Is Elon Musk a welfare king?

Elon Musk is a darling of libertarians and free-market advocates because he is proposing to change the way Americans drive their cars through purely private effort. But he is now coming under fire for accepting gobs of government assistance in the process.

Critics charge that he has already accepted $4.9 billion in federal and state assistance and is angling for more. One article even asks if Musk has not become a “welfare king.”

Well, let’s take a look at the charges and see how they stack up:

The original article appeared in Mother Jones and was not entirely unfavorable. Staff reporter Josh Harkinson thinks the Tesla is a marvelous car and quotes all the accolades from Consumer Reports and Motor Trend. He even thinks Musk may be the next Steve Jobs and quotes New York Times blogger Jim Motavalli to that effect: “Individuals come along very rarely that are both as creative and driven as that. Musk is not going to settle for a product that is good enough for the marketplace. He wants something that is insanely great.”

What Harkinson objects to is simply that Musk hasn’t given the government enough credit for helping him on his way. He quotes Fred Turner, a Stanford professor and author of From Counterculture to Cyberculture, as saying: “It is not quite self-delusion, but there is a habit of thinking of oneself as a free-standing, independent agent, and of not acknowledging the subsidies that one received. And this goes on all the time in the Valley (i.e., Silicon Valley).”

It’s important to note that Harkinson is not just talking about Tesla. Musk’s other enterprise, SolarCity, which is installing rooftop panels on private homes, actually gets more federal and state subsidies than Tesla. And SpaceX, Musk’s venture into space travel, has a $4.2 billion contract with NASA to build a launching pad in Texas, which does not count as a subsidy but still comes from the government.

As far as Tesla is concerned, here’s what Harkinson counts as government assistance:

• Everyone who buys a Tesla gets a $7,500 tax credit from the federal government. Buyers in California get an additional $2,500 tax credit. Tesla buyers have an average income of $320,000. The federal tax credit will go to the first 200,000 customers. So far, Tesla has sold only one-quarter of that.

• The state of Nevada gave Tesla $1.2 billion in tax benefits to build its Gigafactory outside Reno. The offer came as Nevada was in competition with seven other states for the siting. The factory is expected to produce 6,000 jobs.

• Tesla’s principal source of income in recent years has come from selling Zero Emission Vehicles credits to other manufacturers in a program particular to the state of California. All auto manufacturers are required to produce ZEVs. When they can’t meet their quota, they can buy credits from other manufacturers. Tesla has pocketed $517 million in recent years. Harkinson counts this as a government subsidy, although Musk points out that the money comes from other car companies, not the government.

Musk has been quick to fire back: “If I cared about subsidies, I would have entered the oil and gas industry,” he told the media after The Los Angeles Times ran a story repeating the Mother Jones charges.

He points out that the$1.2 billion from Nevada will be spaced out over a period of two decades. It will also be contingent on the factory having an output of $5 billion every year for the 20-year period. He notes that hiring and other aspects of the Gigafactory will make it a profitable venture for the state of Nevada. And of course he notes that the fossil-fuel industry has received huge subsidies over the decades.

It really isn’t fair to say that Musk is “living off welfare.” His original entrepreneurial success, PayPal, rose to a valuation of $1.5 billion without the slightest assistance from the government. Tesla did receive a $465 million loan guarantee from the Department of Energy under the same program that funded the ill-fated Solyndra. But Musk made a grand gesture by paying back the loan ahead of time.

The fact is, it’s almost impossible to start a business these days without becoming involved at some level with the government. If Nevada hadn’t offered tax abatements, some other state would have – and did in fact. Many other factors were involved in the selection of Nevada, and states obviously benefit from such facilities.

Musk is a unique visionary whose reach extends far beyond making money. His ambition is to completely remake America’s automobile system and end the dominance of fossil fuels. He also wants to see America succeed at space travel. He plans to build a colony on Mars and has said he hopes to die on the Red Planet.

“Just not on impact, he added.

(Photo credit: J.D. Lasica, posted to Flickr)

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