November 12, 2022 - 7:00am

Even before he bought Twitter and started trolling AOC, expressing disdain for Elon Musk was regarded as a sure sign of sophistication among all correct-thinking people. All that had to be done was point out that his dad had owned an emerald mine and that he wasn’t the founder of Tesla. Richest man in the world? Anyone could do it.

Certainly, Musk is different from previous holders of the title “World’s Richest Man”. When I was a boy, the richest man in the world was the Sultan of Brunei: a boring little guy with a lot of oil. Later it was Bill Gates, the first billionaire computer nerd. Then it was Carlos Slim; nobody knew much about him. Eventually Jeff Bezos, the hard-headed businessman controlling a third of the world’s cloud computing infrastructure took the crown. Bezos is stranger than he seems — he is paying for a giant clock to be installed inside a mountain that will tick once a year for the next 10,000 years. But if people dislike him, it’s not because of his clock: it’s from a fear that he is too successful, that he controls too much.

Most billionaires, in fact, are not weird. As a rule, the key to becoming mega-rich is to control an obviously essential resource or piece of infrastructure. Billionaires are conformists, who crave status and pursue it through predictable means — by donating money to an elitist institution in exchange for a name on a building; or buying a formerly prestigious magazine trading on past glories; or establishing a charitable foundation. And so on.

Musk, however, is different. There are other tech nonconformists who have become very rich — Trump-supporting Larry Ellison of Oracle, or the guns, drugs and yoga enthusiast John McAfee. But Ellison built his fortune on databases — information infrastructure — while McAfee created that spammy antivirus software you dis-install every time you set up a new PC. Musk similarly began in the realms of the obvious — payment processing — but then switched to making bets on the future, on space rockets, luxury electric cars, digging holes under cities, satellites. Recently he unveiled a humanoid robot.

There’s something unusually volatile about his wealth, which is based largely on Tesla’s trillion-dollar evaluation. Even Musk thinks that’s too high. After all, why should a luxury electric car company be so valuable? The last richest man in the world whose wealth was based on cars was Henry Ford, who took the opposite strategy: ugly-but-affordable cars for the masses.

But in this era of confusion and doubt, of leaders who are so obviously lost, where one age is dying but the next is yet to be born, it seems fitting that someone should become the richest man in the world by selling a dream of the future. After all, Musk’s gambles are also our gambles. Governments proclaim the goal of “net zero” and 30 countries have pledged to phase out petrol and diesel cars by 2040, but the world could face lithium shortages as soon as 2025, much of the supply chain is concentrated in China, and hydrocarbons still account for 84% of the world’s energy. So we should enjoy this Weimar Cabaret while we can, because whoever follows Musk as richest man in the world will almost certainly be much less entertaining, while the rest of us will be considerably poorer. You’ll miss him when he’s gone.

Daniel Kalder is an author based in Texas. Previously, he spent ten years living in the former Soviet bloc. His latest book, Dictator Literature, is published by Oneworld. He also writes on Substack: Thus Spake Daniel Kalder.