Elon Musk has received billions in subsidies

While receiving subsidies is nothing new for the Forbes 400 or even multi-hundred millionaire pikers like Mitt Romney, a recent story in the Los Angeles Times (via Good Jobs First) shows that Elon Musk (#34 in the Forbes 400) is a champion at getting subsidies for his companies. According to the Times article, Musk’s three companies, Tesla, Solar City, and SpaceX, have received a total of $4.9 billion (nominal value) in subsidies over the years. The article says that Tesla and Solar City stand out in the importance of the subsidies relative to the size of the company.

While SpaceX has received only $20 million, both Tesla and Solar City have received over $2 billion each, if you count the value of the subsidies their customers have received for buying Tesla vehicles and Solar City installations. This is more significant in the case of Solar City (about $1 billion) than for Tesla (about $321 million). Even without these sums, the companies have directly received about $3.5 billion, most notably for the new Gigafactory in Nevada and for a solar panel facility in Buffalo, New York.

Regular readers will remember that I have long argued in my books and elsewhere that these subsidies represent a transfer from average taxpayers to the much wealthier owners of the companies involved, worsening the already substantial inequality in the United States. These investment incentives have to be offset by higher taxes on others, reduced government services, or higher levels of government debt. While they are not the biggest driver of inequality, they do their part. Moreover, location subsidies reduce the country’s economic efficiency: It may well have made more economic sense to locate the battery Gigafactory as close as possible to Tesla’s assembly plant in Fremont, California.

While Musk refused to be interviewed for the Times story, he responded the next day on CNBC. Among other things, he argued that it was wrong to report a single figure for subsidies, which makes it seem like he received one big check. This is right as far as it goes. However, I think it would make more sense to give a single present value for the subsidies rather than the nominal value, which overstates the value of multi-year subsidies such as those for Tesla. Moreover, as Good Jobs First points out, it is perfectly necessary for taxpayers to know what their long-term liabilities are for multi-year subsidies in order to properly assess the impact on government finances.

Musk also defended the Tesla subsidies as merely necessary to make the project happen faster, rather than necessary to happen at all. Yet it conducted a multi-state auction in an all-too-common use of its location decision for rent-seeking. As I analyzed at the time, the deal was below average in terms of cost per job and aid intensity compared to other automobile facilities, and it is 13 times larger than Nevada’s previously largest incentive package.

Ultimately, the Musk story is far too familiar on a number of dimensions. Most importantly, it is a tale of rent-seeking and the policy/political drivers of inequality.

Cross-posted from Middle Class Political Economist.

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