Highly Confident

The Book of the Week is “Highly Confident, The Crime and Punishment of Michael Milken” by Jesse Kornbluth, published in 1992. This volume described a situation that lends itself to the hypothetical board game “Survival Roulette: Wall Street Edition” (See “Blind Ambition” post).

There have been countless ultimate winners of this game through the decades: all the people never caught for securities-industry crimes. A million lawbreakers a day go unpunished. That doesn’t mean the crimes didn’t happen.

However, the most famous hypothetical losers of the game in this book were Ivan Boesky (an independent bond trader in New York) and Michael Milken (bond-trading executive at Drexel Burnham Lambert in Los Angeles). Other losers could include Dennis Kozlowski, Bernie Ebbers, Kenneth Lay, Steve Jobs and Richard Scrushy.

The board spaces could include Go To Jail (of course), and describe the financial crimes of: insider trading, Free Parking (or “stock parking”), disclosure failures, material misstatements, accounting irregularities, re-pricing stock options, and fraudulent conveyance, but also specific actions of conscience-salving philanthropy in which Milken engaged– such as throwing money at cancer research, and volunteering to teach math to nine and ten year-olds.

In August 1986, the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of New York began an investigation into Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) violations in the bond industry. By October 1986, the head federal prosecutor there, Rudolph Giuliani, was taping phone calls between Boesky and Milken. This, because Boesky had immediately accepted a plea deal to turn state’s evidence in exchange for a slap-on-the-wrist, country-club jail sentence. Boesky was one of the game’s lesser losers, to be sure. He was the king of lying, cheating and stealing.

Milken was a creative workaholic math genius whose meteoric career-rise allowed him to head an entire bond-research department in his mid-twenties. But he had zero ability for honest introspection.

Milken was a master at controlling his environment and other people, but he deceived himself about his “breaking the rules of the game” in his industry. He thought he was helping people all the time, but didn’t see how others were indirectly hurt by his actions. This kind of hubris syndrome is not uncommon in alpha males.

In 1978, Milken initiated the push to have Drexel underwrite junk-bond deals that financed hostile corporate takeovers. This wasn’t illegal in itself, but Boesky persistently badgered Milken until, by the early 1980’s, the latter was eventually manipulated into breaking the law.

Milken had a history of selfless philanthropy, yet his business actions gave rise to obscenely high fees made by his employer, an obscenely high income for himself, and crushing debt load for his clients. This led to extremely adverse financial and social consequences for thousands upon thousands of laid-off American employees of merged companies, subjected to disrupted lives and untold stresses.

The mood of the securities industry could be described thusly: “… with the election of Ronald Reagan… All that mattered was an ability to make money — without concern for risk, without regard for regulation.”

The investigation and resulting plea deals had the law enforcement agencies patting themselves on the back for convincing the perpetrators (other than Milken and Boesky) to implicate others, but the immunity deals the perpetrators got were a joke, considering that they themselves had serious credibility problems, and serious violations. It was a kangaroo court.

Nonetheless, the following parties launched investigations: Drexel and its attorneys, Milken and his attorneys, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and the SEC. Those last two, of course, engaged in fierce rivalry. By September 1991, there was an orgy of litigation against Milken. The roll call involved fifty-eight lawyers (!)

Around the same time, Wedtech was another 1980’s scandal borne of out-of-control greed. In that case, a personal injury attorney generated billing documents that purported to show charges for legal services, that were actually for lobbying. Wedtech’s executives bribed politicians for the purpose of influence peddling, and swindled shareholders. This kind of crime is not uncommon.

Along these lines, if, for instance, a real-estate mogul declared business bankruptcy repeatedly throughout his business career, why did investors trust him with their money again and again and again and again and again?? Perhaps there was influence peddling. The politicians were his puppets who eventually passed legislation favorable to them all. It was worth it to them to risk losing all their chump-change investment to get access to future (much more) profitable contacts and politicians who did their will.

Anyway, Milken hired a team of lawyers who were the cream of the crop of Northeastern elitists. Yet, unfortunately for him, the media and law enforcement made him the poster-boy / scapegoat for the greed of the 1980’s.

Ben Stein, a wannabe Hollywood writer, was, according to the author, an individual who fueled public outrage against Milken. He was unwisely hired to write articles for Barron’s (a major Wall Street publication) after Milken was indicted. The nature of his utterances in print were “Shocking, unsubstantiated, never-proven assertions made with absolute certainty.” Stein claimed his taking of the drug Halcion caused him to produce such libelous garbage.

Strangely enough, insider trading wasn’t what Milken was jailed for, but rather, a minor disclosure failure. The judge in his case was ridiculously misguided, considering that the court calculated the dollar value of damages Milken caused was a mere $318,000. But the court saw that the revenues generated by him and his firm were in the hundreds of millions of dollars. So the court fined him $600,000,000.

Read the book to learn of Milken’s prison sentence and numerous other details of the whole tabloid-crazy affair.

Inside the Olympics – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “Inside the Olympics” by Dick Pound, published in 2004. This volume described the trials and tribulations of a Canadian who served in various Olympic capacities, including athlete and governance leader.

As might be recalled, various scandals (relating to the selection of future host countries, illegal doping among athletes, and judging of sports events) plagued the International Olympic Committee (IOC) at the turn of the 21st century.

Pound wordily and repetitively discussed his role in helping participating nations agree on rules banning performance-enhancing drugs, and in helping to establish the complicated financial arrangements needed to be made by broadcast networks and sponsors. For, bureaucracy galore abounded. Each nation has a committee. Nations that don’t fund athletes and their attendant expenses depend on revenues derived from event coverage and advertisers, paid to the IOC and redistributed to those committees. Thus, the IOC tended to be the scapegoat for whatever went wrong with all things Olympic-related.

Olympic hosts are saddled with numerous expenses stemming from having to provide modern athletic facilities and accommodations for about 25,000 people.

Read the book to learn how national pride has miraculously kept the modern Olympic games alive since 1896, despite the bad behavior of power politics that has resulted in injustice, financial losses, ill-gotten gains, and deaths.

onassis (sic)

The Book of the Week is “onassis” (sic) by Will Frischauer, published in 1968. The biographer immediately resorted to a disclaimer on his Acknowledgements page. In compiling this volume, he sourced twelve books in his Bibliography, claimed he drew upon interviews, and fifteen years’ worth of his readings on his subject, conceding that “… in many instances the dividing line between fact and fiction is so blurred…”

Nowadays, an equally vague author, whether authorized or unauthorized– to write about a wealthy alpha male (especially a politician) whose crack public-relations mythmakers gloze over unpleasant details– usually has the goal of rewriting history. That did not appear to be the case, at least with this book.

Born in 1906 in Smyrna, Onassis was of Turkish extraction. He was six years old when his mother passed away. His father lucratively sold tobacco, grain and hides. Sent to a Greek Orthodox (Christian) school, Onassis excelled at water polo and, already fluent in Turkish and Greek– became so in English, French and Italian.

In September 1922, when hostilities flared up between the Turks and Greeks, Onassis helped his family (except for his father, who was arrested early on) survive by playing well with parties on both sides of the conflict. His good relationship with the United States Vice Consul (a neutral party) allowed him to reunite with his older sister, two younger half-sisters and stepmother in Athens, and then travel to bail his father out of jail.

The father was furious that Onassis wasted money to bribe the authorities to get him sprung, as he would’ve been released anyway. The Turks froze foreign bank accounts of the family’s business when they took over Smyrna.

In 1923, taking advice from friends, Onassis got a job with a telephone company. He got away with lying about his age (said he was older) and birthplace to obtain an ID card. Then he felt the need to strike out on his own. His persistence paid off after a number of frustrating weeks, when he was finally able to sell his father’s Oriental tobacco to the Argentinians, who had been importing it from Brazil and Cuba.

Onassis was eventually able to get both Argentinian and Greek citizenship with the use of his dishonest identity-document application. After presiding over a failed cigarette business, in the next five or so years, he made his first million dollars. It was unstated exactly how. It was stated that he made business contacts wherever he went, some of whom he obviously inherited from his father.

Onassis was appointed a trade diplomat for the Argentinian government, and got into the shipping business. He started with used ships with Greek registration, then, in the early 1930’s, to avoid petty bureaucrats, switched to Panamanian registration. Other advantages with the latter included financial transactions that were permitted to be made in any currency, that were tax-free.

Onassis revolutionized the industry by ordering the construction of monster-sized oil tankers– with unprecedented capacities of tens of thousands of tons. The Swedes built the boats, and J. Paul Getty shipped the oil to Japan. Onassis, unlike the competition, also built comfortable living quarters for his ships’ crews, to foster employee loyalty.

During WWII, Onassis broke into the whaling industry, selling whale meat to mink farms and whale livers to the Borden food outfit. After the war, he took a bride; she was seventeen, he was forty. They raised their family in Oyster Bay, Long Island.

Yet another unique shipping-related activity Onassis pioneered, involved a risk-management contractual arrangement for international shipping. Prior to its implementation, he thought he had done his due diligence.

Onassis consulted an attorney to make sure he would be complying with maritime law– as he was purchasing surplus vessels of the United States, but registering them under other countries’ flags for purposes of deregulated operations and tax evasion. Nevertheless, by the mid-1950’s, the American Maritime Commission questioned its legality, anyway.

Read the book to learn additional specifics on how Onassis became rich and famous, and stayed that way.

Bitter Scent – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “Bitter Scent, The Case of L’Oreal, Nazis and the Arab Boycott” by Michael Bar-Zohar, published in 1996.

The complicated history that led up to the situation which monster-sized international health-and-beauty-aids company L’Oreal faced in 1989 was most ironic. It dated back to the start of WWII, when two future executives of L’Oreal and Francois Mitterand (future president of France) became good friends, Nazi collaborators– pro-Vichy propagandists and sabotage-plotters, and then, when the tide of the war changed in 1943, allies of the Allies.

In March 1989, Jean Frydman (Israeli and French citizen, Jew, and former member of the WWII French Resistance,) was vice president of Paravision, his film distribution company. Unbeknownst to him, he resigned from the board of directors of Paravision in a fait-accompli by L’Oreal executives. He was ousted in absentia because he had business dealings in Israel.

Various business entities had significant financial interests in others, among them, Paravision, L’Oreal (based in a Paris suburb) and its international subsidiaries, Columbia Pictures, Nestle and Coca-Cola. L’Oreal executives felt the need to comply with a troublesome policy called the “Arab boycott” — considered ethically repugnant by non-Arab industrialized nations. L’Oreal executives were willing to go through a tremendous amount of trouble (most of which they didn’t anticipate) to comply with the boycott to enhance their business interests, but also arguably, because they were anti-Semitic.

The boycott imposed by the Arab League began in 1948 to financially strangle Israel by banning companies that did business with Israel, from doing business with any Arab countries. L’Oreal needed to get Frydman out of the way so it could say it did no business with Israel. But besides, there was a big-name cosmetics company called Helena Rubinstein located in Israel, with which L’Oreal was affiliated. The Arabs were pressuring L’Oreal to dispose of that asset as well, before it allowed lucrative trade with their side.

When Frydman was gobsmacked by his fellow executives and learned that top people at L’Oreal (including its founder) had been Nazi collaborators, hilarity did not ensue. Instead, an orgy of litigation, fishing expeditions, political machinations, palace intrigue, and of course, a propaganda war did.

Read the book to learn the details of this suspenseful, sordid story.

Into the Raging Sea

The Book of the Week is “Into the Raging Sea, Thirty-Three Mariners, One Megastorm, and the Sinking of El Faro” by Rachel Slade, published in 2018. This sloppily proofread volume recounts a suspenseful, emotionally charged story about a rare but preventable epic fail. It is a cautionary tale of how TOO MUCH DEREGULATION in the shipping industry turned out to be penny-wise and pound foolish.

Just as a little bit of socialism is good (in the form of public libraries and the like), too much socialism is bad. So too– some deregulation might be good, but too much deregulation leads to conflicts, corruption, monopolies and crashes (financial and physical). With the ship El Faro, one thing led to another: Getting rid of pesky laws that hindered commerce ultimately increased the risk of deaths, as will be explained.

All the money the government and El Faro‘s owner thought they were “saving” with the help of deregulation, was wasted in the accident in various, extremely high costs– rescue-resources, the emotional toll taken on all of the parties involved, litigation, etc. What happened to the ship showcased the extremes of human nature– greed and hubris of shipping-company executives and their accomplices (politicians) versus the braving of life-threatening conditions, by rescuers trying to prevent deaths in the disaster.

At the beginning of October 2015, El Faro was hauling commercial cargo heading for San Juan in Puerto Rico, but ended up in the path of hurricane Joaquin. The whole voyage was one long cluster screw-up.

For starters, the shipping industry had an abusive, hierarchical culture. There had been a long period of deregulation starting in the 1970’s in the interest of political expedience and profit-seeking; safety be damned. But by the 2010’s in the shipping industry, the gravy train was over.

Due to the safety crackdown, El Faro‘s corporate owner had been doing some lean and mean cost-cutting in connection with all of its holdings, at the expense of vessels and their personnel. El Faro had been grandfathered in under older regulations that made its long-term seaworthiness doubtful. But it was lucrative enough not to be scrapped.

Architecturally, the ship had been designed for speed rather than safety, and the physical arrangement of the cargo caused the ship to ride low in the water, and list in rough seas. Rushed workers sloppily loaded the cargo– consisting of cars and other heavy, unwieldy items, and they weren’t entirely secure (both the workers and cargo). The ship’s anemometer was broken. But for deregulation, the government would have taken the ship’s owners to task on these and various other accident-prevention issues.

During this, El Faro‘s last voyage, in which it encountered a horrific storm, the captain could pick and choose from a few different sources of weather forecasts. He happened to choose the most outdated one, unbeknownst to him. Nevertheless, he stubbornly refused to consider any others, or significantly change the ship’s route, even when his subordinates tried to tell him about storm data from other sources. He needed to please his bosses, whom he knew preferred that he get the ship to its destination ASAP, to minimize costs. In transportation, time is money.

Also, the captain lacked social graces. Not only that, he was a survivalist, one of those nutjobs who was prepared for the end of the world, with weaponry and provisions and planned to defend himself if necessary, against other survivalists. Thanks to deregulation, he was still employed.

The sleep-deprived chief mate of the ship was a new employee, just getting to know the captain, so he was eager to impress him and reluctant to question his authority. The second mate was psychologically weary of her job.

Other ship workers were less than loyal, as they had no job security. To add insult to injury, racial tension pervaded the ranks. To boot, the ship was understaffed.

To be fair, the storm formed faster than anyone had anticipated. But obviously, TOO MUCH DEREGULATION played a major role in the incident.

As an aside, “It’s an open secret in the meteorological community that the ECMWF [the European weather service and hurricane software modeler] is consistently better than the NWS [American National Weather Service and hurricane software modeler].” The former collects more data worldwide and gets more funding than the latter. (Apparently, whenever a storm is brewing near the United States, the American weather media still show the projected route of the American model, as a point of pride).

Read the book to learn: other disturbing lessons; the fate of the ship; and fascinating details of the investigation.

The Gambler – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “The Gambler, How Penniless Dropout Kirk Kerkorian Became the Greatest Deal Maker in Capitalist History” by William C. Rempel, published in 2018.

Born in Fresno, CA in June 1917, Kerkorian was the youngest of four children of Armenian extraction. In the first half of the twentieth century, he pursued his passions of amateur boxing and piloting planes. His entrepreneurial spirit led him to go into the chartered airplane business. He began associating with unsavory characters when he bet on sports in 1961. His FBI dossier related this factoid that was learned via wiretapping.

Kerkorian dreamed big and took the outrageous risks required to fulfill them. Thanks to his cultivating friends in high places, in the early 1960’s, he managed to borrow a steep $5 million to purchase a DC-8 (jetliner) to expand his transcontinental shuttle service for the U.S. military and other lucrative clients.

In 1963, Kerkorian got into the casino business. He launched an IPO for his holding company in 1965. Then he became aggressive in acquiring companies against their will. Like Western Air Lines. He also opened the biggest hotel/casino in the world in July 1969. He got international celebrities to provide entertainment on opening night just to rub it in the faces of the competition, such as Howard Hughes.

However, one casino Kerkorian took over had been run by the Mob. In late 1969, the IRS forced him to sell a yacht and a plane to pay back-taxes. In 1972, a German bank was dunning him for an amount of money he couldn’t possibly pay. He didn’t worry. He simply ordered that his financially struggling company, MGM, issue a ginormous dividend to himself, and all other holders of the company’s stock. This way, he could pay off his personal bank debt; never mind that MGM risked going bankrupt. Of course some shareholders sued.

Read the book to learn of Kerkorian’s many other adventures in business and pleasure.

Deadly Spin

The Book of the Week is “Deadly Spin” by Wendell Potter, published in 2010. This is a book that explains how health insurance companies engage in unethical behavior in the name of profit, that results in needless deaths in the United States.

It follows then, that serving as a top executive at a health insurance company requires sociopathic tendencies, favoring money over people. One reason the insurance companies are so obsessed with their bottom lines (aside from the greed of their top executives) is that they have to answer to Wall Street.

Potter worked for Humana and then CIGNA a combined approximately twenty years as head of their public relations departments. By the late 1980’s, Humana realized it had a conflict in running a for-profit hospital and a managed-care plan simultaneously. The hospital was more than happy to maximize the stays of its most lucrative patients, while the plan’s goal was to minimize costs through preventive health care– promoting wellness.

The author learned to play the game of maximizing his employer’s profits through fighting legislative changes to his industry; and protecting, defending and enhancing his employer’s reputation. For, there was a direct relationship between his employer’s profits and his raises and bonuses. He therefore emotionally detached himself from health insurance plan members, and focused specifically on actuarial tables and legalese to help him project an image of his employer as a reasonable,  if not caring participant in patient care.

Whenever a threat to his former employers’ profits arose, such as the movie “Sicko” or proposed legislation that financially favored patients, his former employers hired a big-name, monster-sized public relations firm, and secretly co-funded and co-founded a political front group, such as “Health Care America” that publicly pretended to favor health care consumers, but truly sought to maximize insurance industry profits. The group was a propaganda machine, and an object lesson in how to lie with statistics.

Other tricks of the trade include:  “…rescinding individual policies, denying claims, cheating doctors, pushing new mothers and breast cancer patients out of the hospital prematurely and shifting costs to consumers.”

Read the book to learn additional details of the hegemony of the health insurance companies. One interesting endnote: “Obama opposed any requirement that everyone buy insurance, one of the few points on which he disagreed with Hillary.”

Indecent Exposure

The Book of the Week is “Indecent Exposure, A True Story of Hollywood and Wall Street” by David McClintick, published in 1982. This volume with the provocative but misleading title had nothing to do with sex. It actually consisted of a suspenseful, albeit long story seen mostly through the eyes of Alan J. Hirschfield, the CEO and officer at Columbia, the movie company. It was about how a lack of honesty, the power of propaganda, and clashing egos basically resulted in the redistribution of wealth among the wealthy. This sort of thing happens all the time.

In February 1977, then-famous actor Cliff Robertson received a document saying he owed taxes in connection with a check he never received. He later found out that the check had been forged and cashed in his name, by David Begelman, a high-level executive at the aforesaid Columbia.

It was common practice for Hollywood studios to send movie actors checks for thousands of dollars (usually unreported to the IRS) that defrayed a small portion of their promotion expenses for a new picture. The IRS had just then begun cracking down on that taxable income. Robertson’s reaction set in motion a series of consequences that affected thousands of people; mostly financially.

Columbia was a public company, and the bad publicity resulting from news of a serious crime committed by one of its executives was a serious public relations problem. Hirschfield, who was on the board of directors, was told by an attorney that he had a duty to inform the executive committee, corporate counsel and the SEC after an internal investigation had been conducted.

As has been the case since the discovery of journalism/tabloidism, (supposedly said by Mark Twain), “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” Begelman’s friends in the Hollywood community (of which the check forger had many) rushed to his defense, having heard only vague rumors that described his transgressions in euphemisms. They really had no clue that he had actually committed several felonies, it turned out. They didn’t want to know.

The friends planted tabloidy messages in the media making the excuse “Everybody Does It” because they took unethical liberties with their own expense accounts, and made Hirschfield the villain, saying he was a power-hungry, vindictive executive, as he technically did compete for power with Begelman in the company hierarchy. Hollywood’s and the public’s gullibility in automatically believing in Begelman’s innocence and Hirschfield’s treachery is human nature.

At the board meeting that initiated the long, heated discussion that would determine whether Begelman was fired, Begelman acted like a prisoner on death row who had suddenly found religion. He implied he might kill himself if removed from his primary job. But actually, anyone who knows this kind of person knows that he would be too arrogant to kill himself.

A preliminary inquiry into Begelman’s history yielded more than one serious crime during his Columbia tenure, and previous lying and other worse misdeeds. Hirschfield argued for termination, saying Begelman was unlikely to change his spots, as dishonesty was a lifelong habit with him. Over the next few years, the Hollywood community and the public, however, still having heard only distorted soundbites that minimized Begelman’s sins, fooled itself into believing they weren’t that bad, and continued to defend him.

Interesting sidenote: In 1982, in a joking context, Hirschfield exclaimed to a female friend who was high on the corporate ladder, in front of some colleagues: “Female executives suck!” She laughed. Clearly, if that was uttered in 2018, hilarity would NOT ensue.

Read the book to learn of the consequences of the stupid actions taken by most of the main characters of this entertaining saga.

Moore’s Law / Elon Musk

The Books of the Week are “Moore’s Law, The Life of Gordon Moore, Silicon Valley’s Quiet Revolutionary” by Arnold Thackray, David C. Brock and Rachel Jones, published in 2015, and “Elon Musk, Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future” by Ashlee Vance, published in 2015.

The former biography described not only Gordon Moore’s life, but the histories and cultures of his ancestors, his wife’s family, and the places where he lived.

Born in January 1929 in Pescadero California, Moore was the middle son of three. His father spent most of his working life in law enforcement. He, his father and brothers went fishing and hunting. The family moved to Redwood City in 1938.

At eleven years old, Moore fell in love with chemistry. His “… adolescent hobby of making bombs and explosions” or maybe also the cumulative effect of his noisy hunting excursions were thought to have caused his hearing loss later in life. He wed his college sweetheart and completed a PhD in experimental particle physics at California Institute of Technology.

In 1953, the transistor was starting to replace the vacuum tube in various devices, like TV sets. It also became a handy component in military electronics. In 1956, Moore went to work for William Shockley– a reputable scientist but a psycho boss. Shockley had hubris syndrome and, with his friends from Bell Labs, convinced his company’s major investor to fund the development of a diode rather than the silicon transistor.

In 1957, feeling disgusted and entrepreneurial, Moore and seven of his colleagues left the company and, financed by venture capitalists, eventually formed Fairchild Semiconductor in Mountain View, California. What with the space race, aerospace computing was all the rage. Silicon was a substance that had the right physical properties to advance it.

At Fairchild, Moore formed a research and development group that competed with the manufacturing department. Unfortunately, his temperament was non-confrontational, and his avoidance behavior was bad for business. Fortunately, in 1968, he, Bob Noyce and Andy Grove sported the appropriate diverse set of personalities and skills that maximized profits in a new venture they formed, called Intel. Their strategy was to introduce cutting-edge products to the technology market and be the first to do so.

Intel went public in October 1971, but NOT on a “stock exchange” as the authors wrote. Only on NASDAQ (not an exchange). Moore wanted the company to make computer parts, but not the whole computer, or else it would compete with its customers, such as IBM. By the mid 1970’s, Intel had factories in Malaysia and the Philippines. Moore motivated his initial employees through bribery– stock options and a stock purchase program. He even bribed his own son to finish school.

Intel’s labor- and time-saving devices proliferated in everyday products like calculators, color TV’s, telephone networks, cash registers and watches, not to mention inter-continental ballistic missiles. And spaceships. The authors downplayed the role of video games in the advancement of computer components.

Moore wrote about a concept that played out accurately through the decades that came to be known as Moore’s Law. In 1976, the price of silicon transistors– which are put on memory microchips– was less than a penny. That price got lower and lower as technology got better and faster. Unfortunately, according to the book, this economic growth has run its course in the United States and is predicted to come to an end in the next five years or so.

Read the book to learn how Intel cheated by taking a page from Microsoft’s playbook (and partnered with it)– to become a monopoly– in order to dominate the PC world; what the billionaire Moore did after he was forced to retire (very reluctantly; hint– he engaged in philanthropy from which he required measurability and accountability); and much more about his company, lifestyle and family.

Born into a relatively wealthy family in 1971 in Pretoria, South Africa, Elon Musk is the oldest of three children. A voracious reader, he, like Isaac Asimov, was also an insufferable know-it-all, and thus became a social outcast. At about eight years old, he chose to go live with his psychologically abusive, rabid-apartheidist father when his parents split.

Musk engaged in the usual leisure pursuits of nerdy boys of his generation: Dungeons and Dragons, computer programming, rocketry and chemistry explosions. Being super-smart, he learned that the United States was superior to South Africa in terms  entrepreneurial opportunities. He therefore got Canadian citizenship through his mother’s ancestors, and then moved to the United States as a young man.

Musk attended college and graduate school in Pennsylvania. He studied business, physics and economics. He charged admission for alcohol parties to raise money to pay for his tuition. In 1995, he went into business with his brother. Four years later, their website start-up, Zip2, was sold to Compaq for a tidy sum. He then started and/or worked on other projects, including an internet bank, an electric car, spacecraft and devices that harness solar power.

Certain aspects of Musk’s personality in the workplace are comparable to various other famous people. Musk’s dysfunctional managerial style is a blessing and a curse. He, like the late Steve Jobs, is hard-driving on employees to the point of meanness. But his focus and workaholic business ventures have achieved what many said was impossible. His keen entrepreneurial instincts, similar to those of Bill Gates, have seen him through. Also like Gates, he has delivered on what he promised, but usually way over deadline.

When it comes to space exploration, Musk, like Freeman Dyson, shoots not for colonizing the moon, but for colonizing Mars. Musk, like Richard Stallman, believes in the free exchange of information. He truly wants to improve humanity so much so that, according to the author, he eventually shared with the world (!) the intellectual property of his electric car company, Tesla. In 2005, its first car was completed by a mere eighteen workers.

However, in 2007, Musk was very possessive of Tesla. Contrary the recommendation of an interim CEO, he stubbornly refused to cut the near-bankrupt company’s losses and sell it to an experienced international automaker. He was competing with not only overwhelmingly powerful and politically influential automakers, but also with military contractors and the oil industry.

Read the book to learn of two major automakers who have invested in Tesla; of how the Obama administration helped keep the company afloat; of the myriad benefits the world is deriving from Musk’s  innovations; and of Musk’s personal life.

Grand Delusions – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “Grand Delusions, The Cosmic Career of John DeLorean” by Hillel Levin, published in 1983. This volume described the adventures of a car company engineer and entrepreneur, not to mention swindler.

The book’s first chapter was a summary of his entire career, suspense be damned. The section on his makeover and marriages was disorganized and redundant. One more criticism– the author interviewed only the book’s subject twice, and listed no notes, references or bibliography.

Anyhow, born in January 1925 in Detroit, DeLorean was the oldest of five sons. His father was an alcoholic Romanian; his mother, an Austrian. He kept busy while attending Lawrence Tech in Michigan. He wrote for the school newspaper and was on the student council. He joined a fraternity, danced in night clubs and drove a fast car.

DeLorean held a series of jobs including salesman, trainee in a special program at Chrysler, engineer at Packard, head engineer and then general manager of General Motors’ Pontiac division, and by the late 1960’s, general manager of its Chevrolet division.

After departing from his full-time job under murky circumstances, DeLorean and his sidekick Roy Nesseth posed as entrepreneurs who executed crooked business deals. Victims included an auto-parts patent holder, a farmer/rancher, and a financially struggling Cadillac dealership, among others. By the mid-1970’s, the pair had a bunch of business failures and lawsuits against them.

Journalists were suckered into writing about DeLorean’s past glory as a brilliant engineer. He “… must have learned that if he didn’t say too much, the reporter wouldn’t bother to check any further… They were still looking for dirt on General Motors, and the ex-executive was more than willing to give it to them… The maverick auto engineer was too compelling a character to be deflated with investigative journalism.” DeLorean fooled people just like Bernie Madoff did, although not on as grand a scale.

When he started his own car company, DeLorean let his attorney create a complicated network of sister companies to deliberately obfuscate financial and legal matters. It took the entire second half of the Seventies.

A boatload of fundraising was required to pay lavish executives’ salaries, design their offices, choose a manufacturing site, build the factory, sign up the car dealers, etc. The author erroneously used the term “comptroller” instead of “controller” when discussing the pesky bean-counter who complained about the arrogant, greedy DeLorean’s huge monetary outlays on all things for himself. “As Dewey [DeLorean’s first controller] predicted, the improprieties grew exponentially with the influx of money from the British government.”

DeLorean was the type of man who fancied himself as having some of the traits of James Bond. A man such as this, with a big ego, marries a model or actress at least a decade younger than himself. Like DeLorean, other James-Bond wannabes have assumed prominent leadership roles, and become international celebrities. The list includes but is far from limited to: Charlie Chaplin, Cornelius Vanderbilt IV, John F. Kennedy, Nelson Mandela, Elon Musk and of course, Ian Fleming.

Read the book to learn the details of the combination of honest ineptitude and premeditated, nervy criminality in which DeLorean and his accomplices engaged in the context of how not to become an automaker.