring on war. We will never recognize the United Auto Workers or any other union.” It should be noted that for Ford “financiers” was a synonym for Jews.
Ford’s union-bashing reached a violent climax later in 1937 during the infamous “Battle of the Overpass,” a bloody melee in which the company’s in-house security goons kicked and stomped union organizers—including UAW leader Walter Reuther.
Musk prefers to do his union-bashing without the wet stuff.
Tesla is the only American carmaker that has not signed with the UAW, and Musk ran into trouble with the National Labor Relations Board by sending a Tweet that seemed to threaten workers with losing their stock options if they unionized.
Musk is challenging the NLRB’s finding, and it didn’t stop him from gloating when a former UAW official pleaded guilty to siphoning off $2 million of union funds for personal use. “The UAW stole millions from workers,” Musk tweeted somewhat misleadingly, “whereas Tesla has made many workers millionaires (via stock grants). Subtle, but important difference.”
It’s easy to imagine Henry Ford nodding approvingly from the great beyond.
Then there’s the two men’s sense of entitlement when it comes to intruding on their employees’ privacy.
Ford likely would have seen nothing wrong with Tesla allegedly hiring a PR firm to snoop on its employees’ Facebook group to see who might be unionizing or voicing sexual harassment complaints.
Whether this crosses the line from what is apparently a common corporate practice of “social listening” to a more insidious form of surveillance is an open question. But it’s nothing compared to what the Ford Motor Company did following its decision to double workers’ wages to $5 a day for a 40-hour week.
That may have sounded great in 1914 when the announcement grabbed headlines around the world. But most news stories failed to mention that to qualify for the raise, Ford’s largely immigrant workforce had to prove that they were “sober and industrious.” This meant they didn’t drink alcohol, didn’t mistreat their family, didn’t have boarders in their home, kept a clean house, sent their kids to school, and maintained a savings account.
But then it gets stranger.
Ford enforced this policy with its weirdly named “Sociology Department,” which consisted of Ford inspectors who showed up at workers’ homes to poke around.
The purpose of these “advisers,” a company manual said, was “not to pry into family affairs from a meddlesome standpoint…” Really? It sounds meddlesome to me. It actually sounds like something from Mao’s China.
Ford’s intrusiveness finds its echo in Musk’s recent bluntly stated insistence that—pandemic or not—Tesla workers must drag themselves into the office.
“Anyone who wishes to do remote work must be in the office for a minimum (and I mean *minimum*) of 40 hours per week or depart Tesla,” Musk wrote in a now notorious email to employees. "If you don't show up,” he added, “we will assume you have resigned."
That’s Ford’s view of workers’ rights minus the this-is-for-your-own-good rhetoric.
What else do Ford and Musk have in common? There’s the penchant of both men for saying things that turn out not to be true.
Musk’s increasingly shaky claim that he was going to buy Twitter for $44 billion is of a piece with his 2018 Tweet that he was considering taking Tesla private. That deal never materialized, but it did inspire the SEC to charge Musk with securities fraud, and in April a judge in a related civil suit ruled that Musk had knowingly lied when he made the announcement.
Henry Ford did something similar in 1919 when he shocked the world by announcing that he was resigning from Ford to start a new company that would build a better and cheaper car. Ford’s true intention was to drive down the price of Ford stock so that his son Edsel could buy out Ford’s handful of private investors, thus ensuring that only people whose last name was Ford would own a piece of the company. In the end, Ford was able to take full ownership, though he had to pay a premium once his investors figured out that his resignation was a ruse.
There are also, to be sure, profound differences between Musk and Ford.
Ford insisted that the Model T be priced affordably. He wanted to make a car for the average person, and he consistently lowered the price of the car over the years. Musk, by contrast, makes a car that’s become an expensive status symbol for the politically correct. So good for Henry Ford.
And to give credit where credit is due, not only did these two genuinely brilliant men revolutionize the automobile industry; their genius also led to breakthroughs elsewhere. Musk’s SpaceX is thus far a triumph, and in the 1930s, Ford Aviation’s groundbreaking “Trimotor” passenger plane helped to convince the public that air travel was safe.
But, as Ford’s chroniclers A.J. Baime and Steven Watts tell us, the second half of Henry Ford’s life did not go well. After the Depression, his autocratic leadership caused Ford to drop to third place behind GM and Chrysler. He treated his hard-working and sensitive son Edsel with heartbreaking cruelty. When Edsel died of cancer at age 49, Ford was overcome with regrets. A series of worsening strokes rendered him increasingly detached from reality, and he was ultimately forced out of the presidency of his company by family members who insisted that Edsel’s son, Henry II, take over.
Henry Ford did not, as legend has it, say that history was bunk. But he did say, “What do we care what they did five-hundred or one thousand years ago? It means nothing to me. History is more or less bunk… We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker's dam is the history we make today.”
It would be unfortunate for Elon Musk if he shares Ford’s belief that history isn’t worth knowing. Instead, he’d do well to view Ford’s story as a cautionary tale about the pernicious effects of grandiosity. But I imagine that the richest man in the world is by now too lost in the ego-sphere to learn from anything as mundane as the past.