The question of how you solve a problem like Elon Musk has crossed the line from an amusing little parlor game to an issue with serious implications for anyone doing business with him, including major corporations and the U.S. government.
Little that Musk says or does escapes popular notice, but a tweet he posted Wednesday on X, the platform he owns which was formerly known as Twitter, is in a category all his own.
Musk replied to a user’s antisemitic tweet accusing Jewish communities of “pushing the exact kind of …hatred against whites that they claim to want people to stop using against them.” The user went on to accuse “western Jewish populations” of supporting the flooding of the U.S. by “hordes of minorities.”
Musk’s reply was: “You have said the actual truth.” Within hours, his tweet had attracted more than 6 million views.
Monitors of far-right tenets recognize this one as the “great replacement theory.” It holds that Jews are behind a movement to import nonwhite immigrants in order to diminish the political standing of the white majority.
The American Jewish Committee, in a tweet of its own, called it “the deadliest antisemitic conspiracy theory in modern U.S. history.”
You have said the actual truth.
— Elon Musk endorses an openly antisemitic tweet
A white nationalist and Nazi claim, it was the theme of the antisemitic “unite the right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 and the motivation behind the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in 2018, in which 11 worshipers were shot to death.
The perpetrator of the synagogue terror attack, Robert Bowers, has been sentenced to death.
This is not the first time that Musk has purveyed antisemitism on X. In September, he accused the Anti-Defamation League of destroying much of the value of X by pressuring advertisers to abandon the platform.
“The ADL, because they are so aggressive in their demands to ban social media accounts for even minor infractions, are ironically the biggest generators of anti-Semitism on this platform,” Musk tweeted.
He was responding to a tweet quoting the far-right conspiracy-monger Alex Jones calling the Anti-Defamation League “the most pro-Hitler organization I’ve ever seen.” Musk asserted that the ADL is “somehow complicit in creating the very thing they complain about!”
Musk’s decimation of the content-moderation team at X has opened the gates to a torrent of antisemitic, racist and hate speech of all varieties at the platform.
Linda Yaccarino, the former television executive whom Musk appointed CEO of X in May, has claimed in tweets and other public statements that the platform is acting aggressively against hate speech.
“X’s point of view has always been very clear that discrimination by everyone should STOP across the board,” Yaccarino tweeted Thursday as the uproar over Musk’s tweet was mounting. “X has also been extremely clear about our efforts to combat antisemitism and discrimination. There’s no place for it anywhere in the world — it’s ugly and wrong. Full stop.”
Plainly, her effort to tamp down X’s reputation as a haven for hate speech — assuming it genuinely exists — has failed. Whether it can be taken seriously as long as it is explicitly undermined by the owner of X is doubtful.
On Thursday, IBM announced that it was suspending its advertising on X indefinitely. The company’s action came the day after the watchdog organization Media Matters for America documented that its ads had appeared on X next to Nazi content.
Apple also withdrew its advertising, according to Axios. So has the film studio Lions Gate Entertainment.
Ads for numerous other prominent companies, including Comcast’s NBCUniversal and Oracle, have also appeared next to hateful content, according to Media Matters. Comcast has said it is investigating the report; as of this writing, Oracle has been silent.
The European Commission also said its services would halt paid advertising on X and other social media platforms.
“We have seen an alarming increase in disinformation and hate speech on several social media platforms in recent weeks, an EC spokesman said, naming X specifically, according to Variety. “We have therefore advised services to refrain from advertising at this stage on concerned social media platforms, where we have concerns that such content appears in an inappropriate context and thus affects the effectiveness of our communication and our messages.”
The X account pages of EC agencies will remain accessible for official communications, the spokesman said.
Following the latest Musk tweet, a group of more than 160 Jewish community leaders called on “Disney, Apple, Amazon, and other large advertisers to stop funding X through their ad spend,” and for Apple and Google to remove X from their app stores.
“Make no mistake,” the leaders stated: “Elon Musk is not only powerful because of his own riches. It is because these companies and leaders empower him. In so doing, they are participants in mainstreaming hate that leads to murders.”
Musk’s amplification of antisemitism also poses a problem for the U.S. government and thus for American taxpayers generally. SpaceX, a private company he controls, is a major partner holding contracts from the Defense Department and NASA.
Musk’s behavior raises the question of whether any company he leads can be an appropriate government contractor. At a press briefing in August, Pentagon spokesman Patrick S. Ryder dodged that question.
Asked whether the Defense Department would review Musk’s security clearances, Ryder said, “We have well-developed processes and procedures to look at things like contracts and services that [are] person-independent — personality-independent….We’ll continue to conduct business with a wide variety of partners in industry, and I’ll just leave it at that.”
Musk’s behavior presents a quandary for the government agencies because their outsourcing of crucial services and infrastructure to commercial companies such as SpaceX leaves them with few practical alternatives. NASA, for example, recently signed a $5-billion contract for 14 astronaut missions to the International Space Station through 2030.
The government’s ability to act in response to expressions of sympathy with white supremacist and Nazi thinking is unclear. Government regulations dating back to the 1980s list several grounds for “debarment” — that is, banning companies from bidding on contracts — and suspension of existing contracts.
These include committing fraud or other criminal offenses related to obtaining or performing the contract, antitrust violations, and “embezzlement, theft, forgery, bribery, making false statements, tax evasion, or other similar offenses.”
None of these clearly applies to Musk’s tweets. The regulations, however, also incorporate a catch-all provision applying to indications of “a lack of business integrity or business honesty that seriously and directly affects the present responsibility of a Government contractor or subcontractor.”
Presumably, Musk’s federal contract supervisors would have to make the case that his amplification of antisemitic and white supremacist thinking falls into that category.
The government has been grappling with the behavior of Musk in connection with its SpaceX contracts. In August, the Department of Justice sued the company for discriminating against legal asylum seekers and refugees in hiring, a violation of U.S. law.
Earlier this month, a federal judge in Texas blocked the lawsuit, agreeing with SpaceX’s position that administrative law judges such as the one who would hear the case did not have the constitutional authority to do so.
The Defense Department also tangled with Musk over his claim to have unilaterally shut down or blocked Ukraine’s access to SpaceX’s Starlink broadband internet service. That action conflicted with U.S. interests in the region; the Pentagon later said it would buy Starlink’s terminals and service for Ukraine, taking them out of SpaceX’s hands.
None of this leaves the government entirely bereft of leverage over Musk. SpaceX will be dependent on government contracts for years, if not decades. Nothing mandates that the Pentagon and NASA fund the company or treat it as a suitable bidder in the future, as long as it’s associated with Musk.
That’s especially true now that he has shown himself to be more than a mere embarrassment to anyone doing business with him. He’s a social virus.
His promotion of antisemitism risks fomenting violence that could cost innocent lives. He has made clear his thoughts and beliefs, which occupy the darkest reaches of inhumanity. It’s time to start hacking away at his influence.
Column: The war on ‘junk fees’ is gaining ground, but the fight is not yet won
“I talk to a lot of of banks,” Rep. Dan Meuser (R-Pa.), told Rohit Chopra, director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, “and they’re really not happy with your agency.”
He urged Chopra to “be responsive to the clientele you’re supposed to be helping.”
With admirable restraint, Chopra replied: “Just to be clear, the clientele of the CFPB is not the banks. The clientele is the public.”
Consumers are fed up with hidden fees for everything from booking hotels and resort fees to buying concert tickets online, renting an apartment, and paying utility bills.
— Federal Trade Commission
The exchange occurred at a hearing of the House Committee on Financial Services on June 14. Leaving aside that Wall Street banks and brokerages have been among Meuser’s leading campaign donors, the congressman was not lying about the bankers’ opinion about Chopra and his agency — in fact, he may have minimized their hostility.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, speaking on behalf of the financial services industry, has called Chopra a “radical” pursuing an “ideologically driven agenda.” Last year, the American Bankers Assn. and two other bankers’ lobby groups published a 21-page broadside against him, calling on Congress and the federal courts to rein him in.
Their ire has intensified in recent months, as the CFPB has stepped up its campaign against “junk fees.” The agency defines these as excessive or unnecessary fees on overdrafts, account information requests, late payments on loans or credit cards, among other charges.
The CFPB’s campaign is part of the Biden administration’s broader attack on junk fees across the U.S. economy — fees that appear on a consumer’s bill at the end of a transaction, rather than being disclosed in advance.
If you’ve rented a car, bought an airline ticket, booked a hotel room or paid a cable bill, you probably know what the White House is talking about: hidden, surprise charges for services you may not even have used, transaction charges for buying online or downloading a concert ticket instead of picking it up at the box office, etc., etc.
These charges have proliferated as retailers and service providers try to raise revenues by “unbundling” services that used to be provided at no extra charge. The quintessential example comes from the airline industry, where baggage fees have soared, reaching nearly $6.8 billion last year among the top domestic carriers, up from $464 million in 2007. Some ostensibly low-cost airlines charge for checked bags and carry-ons.
Biden took aim at the nickel-and-diming of American consumers within six months of taking office in 2021, when he instructed agencies including the Department of Transportation, Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission to devote close scrutiny to regulated industries’ treatment of consumers.
The administration intensified its campaign on Oct. 11, when Biden, FTC Chair Lina Khan and Chopra jointly announced new initiatives on junk fees.
The FTC’s proposed rule would require businesses to disclose “all mandatory fees when telling consumers a price, making it easier for consumers to comparison shop for the lowest price,” according to a commission statement. The FTC would be empowered to obtain refunds for consumers and impose financial penalties on businesses that don’t comply.
“Consumers are fed up with hidden fees for everything from booking hotels and resort fees to buying concert tickets online, renting an apartment, and paying utility bills … leaving consumers wondering what they are paying for or if they are getting anything at all for the fee charged,” the statement said.
A couple of weeks later, the White House targeted another source of hidden fees — unrepairable products that force owners to pay for servicing by authorized shops — by convening a roundtable on the “right to repair.”
The administration was building on state initiatives in New York, Colorado, Minnesota and California, where a new law going into effect next July 1 requires manufacturers to provide documentation, parts and tools to consumers and repair shops on reasonable terms for any appliances or electronic devices made after July 1, 2021.
As I’ve reported, Apple has long been the worst of bad actors in selling devices that can’t be repaired by users; it began to come around in 2021, when it allowed iPhone users to perform the simplest fixes of broken screens and exhausted batteries. But it’s been backsliding: Owners of its newest desktop and laptop computers can’t even replace or upgrade their internal memory cards.
Government pressure on banks to reduce their junk fees has borne fruit, to an extent. At a hearing of the Senate Banking Committee Wednesday, several bank CEOs testified about their institutions’ determination to reduce or even eliminate overdraft charges. That’s a fee category that long has been an irritant to customers, especially lower-income depositors, and has been a particular target of the CFPB.
JPMorgan Chase Chief Executive Jamie Dimon, for example, told the committee that his bank had introduced “low-cost, no-minimum balance, no-overdraft accounts specifically designed for the unique needs of lower-income and historically underbanked consumers.” He said overdraft fees at JPM Chase had declined by about 50% since before the pandemic.
That’s true as far as it goes — extrapolating from the bank’s nine-month totals, overdraft fees at JPMorgan Chase are on pace to total about $1.11 billion this year, down from $2.06 billion in 2019. More generally, however, JPM’s consumer banking fees have been sticky — they’re on pace to reach about $4.6 billion this year, compared to $5.12 billion in 2019.
Wells Fargo CEO Charles W. Scharf testified that his bank had “announced a number of changes … to help millions of customers avoid overdraft fees.” Indeed, Wells Fargo is on pace to collect $908 million in overdraft fees this year, down from its $1.7 billion in 2019. But the total of all its consumer fees still is on pace to reach $4.1 billion this year, compared to $5.2 billion in 2019.
Nor are all reforms of overdraft fees equal. Some banks that boast of having eliminated overdraft fees, for instance, do so by enrolling their customers in services through which they’ll cover your bills, but charge usurious interest rates for the excess.
The banks’ quarterly and annual reports to the consortium of federal bank regulatory agencies, however, document their difficulty in weaning themselves from those fees and others levied on consumers.
No one suggests that the banks shouldn’t charge fees for specific services, such as for maintaining customers’ checking or banking accounts or overdrawing their accounts or stopping payment on checks. The question is whether the fees reflect the costs of those services or incorporate an overly robust profit. It’s that hidden profiteering that often puts the “junk” in “junk fees.”
Does it really cost a bank $10 to process a checking overdraft? That’s Bank of America’s fee, according to CEO Brian Moynihan, who bragged that it has been reduced from $35. Does it really cost Bank of America $30 to process a stop-payment request, its fee for that service?
One reason these charges are pegged so high is to discourage customers from using those services, but an institution that really values its customers, as all the banks say they do, might think twice about using unnecessary charges to manipulate its clientele into avoiding services they can only get at a bank.
The CFPB is also tangling with the banking sector over an initiative it has launched to clamp down on credit card late fees (perhaps another reason that banks are “not happy” with the agency, to cite Meuser’s gripe).
The bureau has proposed to cap late fees at $8 per missed payment and in no case higher than 25% of the account’s required minimum payment. Under current law, credit card issuers can charge up to $30 for the first late payment and $41 for subsequent late payments — even if they’re a few hours or a day late. As many consumers learn from bitter experience, it’s not unusual for the late charge to exceed what was owed in the first place.
The CFPB calculates that credit card companies extract $12 billion a year from Americans through those charges, not counting the finance charges on unpaid balances; it says its proposal could reduce the toll by as much as $9 billion annually.
The bankers have ginned up an argument that the proposed cap will “ultimately harm all cardholders — whether they pay late, on time or carry a balance,” as Dimon put it to the Senate committee. He said he was quoting from the CFPB’s own findings, but that’s not exactly the point the bureau made.
What it said was that cardholders who carry a balance may be hit with higher interest rates or other fees, but of course that would be the card companies just trying to pump up charges that already are arguably excessive to make up for their losses in late fees.
(The average interest rate on credit card balances was 24.56% in November; the average charge-off of credit card balances among the 100 biggest banks was about 3.57% in the third quarter, which suggests that the banks would still be making gobs of money from credit cards at a much lower rate.)
For the bankers to warn that reducing one fee would force them to raise others is tantamount to their announcing that they’re determined to play an eternal game of whack-a-mole.
The fact is that junk fees permeate the economic landscape. Consumers are on the front line, but they face a tough battle, because junk fees are likeliest to crop up where they can’t easily be avoided. If you have a critical need to change your flight, refusing to pay an airline’s $100 change fee won’t get you where you need to go; it will just leave you earthbound.
That’s why the efforts of the Biden White House and its agencies are so important. Legislation and regulation are the best and fairest ways to eradicate junk fees. But don’t expect that to get very far without an intense backlash from the airlines, banks, hotels and other enterprises for which exorbitant fees for modest services have become mother’s milk.
Sam Altman tells Trevor Noah what he really thinks about his ouster, the dangers of AI and Taylor Swift
When Sam Altman was abruptly fired last month as CEO of artificial intelligence powerhouse OpenAI, the rupture left him with a lot of thinking to do.
But looking back on the experience, Altman told comedian Trevor Noah in a video podcast released Thursday morning, there may have been some upside.
“The empathy I gained out of this whole experience, and my recompilation of values, for sure was a blessing in disguise,” Altman told the former “Daily Show” host in one of his first major interviews since triumphantly returning to the tech company. “It was at a painful cost, but I’m happy to have had the experience in that sense.”
It was one of several subjects the technologist — whose company is behind major consumer AI products such as ChatGPT and DALL-E, making him the face of the current AI boom in many ways — opened up about on the latest episode of Noah’s Spotify podcast “What Now?”
1. Altman was at the Las Vegas Grand Prix when he got fired.
In response to a question from Noah about where he was when he got the news that the OpenAI board had fired him, Altman said he was where a lot of rich, influential Californians were at the time: Las Vegas, for the Formula One Grand Prix.
“I never got to watch any race that whole weekend,” he told the host as the two sat around a simple wooden table in what they implied was OpenAI’s office. “I was in my hotel room, took this call, had no idea what it was gonna be, and got fired by the board.”
His phone started blowing up with messages to the point where iMessage stopped working, Altman added. Employees began quitting; Microsoft, a major investor in OpenAI, was calling people up.
Returning to OpenAI was not yet on his mind, Altman continued, but he knew he wanted to keep working on developing generalized artificial intelligence. He flew back to California and started contemplating his next move.
“It felt like a dream,” Altman said of the experience. “I was confused, it was chaotic. It did not feel real.”
2. He still has some hard feelings about the whole ordeal.
“This was a very painful thing and felt to me, personally, just as a human, super unfair — the way it was handled,” Altman said of his surprise sacking.
It’s still unclear why exactly the OpenAI board tried to push Altman out, although speculation has circled around possible disagreements over how quickly the firm should be trying to develop and commercialize advanced AI systems. Because of OpenAI’s structure, which holds the firm’s for-profit elements subservient to a nonprofit board, the firm does not hold money-making as its core objective. Instead, it aims to develop artificial intelligence for the betterment of all mankind.
The board sought to push out Altman quickly and with the benefit of surprise, subsequent reporting has revealed. But beyond an initial claim that he’s been inconsistently candid in his communications with them, the board has been tight-lipped about what motivated its attempted coup.
The Saturday morning after he got fired, Altman told Noah, “a couple of the board members called me and said, ‘Would you like to talk about coming back?’ ”
“I had really complicated feelings about that,” he added. “But it was very clarifying at the end of it to be like, ‘Yes, I do.’ ”
3. Altman got a firsthand look at what it’s like to lose your job.
In the closing minutes of the interview — which remained amiable for its hour and 15-minute run time — Noah made a friendly but pointed observation that Altman’s firing paralleled the job losses a lot of people fear his technology will bring about at a societal scale.
“Continue to remember that feeling you had when you were fired as you’re creating a technology that’s gonna put many people in a similar position,” Noah encouraged the chief executive.
“Y’know what I did Saturday morning — like early Saturday morning, when I couldn’t sleep?” responded Altman, seemingly referring to the day after his Friday dismissal. “I wrote down: ‘What can I learn about this that will help me be better when other people go through a similar thing and blame me like I’m blaming the board right now.’”
It made him more empathetic, he added.
4. Altman still believes in AI, despite its risks.
For all the boardroom drama of the last month, Altman remains enthusiastic about artificial intelligence — even as he cautions that it will come with downsides.
“This is gonna be a force to combat injustice in the world in a super important way,” he told Noah. “These systems will be — they won’t have the same deep flaws that all humans do. They will be able to be made to be far less racist, far less sexist, far less biased. They’ll be a force for economic justice in the world.”
But, his host asked, is it really possible to make AI completely safe? What is Altman’s nightmare scenario?
Safety is not a binary but a balance between risks and benefits, Altman said, pointing to society’s continued embrace of planes (despite occasional crashes) and pharmaceuticals (which still have side effects).
“But it doesn’t mean things aren’t gonna go really wrong,” he added. “I think things will go really wrong with AI. What we have to prevent” are existential risks, or the threat that AI could wipe out mankind in the same way nuclear arms might.
5. He had some kind words for Taylor Swift.
Altman was just named CEO of the Year by Time Magazine, missing out on the top spot to 2023 Person of the Year Taylor Swift.
But he doesn’t envy her for it, he told Noah.
“I have had more attention this year than I would have liked to have in my entire life,” he explained, and it has at times been tough on his personal life. He’s “happy for Taylor Swift.”
Elon Musk’s SpaceX reportedly valued at $175 billion or more in tender offer
Elon Musk’s SpaceX has initiated discussions about selling insider shares at a price that values the closely held company at $175 billion or more, according to people familiar with the matter.
The most valuable U.S. startup is discussing a tender offer that could range from $500 million to $750 million, said some of the people, who asked not to be identified because the information is confidential. SpaceX is weighing offering shares at about $95 apiece, the people said.
Terms and the size of the tender offer could change depending on interest from both insider sellers and buyers.
A $175-billion valuation is a premium to the $150-billion valuation the company obtained through a tender offer this summer. The increase would make SpaceX one of the world’s 75 biggest companies by market capitalization, on par with T-Mobile USA ($179 billion), Nike ($177 billion) and China Mobile ($176 billion), according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Representatives for SpaceX, formally known as Space Exploration Technologies, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Hawthorne-based company dominates the market for commercial space launch services with its Falcon rockets. SpaceX also sends payloads to orbit for private-sector customers, as well as for NASA and other government agencies.
SpaceX also operates its internet-from-space Starlink service, anchored by a growing constellation of satellites in low-Earth orbit.
SpaceX is on track to book revenues of about $9 billion this year across its rocket launch and Starlink businesses, Bloomberg News reported last month, with sales projected to rise to around $15 billion in 2024. The company is also discussing an initial public offering for Starlink as soon as late 2024 — a bid to capitalize on robust demand for communications via space.
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