by James A. Bacon
Elon Musk has a gift for spinning fabulous visions involving super-cool technology — everything from solar energy and rocket ships to high-speed rail and electric cars. But he has also mastered the art of scrounging money from government. According to a year-old Los Angeles Times article, his enterprises had racked up some $4.9 billion in government subsidies.
So it is with mixed feelings that I read that Tesla is applying to open a second store in Virginia, this one in the Richmond area, against the opposition of the Virginia Automobile Dealers Association. The auto dealers fought Tesla’s application to open a store in Fairfax a couple of years ago on the grounds that long-standing state law prohibits automobile manufacturers from owning dealerships in most cases. Musk won that round — I’m not sure upon what grounds — and now he hopes to win again.
Whom does one root for — the big, fat, out-of-state crony capitalist or Virginia’s little, skinny home-grown crony capitalists?
On the one hand, I oppose laws prohibiting auto manufacturers from selling their own cars directly. Such restrictions benefit a select class of multimillionaires — local auto dealers — from competition, probably at the expense of the consumer. Therefore, I think, let Musk open his second Tesla store.
On the other hand, I think, dude, haven’t you benefited enough from manipulating the government? Isn’t $4.9 billion enough? Back away from the trough and leave something for the smaller piglets! Writes Phil Kerpen in National Review:
Every time a Tesla is sold, we witness a transfer of wealth to a rich hobbyist (most Teslas are their owners’ third or fourth car), while average Americans are on the hook for at least $30,000 in federal and state subsidies. Tesla is more a regulatory arbitrageur than an auto manufacturer.
This increasingly represents how the U.S. economy is organized. There are so many subsidies, tax breaks, regulations and exemptions that almost every business benefits from government-provided preferences somehow. If a company doesn’t work the system, then some predator will come along with its lawyers and lobbyists and campaign contributions and put it out of business. You’ve got to lawyer up just to stay alive.
In such a world, I suppose my sympathies go to the least greedy bastards who fleece me the least, whose kid goes to school with my kid, who supports the same local causes that I support, and who circulates his wealth in the local economy, patronizing local law firms, advertising agencies and the like. I suppose I root for the automobile dealers…. although I do so with little enthusiasm.