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Opinion: Elon Musk is no corporate welfare queen

Published: June 26, 2015 1:58 p.m. ET
The government has gotten outstanding returns from Tesla and SolarCity


Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, has made money for various U.S. governments.



Meet Elon Musk, America’s new picture of a welfare queen — corporate-style. Too bad it’s such a crude, false cartoon.
The Los Angeles Times recently totaled up what it saw as government largesse toward Musk’s companies and came up with a figure of $4.9 billion — enough, the story suggests, to offset the idea that the co-founder of Tesla TSLA, +0.40% SolarCity and SpaceX (among others) is really a major good for the economy. Rush Limbaugh piled on with a customarily moronic rant that blended insouciant economic ignorance with an offensive (and inaccurate) claim that the only Republican whose campaigns Musk has supported is disgraced ex-House Speaker Dennis Hastert.
Trouble is, the numbers and thinking are both larded with nonsense. The government’s investment in Musk Inc. has been much smaller than suggested. Most has come from tax credits and other programs available to everyone. By that standard, your mortgage tax deduction and tax-free health benefits constitute government subsidies. Finally, early returns on America’s backing of Musk have been excellent, with more to come.
First, let’s debunk that $4.9 billion “subsidy’’ number.

Corporate welfare seekers virtually never create genuinely new business models or technologies. Musk creates both.

The first $500 million is the amount of government financing awarded to build Tesla’s factory in Fremont, Calif. But that’s already repaid. Tesla paid early to keep the Obama administration from exercising warrants, designed to protect the government against a default, that would have let Uncle Sam snag Tesla stock at $7.53 a share. Which squeaks in a hair under the $250 stock price now. The feds simply didn’t spend a half-billion on Tesla.
We should all fund such boondoggles.
The next $1.3 billion represents tax incentives from the state of Nevada to build Tesla’s Gigafactory for advanced batteries. Little or none of that went directly into Tesla’s pocket. Most of it represents the state taking a sharp discount on future tax revenue from Tesla-related activity, including a projected 6,000-plus jobs. Tesla will still finance the $5 billion Gigafactory privately, using $2 billion of its own and more money from partners including Panasonic.
The next $750 million is the amount state and local governments are paying to build a solar-panel factory for SolarCity US:SCTY  in Buffalo, N.Y., for which SolarCity will pay nominal rent. That’s obviously useful to Solar City, but since the plant will belong to the government, calling the deal a $750 million grant is simply wrong. The subsidy is the much smaller avoided cost of private financing, and even that aid depends on SolarCity hitting hiring milestones.
Like them or not, state economic-development incentives are common; Musk’s deals are unusual simply in the size of both the risks and the rewards. Likewise, the energy portion of the 2009 stimulus moved more than $30 billion in loans and guarantees out the door, with the biggest going to Southern Co.’s SO, +0.33%  nuclear plant in Georgia and to automakers Ford F, +0.08%  and Nissan. They’re hardly unique to Tesla or SolarCity. Neither is the investment tax credit to promote adoption of renewable energy unique to Musk. Most of it has been used to help finance wind projects. One of the biggest users has been Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway BRK.B, +0.62%
Lastly, the return on the government’s investment is hardly shabby.