Explaining Southern California's economy

Is Elon Musk the new Steve Jobs? Not according to Musk

Tesla Worldwide Debut of Model X

Jordan Strauss/Getty Images for Tesla

SpaceX and Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk speaks onstage during the debut of the Model X electric vehicle in Los Angeles. Steve Jobs had the black turtleneck. Musk has the black velvet dinner jacket.

SpaceX and its CEO, Elon Musk, hit a home run last week by launching the first commercial mission to service the International Space Station. This has led some to ask if Musk might be the "next Steve Jobs" — a technological and cultural visionary who unites people across a wide range of experiences and backgrounds. 

It's a tempting question to ask. I've seen it pop up on Quora, the startup question-and-answer site where I've been spending a lot of time lately hanging out and...well, answering questions (just not yet ones about whether Musk is the new Jobs). It's cropped up since Jobs' death last year and has been discussed more recently in the context of what the two men have in common. 

A few months back, in connection with an article I wrote for Pasadena magazine about Musk's other company, Tesla Motors, I asked him what he thought. He was gracious, praising Jobs, but also careful to make a distinction about what he does (sorry, no link):

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Facebook v. General Motors

Facebook Expected To File For IPO

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A sign with the "like" symbol stands in front of the Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California. General Motors evidently doesn't like Facebook as a platform for paid ads.

I've been meaning to write something about Facebook — whose IPO on Friday is now hitting the stratospheric prospective level of $16 billion, with 422 million shares for sale — and General Motors, whose 2010 IPO set the record for public offerings, at $20.1 million (478 million shares sold). GM came out at $33 per share, while Facebook could debut at $38.

But of course GM's IPO was its second. IPO number two was necessary to return to the public markets after the company's bankruptcy in 2009. IPO number one took place back in 1916. In the intervening period, GM grew to be the most important company in the American corporate firmament, owning half the U.S. auto market during its Golden Age in the 1950s and employing hundreds of thousands of people.

Facebook is still relatively young, but it's the dominant social network, with nearly a billion users and the ability to make billions each quarter by selling ads against content and activity that's for all practical purposes donated. However, Facebook doesn't employ hundreds of thousands and never will. And that's why GM's decision to pull $10 million in ad spending from the site, saying it's been "ineffective," is very interesting.

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New U.S. car sales pick up big time in 2012

Scott Olson/Getty Images

We can't build them fast enough!

The auto industry, particularly the U.S. auto industry, has started off the year with a bang. This is from the New York Times:

Many analysts say they are confident that United States sales for all of 2012 will surpass 14 million vehicles, a target that seemed overly optimistic several months ago. In contrast, industry sales were 12.8 million last year and 10.4 million in 2009.

[...]

General Motors, whose sales rose 12 percent, said March was the first month ever that it had sold more than 100,000 vehicles with highway fuel-economy ratings of at least 30 miles per gallon. They represented about 40 percent of G.M.’s sales.

This is all very good news, on several fronts. It's great for the automakers, who don't ever, ever, want to replay 2009. But it's also good for consumers, who now feel confident enough about the economy's future to go into debt to buy new cars. That might sounds bad, but it isn't. It means consumers credit is flowing.

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In Silicon Valley, nice guys aren't for real

Paul Sakuma/AP

Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg poses at Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif., Feb. 5, 2007. This was long before he became a modern-day robber baron.

At Breakingviews, Rob Cox lays into our presumptions about the virtues of Silicon Valley startup founders like Mark Zuckerberg, Mark Pincus, and (by implication) Steve Jobs. Here's a salient paragraph:

Though Silicon Valley’s newest billionaires may anoint themselves the saints of American capitalism, they’re beginning to resemble something else entirely: robber barons. Behind the hoodies and flip-flops lurk businesspeople as rapacious as the black-suited and top-hatted industrialists of the late 19th century. Like their predecessors in railroads, steel, banking, and oil a century ago, Silicon Valley’s new entrepreneurs are harnessing technology to make the world more efficient. But along the way, that process is bringing great economic and labor dislocation, as well as an unequal share of the spoils. Just last week, the Justice Department warned Apple that it planned to sue the company along with several U.S. publishers for colluding to raise the price of electronic books - monopolistic behavior that would have made John Rockefeller proud. 

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Let's hope Stockton can use mediation to avoid bankruptcy

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

STOCKTON, CA - APRIL 29: Cars drive through downtown Stockton April 29, 2008 in Stockton, California. As the nation continues to see widespread home loan foreclosures, Stockton, .California led the nation with the highest foreclosure rate. One out of every 30 homes in Stockton is in foreclosure, close to seven times the national average for a metro area in the U.S. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The town of Stockton is lurching toward a Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. But thanks to a law that Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed, before a California municipality can head to bankruptcy court, it needs to submit to mediation. What this means is that the city and its creditors sit down a less formal environment than a court of law and try to iron out a solution. Generally speaking, this means that bondholders (for example) will accept a "haircut" on debt up front, rather than fighting it out on court.

If a mediation can lead to a successful resolution, it can be a real boon for the city that's in trouble. Bankruptcy is expensive. The lawyers have to be paid and the whole process has to be financed so that the municipality can continue to operate while its litigating. We're talking tens of millions of dollars.

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