Joe Mathews: Elon Musk owes much of his success to California taxpayers: he’s paid us back with scorn

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Some see Elon’s Musk’s personal move to Texas as a blow to California’s prestige and possibly its economy. Photo by Steve Jurvetson from Menlo Park, USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Some see Elon’s Musk’s personal move to Texas as a blow to California’s prestige and possibly its economy. But Zocalo commentator Joe Mathews is happy to show him the door. Musk, of course, became one of the world’s richest men by creating companies like Tesla and SpaceX. But his businesses rely heavily on public subsidies, and Musk has squeezed government officials for every last dime. Mathews says Musk has a lot of nerve to now accuse the state of complacency and to whine about health orders meant to save people’s lives.

Read Mathews’ column below:

Elon goodbye

Thank you, Texas, for taking Elon Musk off our hands.

It may seem strange for California to not care as the world’s fourth-richest person relocates from L.A. to Austin. But we’re sanguine for two reasons: we recognize the hazards of living amongst the very rich, and we know this billionaire better than you. So with our thanks for giving refuge to the SpaceX and /Tesla chief comes this advice:

Watch your back, Texas, because Mr. Musk will mess with you.

Musk’s exit is different than other California-to-Texas moves, about which we feel less good. The departures of company headquarters—recently Oracle, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, McKesson—cost us high-wage jobs, and reflect real problems with our costs, regulations, and governance. Even worse, younger working-class Californians often leave for the cheaper housing and better schools of suburban Dallas and Houston.

But Musk’s exit is entirely different. While many people leave California because they can’t afford it, Musk is leaving because Californians finally figured out we couldn’t afford him.

Musk may be worth over $100 billion—but he’s even richer in hypocrisy and ingratitude. He cultivated the image of the lone, self-made innovator, when he was actually California’s biggest welfare case since the railroad barons. Musk’s three signature companies—SpaceX, Tesla, and SolarCity—are built on billions of dollars in government contracts, subsidies, and other largesse. The federal government provided much of this, but California has showered him with money, and provided regulations favoring the electric cars and solar panels his companies sell.

Yet California’s support did not make Musk a good citizen of our state. Musk compromised worker safety at Tesla’s Fremont plant, flouted securities laws, and sabotaged unionization of his employees. Musk has become California’s Frankenstein; our monster turned against us.

And when the pandemic hit, his behavior toward California turned unforgivably cruel. He railed against the federal economic relief packages that millions of Californians needed—while benefiting from those same packages. He accused California’s COVID response of being fascist while he remained friendly with the California-hating authoritarian in the White House.

Worst of all, Musk defied stay-at-home orders to reopen Tesla’s factory in Fremont, which may have produced a COVID-19 outbreak there. Unbowed, Musk threatened to leave for Texas. Then he carried out the threat.

On his way out, he broke all world records for chutzpah. He claimed California doesn’t support innovation—despite all the backing we gave him.  He portrayed his departure as a righteous protest—never mentioning Texas’ lack of income taxes, and recent increases in his compensation package. He even had the pot-calls-you-the-kettle gall to accuse California of being “entitled.”

But his brash brand of blame-shifting seems perfect for you, Texas. The state that asked the Supreme Court to cancel millions of other states’ votes—while demanding its presidential choice be ratified—is a fitting home for a billionaire who would deny others the government assistance that made him rich.

Just don’t be surprised when he betrays you. Your communities are subsidizing his businesses, even though he often falls short of promised jobs numbers. He’s sure to lash out at your politicians and oil industry. A few editorialists have noticed that Texas just welcomed America’s corporate welfare king.

SpaceX and Tesla headquarters will remain in California—for now. But if Musk eventually take them with him, it might only  be a short-term blow. If government support dries up, or if Musk gets in deeper trouble with the law, those companies could become houses of cards. And, Texas would have to handle the carnage of any Musk meltdown.

Lone Star leaders typically warn against the influx of all things California. But, Texas, you don’t seem worried—yet—about Musk and his companies.

California, meanwhile, has only one new reason to worry: that, much like SpaceX’s Falcon 9 in recent testing, Musk will attempt to return to us… and end up in flames.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.  



Joe Mathews