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 founder 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—Oracle, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, McKesson, most recently—cost us high-wage jobs, and reflect real problems with our costs, regulations, and governance. Even worse, younger ambitious 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 anymore, Musk is leaving because Californians finally figured out we couldn’t afford him.
Musk may be worth over $100 billion—but he is 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—were built with billions of dollars in government contracts, subsidies, and other largesse. The federal government provided much of this, including low-interest loans that kept Tesla alive during the Great Recession. But California has showered him with money, and provided regulations that favored the electric cars and solar panels his companies sell.
Yet California’s support did not make Musk a good citizen of our state. Musk has compromised worker safety at Tesla’s Fremont plant, flouted securities laws, and sabotaged unionization of his employees. He peddles misinformation on Twitter.
Musk Is California’s Frankenstein
Musk is California’s Frankenstein; the monster we created has turned against us.
Even after taking so much government money, he routinely blasts our funding of safety net programs. Even after benefiting from our environmental regulations, he accuses California of over-regulating and demands we “get out of the way” of innovators. 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—and then took money from those same packages. He accused California, in pursuing COVID restrictions, of fascism and authoritarianism, while he exchanged friendly messages with the California-hating authoritarian in the White House.
Worst of all, Musk defied stay-at-home orders to reopen the Tesla factory in Fremont, which may have produced a COVID-19 outbreak there. Unbowed, Musk kept criticizing California’s COVID-19 response, and threatened to leave for Texas, where SpaceX already had two facilities. This fall, he made good on the threat.
On his way out, he broke all world records for chutzpah. He claimed he was leaving because California didn’t sufficiently support companies and innovation, despite all the backing the state has given him. He portrayed his departure as a righteous protest against California’s infringement on freedom—never mentioning Texas’ lack of income taxes, and recent increases in his compensation package. He even had the pot-calls-out-the-kettle gall to accuse California of being “entitled.”
Texas, Don’t Be Surprised When He Betrays You
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 that its presidential votes be ratified—is a fitting home for a billionaire who routinely calls for denying others the government assistance that made him rich.
But Texas, don’t be surprised when he betrays you. The Texas communities subsidizing his businesses should know that he often falls shorts on promised job numbers. Neighbors of the SpaceX facility in South Texas already are complaining about community impacts. And a few editorialists have noticed that Texas just welcomed America’s corporate welfare king.
When you point out Musk’s failed promises, he lashes out, And, Texas, you offer Twitter-friendly targets: your political class, your oil-and-gas, and your failure to legalize cannabis.
SpaceX and Tesla headquarters will remain in California—for now. But if Musk decides to take them with him, it might merely 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 human and corporate carnage of the eventual 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.