Elon Musk’s new toy

For Christmas one year, my folks got my kid brother a tank.

This thing could roll across the floor, the turret turned and it made battle sounds. That may not sound like much, but this was 1966 — color TV was like showing fire to a cave man — so this toy was the eighth wonder of the world. And what did Keith do with it? He cut the wires. On Christmas Day, yet. For reasons known only to him, the boy broke it before he — more important, before I — could even play with it.

I recall all this by way of discussing another child who got another cool toy and broke it right out of the box. His name is Elon Musk, and the “toy” is Twitter. Granted, this comparison is unfair to my brother. He was only 5, after all. Musk is 51; his immaturity is not a function of chronological age.

Last month, the world’s richest child spent $44 billion to purchase Twitter. Apparently, he had not the first idea what to do with it. So he cut the wires.

Which is to say, he made one disastrous move after another. He tried to charge celebrities and other public figures $20 for the coveted blue check mark of authenticity that, until now, was free. Stephen King likely spoke for many when he responded with an expletive and said, “They should pay me.”

“How about $8?” Musk asked, hopefully. That was still a nonstarter for King — it was about the principle, not the price, he said — but Musk did end up selling blue check marks to scammers and grifters who promptly began masquerading as prominent people and companies. Someone tweeting as the drug maker Eli Lilly falsely announced the company was giving away insulin. When the lie was revealed, Lilly’s stock tanked, costing it, by some estimates, $15 billion in market cap. Its lawyers, one assumes, are straining at the leash.

Meantime, Musk welcomed trolls and arsonists back to the platform — use of the N-word promptly jumped a reported 500%. He also fired half his workforce and threatened to fire the rest unless they vowed “to be extremely hardcore” — whatever that means. Now Twitter is hemorrhaging workers, users and advertisers amid fears it could implode any minute. Obviously, there was never a plan here; Musk put the same forethought into this purchase as you or I would into buying a tin of mints.

It raises the question of how much wealth — how much influence over all our lives, our politics, our communications, our culture — one unelected and unaccountable individual should be allowed. Should we do away with billionaires? The question has lately been debated everywhere from The New York Times to Teen Vogue.

Some argue for a confiscatory tax code that would effectively abolish the super rich. They see this as a means of defense against power that is held disproportionately and wielded capriciously. Others say it’s only right that workers enjoy more of the wealth they help create. They are seductive arguments, especially now, watching this rich child try to get his new toy to work as people who do 40-hour weeks and gig work on the side are visiting food pantries for Thanksgiving. Indeed, this much seems beyond dispute:

When you break your toys right out of the box and you’re not 5 years old, it probably means you have too many toys.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Email him at lpitts@miamiherald.com.