Elon Musk is conducting a public, real-time experiment as head of Twitter. Attracting the most fury and attention are his attempts to make the social media platform, which has more influence on media and the national political conversation than any of its competitors, into a freer, more transparent forum. By releasing reams of internal files to a series of journalists, he has also exposed the cozy interaction between pre-Musk Twitter and government censors, including the FBI.
Yet the debate over censorship is arguably of secondary importance to the long-term impact of the Musk experiment. Musk’s willingness to clean house — by some accounts, he has fired over two-thirds of Twitter’s former staff — could have a domino effect throughout Silicon Valley, putting a dagger in the heart of the Left’s ideological control over America’s powerful tech sector.
That’s because the simple functioning of the app itself hasn’t deteriorated. The arguments have mostly been over who gets to tweet, taking for granted it represents the only barrier to use. This raises an extremely dangerous question many would like very much to avoid: Exactly what, other than answering the emails of FBI agents and enforcing woke diktats, did two out of three Twitter employees, with an estimated median salary of $150,000 a year, do?
Musk’s tenure and his decisions as CEO pose a direct challenge to an entire class of well-paid managerial types, whose six-figure (sometimes seven-figure) jobs increasingly look like fat to cut as the tech sector moves toward leaner times.
The Achilles heel of our ruling class may not be its lack of wisdom or erudition or even its dedication to embracing the religion of wokeism but that many of them are, at the end of the day, highly paid versions of Homer Simpson. The slide of universities into ideological credentialing enterprises has had an enormous cultural cost, yes, but also a very rubber-meets-the-road impact on meritocracy and productivity, glossed over by politics. By the numbers, an Ivy League degree still generates “the good life” for those who earn it, but it’s a much more open question what many of them are actually generating for the bottom line.
Yoel Roth, Twitter’s former head of trust and safety and frequent pen pal of the FBI, is a near-perfect representation of a class that could be described, with a straight face, as a very successful capitalist version of Soviet commissars. That is, well-rewarded glorified hall monitors.
Roth is, again, Twitter’s best example of a very common phenomenon. His LinkedIn profile gives little suggestion of work qualifications beyond the ideological: His “research and teaching [are] focused on understanding how policy, governance, and code influence the types of communities that are able to safely and securely form online” and how “the choices of developers, designers, and policymakers can systematically push certain types of identities and communities to the digital margins.” In short, his resume reads as that of a woke academic or activist, not an engineer.
Roth is just among the most successful of his breed, but there are hundreds of thousands of Yoel Roths entrenched firmly in middle management throughout the Fortune 500, making six figures instead of seven. And their salaries add up to quite an expense on balance sheets.
Likely for much the same reason that has made James Burnham into the prophet of our times, our modern managerial economy seems unmatched in generating what anthropologist David Graeber calls “bulls*** jobs.” And increasingly, the justification for those jobs, especially overstaffed human resources and diversity departments, is not economic but political. Just as in the case of the environmental, social, and governance scam, there’s a tenuous economic explanation of ostensible benefits designed to keep the dollars-and-cents guys happy. CEOs, perhaps even more than the rest of us, probably hear constantly about the alleged productivity benefits of diversity, inclusiveness, and social responsibility — and why they need to hire the graduates of Wharton’s new degree program in diversity, equity, and inclusion.
But Musk’s tenure at Twitter could disprove those platitudinal explanations with a cold, hard, contrary example: You can cut most of your payroll, stick a finger in the eye of the Harvard-credentialed diversicrats, and run the company at a fraction of the cost with a core staff of competent, dedicated (and in the tech industry, mostly male) hump-busters. Your personnel expenses will plummet, and your company will become profitable.
Charles Haywood, the head of The Worthy House magazine with a law and business background, did some back-of-the-envelope calculations based on Twitter’s public finances and the estimated reduction in staff. “Musk has overnight changed Twitter’s net [profit] margin from negative 20% to approximately plus 28%, more than Apple or Google,” he tweeted. Haywood’s analysis assumes advertisers can’t be kept away forever, but even if a drop in ad sales changes the bottom line due to external pressure (i.e. leftist activist pressure) it still shows that the legions of well-paid hall monitors were irrelevant to the functioning of the actual product. Plus, Haywood’s calculation doesn’t factor in hundreds or perhaps thousands of dollars in TikTok-famous perks that tech companies have been told they must offer in order to attract the right “profile” of employee — Musk famously canceled Twitter HQ’s $400 lunches.
Even as Musk fulfills his Twitter poll promise to step back from the day-to-day operations and Terms of Service battles, if Twitter does not return to its previous staff levels, the example of a major tech company running relatively smoothly, at least on the technical side, with a third of the payroll expense will remain.
And it will only get more attractive as the tech bonanza of the last few years appears poised for a slide and as the country teeters on the edge of recession. In the last several months, there has been a slew of large layoffs by some of the industry’s giants, such as Amazon and Meta. By some estimates, over 120,000 employees have been laid off in the sector in just the past three months. Even Musk’s belt-tightening on perks is piquing the curiosity of other CEOs looking to cut costs. Meta (nee Facebook) just canceled its employees’ long-standing $200 Lyft stipend.
Elites have gotten away with their woke ideological turn largely because we are a fabulously wealthy country, but that wealth has given a class of power brokers the false impression that there are no consequences for their actions and that the gravy train will go on forever. They treat this extraordinary prosperity, in no small part generated by the truly productive departments of tech companies, as the baseline setting for the world and assume that they can continue to command big bucks in perpetuity merely for being among the properly ideologically credentialed.
But divining the hierarchy of the oppressed and punishing people for using the second-to-last update of politically correct language doesn’t add a dime to the real wealth of nations. Some significant, though difficult to estimate, portion of GDP is ideological dead weight — a fake economy generating real billions for the degree-studded keepers of its temple keys.
If, and it’s a big if considering the forces arrayed against him, Twitter 2.0 can prove it, Musk’s experiment may have lasting consequences not just for free speech in the digital public square but for the structural road map to success and the power that comes with it.