Hiltzik: The year that big shots were taken down

To repurpose an old joke: How do you create a $15-billion company? Answer: First, start with a $44-billion company …

Yes, we’re talking about Elon Musk and the fate of Twitter-now-X, the social media platform he bought in October 2022 and spent the subsequent year turning into a hive of antisemitism, racism and all other varieties of hate while defiling his image as a business sage.

Musk was just one of the individuals or groups that looked to be riding high as 2023 opened, except, to quote Bertie Wooster, “unseen in the background, fate was quietly slipping lead into the boxing glove.”

Bridget … You deserve to be fired from your job, because you are terrible at your job, not because you had sex with a woman.

— Former Sarasota, Fla., student Zander Moricz delivers a message to Moms for Liberty co-founder Bridget Ziegler

Billionaires (real and imagined), partisan culture warriors, cryptocurrency firms and anti-union corporate managements shared the experience this year. So for my annual year-end wrap-up, let’s take a stroll through the wreckage.

Elon: After enjoying years of lionization as a brilliant, farsighted entrepreneur and savior of the human race, Musk found reality catching up with and outpacing the myth. He stands exposed as an adherent of antisemitism and a promoter of hate-mongers such as Alex Jones.

The wholesale abandonment of X by major advertisers such as the Walt Disney Co. provoked Musk to a profane outburst of public petulance, underscoring his new image as an 8-year-old mind in a rich man’s body. This year, Musk did nothing to persuade advertisers that X is a safe platform for them to reach consumers, rather than a site where their message might share a user’s screen with a Nazi’s tweet.

X’s difficulty in dealing with hate speech, or Musk’s disinclination to do anything about it, was thrown into sharp relief by the European Commission’s announcement Dec. 17 that it has opened an investigation into whether X is violating EC regulations on “illegal content” such as hate speech and misinformation.

The EC is also investigating whether X has erected illegal obstacles to researchers’ access to data, and whether its change of the so-called blue checks from a certification of an account holder’s authenticity to a fee service amounts to a deceptive practice.

Potential penalties include a fine of up to 6% of the company’s global revenue or even its blocking from the European market. If Musk thinks the EC isn’t serious about enforcing its social media regulations or can be swayed by his celebrity, he’s got another think coming.

The love lights also have dimmed at Musk’s two other major companies. The electric vehicle maker Tesla on Dec. 12 unveiled its long-awaited Cybertruck, designed to compete in the popular pickup truck market.

The stainless steel truck — hideously ugly and impractical of design to the point where its appeal may be limited to only the Musk fanboi market — won’t be available in quantity for as long as two years and won’t be profitable for Tesla for about that long, if ever.

Then there’s SpaceX, Musk’s private rocket ship company, which boasts lucrative U.S. government contracts. The company’s two test launches this year of its massive Starship rocket ended in explosions aloft.

The first, on April 20, also blew its Texas launchpad to smithereens and spread debris over nearby communities, possibly because Musk rushed its schedule. The second, on Nov. 18, was declared “incredibly successful.” All right, if they say so.

Crypto’s downfall: The collapse of Sam Bankman-Fried’s FTX cryptocurrency empire actually occurred in November 2022, but his ultimate reckoning came on Nov. 2 this year, when a federal jury spent barely four hours deliberating before finding him guilty of seven counts of fraud and conspiracy.

The downdraft took down more than Bankman-Fried and his carefully nurtured image as the model crypto financier, leader of a rigorously effective and honest crypto trading platform. Federal prosecutors showed that claim to be fabricated. Bankman-Fried, 32, faces a prison term of more than 100 years, with sentencing to take place in the new year.

The verdicts also exposed the “effective altruism” movement, of which Bankman-Fried was a public flag-carrier, as little more than a facade for the same amoral wealth-mongering that the financial services industry has been known for since, well, forever. And they exposed the crypto market itself as nothing more than an instrument for parting legions of fools from their money.

The Bankman-Fried trial wasn’t the end of the travails for crypto. On Nov. 21, Binance, the largest crypto trading firm, pleaded guilty to federal money-laundering charges and agreed to pay a $4-billion fine. Its chairman, Changpeng “CZ” Zhou, also pleaded guilty and agreed to a $50-million fine; he may yet face a prison sentence.

Other crypto firms and operators are also facing criminal charges and bankruptcy, as technopolis debunker Molly White has detailed. The wheel may even be turning on the love affair of members of Congress with crypto, though it may yet preserve its support on Capitol Hill because the asset class has a definite appeal for the unwary and ill-informed.

Organized labor shows corporate managements who’s the boss: This year continued the strengthening of union power after decades of somnolence.

The most notable labor victory belonged to the United Auto Workers, which negotiated truly impressive contracts with the Big Three automakers: General Motors, Ford and Stellantis (Chrysler and Jeep). The contracts were reached after about six weeks of coordinated strikes targeting the automakers’ most important and profitable plants.

The contracts generally encompass raises totaling at least 25% over four years. They also ended or phased out the detested two-tier wage rates that shortchanged new employees and hurt union solidarity.

The UAW also began moving to ensure that unionized workers are employed in electric vehicle manufacturing at the companies. And the union is girding for organizing drives at nonunion companies, including Tesla.

Also achieving significant victories were Hollywood writers and actors, who maintained their strikes for some five weeks, threatening the television and feature film seasons.

In that case, as with the automakers, managements tried to hold out, thinking they could erode the morale of their workers. Eventually the fundamental math of labor relations made itself known — the losses sustained from production standstills in the entertainment and auto industries began to outrun the cost of higher wages and other gains by the workers.

That was also the implicit calculation in the strike that wasn’t — at United Parcel Service, where contract negotiations concluded successfully before the workers had to walk off.

None of this means that organized labor is out of the woods; federal law still tilts the labor-management playing field in management’s favor. Under the Biden administration, the National Labor Relations Board has advanced distinctly pro-labor policies, but it’s vulnerable to losing that edge in a Republican administration.

Twilight of the culture warriors? November’s midterm elections demonstrated the limits of the culture wars as political weapons.

Exhibit A is provided by Moms for Liberty, a far-right organization that advocates for book bans in public schools — often of books about America’s racial history or LGBTQ+ people — and has fought anti-COVID initiatives in the schools such as mask and vaccine mandates.

As I wrote after election day, Iowa was ground zero in the battle to exploit the notion of “parents’ rights” to secure broader partisan gains — defined as the right of a tiny minority of right-wingers to dictate educational policy to everyone else.

Moms for Liberty put up or endorsed nine candidates for five school boards in Iowa. All lost, typically scoring 10% of the vote or less. Democrats also fended off the organization’s candidates or wrested control in school board elections in Pennsylvania and Minnesota.

One more thing about Moms for Liberty. Its co-founder, Bridget Ziegler, and her husband, Christian Ziegler, have been embroiled in a brouhaha over a threesome they had with another woman. Christian, who has been stripped of his powers as Florida’s Republican chairman, has been accused of rape by the second woman.

Not a good look for the standard-bearers of enforced blue-nose morality in red states. Bridget Ziegler was appointed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to the board overseeing the special district encompassing Walt Disney World, which DeSantis created in retaliation for Walt Disney Co.’s criticism of his so-called Don’t Say Gay law suppressing discussion of gender issues in public schools. She also is a member of the school board in Sarasota, Fla.

The hypocrisy of anti-LGBTQ+ political poseurs with secret lives is one of the hoariest chestnuts on the books. But one can’t be more eloquent in putting Bridget Ziegler in her place than was Zander Moricz, a former class president at a Sarasota high school, in a one-minute public comment at a school board meeting.

Moricz, who is gay, castigated Ziegler not for the accusation that she participated in a sexual threesome, but for spending public funds “to remove books from schools, target trans and queer children, erase Black history … all while sending your children to private schools.”

He told Ziegler, “Bridget … You deserve to be fired from your job, because you are terrible at your job, not because you had sex with a woman.” (The board voted 4 to 1 to ask Ziegler to resign. She was the only “no” vote, and refused.)

Abortion rights, another front in the culture war, have prevailed in every state where they have been contested at the ballot box since the Supreme Court’s notorious 2022 Dobbs decision overturning the rights guaranteed by its Roe vs. Wade decision in 1973.

There’s more, of course, in the vein of those coming athwart of fate. Rudy Giuliani. Tucker Carlson, who used to be famous on Fox and now is … where? The legal and financial pressure on Donald Trump continues to mount, capped by Tuesday’s landmark ruling by the Colorado Supreme Court disqualifying him from appearing on the state ballot.

All these stories will continue into 2024. Is it too much to hope that the reversals of fortune experienced by these individuals and groups in 2023 don’t reverse back in the coming year?

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