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)

Making the Case for Mars and Methanol

Robert Zubrin is one of those oddball geniuses who prowl around the peripheries of important national issues making suggestions that may seem completely off the wall but on closer inspection are revealed to have penetrating insight.

I first came across him a couple of years ago while writing about space exploration. Zubrin is perhaps the world’s leading advocate of manned trips to Mars. He’s written five books about making the trip to Mars, including How to Live on Mars (2008), which detailed how to establish a permanent colony on the red plant. None of this is going to happen soon, of course, and even though Zubrin is a highly trained aerospace engineer, it’s easy enough to dismiss him as a fatuous dreamer.

Except for one thing: he has also become the most knowledgeable and well versed advocate of substituting methanol from natural gas for imported oil as a way of breaking the back of OPEC.

Zubrin actually wrote his first highly informed book on the subject – Energy Victory – in 2008, before the fracking revolution began producing prodigious amounts of natural gas. At the time he was suggesting we use our abundant coal resources as the feedstock. Now that George Mitchell’s revolution has pumped up gas production to 24 times the level of 2007, the case is even stronger.

Zubrin has just published a 5,700-word article in the current issue of New Atlantis. I won’t do more than summarize it here, but I would recommend tying it up in a bow and giving it to everyone you know as a Valentine’s Day present. Zubrin wraps up all the major arguments for methanol and even manages to illuminate some obscure details about the Environmental Protection Agency’s policy toward methanol that eluded some of us for some time. Here are his major talking points:

  • OPEC still essentially controls the world price of oil. Even though non-OPEC production has increased 60 percent since 1973, 60 percent of the oil traded around the world is exported from OPEC countries and 80 percent commercially viable reserves are still owned by OPEC members. The price of oil is still set in the Persian Gulf.
  • This oligopolistic control has a huge impact on the American economy. Ten of the last 11 postwar recessions were preceded by sharp increases in oil prices. The recent upsurge in shale oil production won’t help much. The Energy Information Administration expects it to level off after 2016. By 2040 we will still be importing 32 percent of our oil.
  • Methanol made from natural gas is the only commodity that can realistically replace oil. “Methanol is not some futuristic dream touted by researchers seeking funding,” writes Zubrin. “Rather, it is an established chemical commodity, with a global annual production capacity of almost 33 billion gallons. It has recently been selling for around $1.50 a gallon.” Methanol’s energy content is only about 60 percent of gasoline, but the bottom line is that “pure methanol can get a car 30 percent farther down the road than a dollar of gasoline.”
  • Methanol has numerous environmental advantages. In fact, when California put 15,000 methanol cars on the road in the 1990s, it was for air pollution purposes, rather than cutting imports or reducing prices to motorists. Methanol burns cleaner, produces virtually no particulate matter or smog components, has none of gasoline’s carcinogenic aromatic compounds and reduces carbon emissions.  On pollution grounds alone, it would be worth making the transformation.

So why don’t we do it?  As Peter Drucker always said, in order to replace a well established technology, an upstart replacement must be 10 times as efficient to clear the institutional barriers. That’s a tall order. But as Zubrin details, there are some specifics that stand out:

  • In terms of sheer market capitalization, the oil industry far surpasses the auto industry. Thus, even though the auto industry might benefit from opening up to new fuels, the oil companies’ interest in maintaining the status quo overwhelms them. Zubrin documents how institutional investors that own large shares of the auto companies are even more heavily invested in oil. Several OPEC sovereign wealth funds also own huge slices of the auto companies. The Qatar Investment Authority owns 17 percent of Volkswagen, which has the highest auto company revenues in the world.  Its vice chairman sits on Volkswagen’s board.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency, through overregulatory zeal, has somehow ended up as one of the major impediments to methanol conversion, even though there would be vast environmental benefits. Although older cars can easily be converted to run on methanol at a cost of less than $200, the EPA no longer permits it. “Since 2002, the only way for a vehicle modification to be deemed lawful is if it receives certification ahead of time from the EPA or the California air-quality board. . . In 2009, the EPA specified massive fines that it may level against any individual or business that modifies a vehicles without advance certification, even if there is clear and compelling proof that no emissions increase had resulted, or even been risked, by such changes. In fact, even the use of unapproved engine parts identical to the certified brands would be considered an emissions violation . . . These fines are set at thousands of dollars for individuals and hundreds of thousands, or even millions, for manufacturers. For example, if a mechanic running his own small business converting cars to flex-fuel in his garage modified just a dozen cars, he would face a crippling fine of more than $105,000.”

In 2011 on National Review Online, Zubrin offered to bet anyone $10,000 he could modify his 2007 Chevy Cobalt (apparently in violation of EPA regulations) to run on 100 percent methanol and get 24 miles per gallon. He did it by replacing the fuel pump seal with a 41-cents replacement made from a synthetic rubber that resists methanol erosion. He also had to adjust the ignition timing for methanol’s higher octane. He would have won the bet but no one took him up.

As a way of moving the ball forward, Zubrin advocates the Open Fuel Standard Act, which has been sitting around in Congress since 2008. The present version would clear up some of the EPA’s restrictions and require at least 30 percent of each carmaker’s new vehicles be flex-fuel by 2016, moving up to 50 percent by 2107. The modification would only add about $200 to the price of the car.

Zubrin is one of those American treasures, an independent thinker operating outside the world of “policymaking” who dares think differently and big. His ideas for colonizing Mars may never get off the drawing boards.  But his proposal for substituting methanol as a domestic alternative to imported oil certainly deserves the greatest attention.