Last week, I wrote about rent seeking auto dealers lobbying for protection from competition with manufacturers utilizing direct-to-consumer sales models. I mentioned direct-to-consumer manufacturer Tesla by name, and suggested such legislation would prevent consumers from enjoying the savings that might otherwise be realized from Tesla’s efforts to “eliminate the middle-man.”
I should have taken the opportunity to address Tesla’s own abundant receipt of government largesse.
And to be clear, “government” largesse is always paid for by the taxpayers.
In a piece entitled “If Tesla Would Stop Selling Cars, We’d All Save Some Money,” Forbes contributor Patrick Michaels details all the ways Tesla benefits from government handouts. Michaels concludes that taxpayers shell out $10,000 for every car Tesla sells.
Michaels starts with a claim that purchasers of Tesla vehicles receive a $7500 “taxback bonus that every buyer gets and every taxpayer pays.” Since the tax credit appears to be non-refundable, I would not count it as a cost to other taxpayers, as Michaels does.
But the federal tax credit is only the tip of the crony capitalist iceberg for Tesla.
There are also generous state subsidies paid by taxpayers to the wealthy people who buy Tesla’s expensive vehicles. Purchasers in Illinois, for example, can receive a $4,000 rebate from that state’s “Alternate Fuels Fund,” a $3,000 rebate to offset the cost of electric charging stations, and reduced registration fees. California likewise offers a long list of rebates and subsidies to buyers of electric vehicles.
One of the hidden costs to consumers comes in the form of the increased price tag on cars sold by manufacturers who do not qualify for California’s mandated emissions credits, which they instead have to buy from Tesla, allowing it to earn a profit despite selling cars at a massive loss. As Michaels explains:
Tesla didn’t generate a profit by selling sexy cars, but rather by selling sleazy emissions “credits,” mandated by the state of California’s electric vehicle requirements. The competition, like Honda, doesn’t have a mass market plug-in to meet the mandate and therefore must buy the credits from Tesla, the only company that does. The bill for last quarter was $68 million. Absent this shakedown of potential car buyers, Tesla would have lost $57 million, or $11,400 per car. As the company sold 5,000 cars in the quarter, though, $13,600 per car was paid by other manufacturers, who are going to pass at least some of that cost on to buyers of their products. Folks in the new car market are likely paying a bit more than simply the direct tax subsidy.
Slate’s Scott Woolley details another way in which Tesla has cost taxpayers money. In 2009, Tesla received a $465 million Department of Energy loan that allowed it to weather a financial maelstrom. Unlike Solyndra (and Abound Solar and Fisker Automotive and The Vehicle Production Group LLC), Tesla managed to repay the loan in 2013. According to Michaels, it did so by reporting its first ever quarterly profit (earned from the sale of the emissions credits), which sent its stock soaring and enabled it to borrow $150 million from Goldman Sachs, and then issuing a billion in new stock and long-term debt.
But Tesla paid the U.S. taxpayers back at a rate far below what venture capitalists would have earned on the same loan. As an example, Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk also made a loan to Tesla. Musk got a 10% interest rate and options to convert the debt to stock, which he did, resulting in a 3,500% rate of return on his investment.
In contrast, the U.S. taxpayer received a 2.6% rate of return.
In other words, in our crony capitalist system, taxpayers take the loss on bad loans like the one to Solyndra, but do not enjoy commensurate reward on good loans like the one to Tesla.
But there is still more. Tesla cannot keep earning emissions credits, which allow it to earn a profit despite selling its cars at a loss, unless it can keep selling those cars. Josh Harkinson, writing for Mother Jones, writes that:
Its first-quarter profit, a modest $11 million, hinged on the $68 million it earned selling clean-air credits under a California program that requires automakers to either produce a given number of zero-emission vehicles or satisfy the mandate in some other way. For the second quarter, Tesla announced a $26 million profit (based on one method of accounting), but again the profit hinged on $51 million in ZEV credits; by year’s end, these credit sales could net Tesla a whopping $250 million.
Tesla’s ability to continue selling the cars that earn the credits is in question. The market for $80,000 cars has a limited number of buyers. Tesla must expand its customer base with a more affordable product.
One way to achieve that would be to cut the vehicle’s range. But subsidies, credits and fuel savings notwithstanding, consumers have little taste for lower ranges—even at a much lower price. Another way for Tesla to lower the cost of its vehicles is to cut the cost of its batteries without sacrificing the range. As Harkinson observes:
That, however, may again depend on massive subsidies—in this case funding to battery researchers and manufacturers by the governments of Japan and China. Over the past five years, Japan’s New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization, a public-private partnership founded in 1980, has pumped roughly $400 million into developing advanced battery technologies. Tesla’s Panasonic cells also might be pricier if not for subsidies the company received to expand its battery plants in Kasai and Osaka.
When Republican Gov. Rick Snyder signed the bill reaffirming Michigan’s protectionist legislation for traditional automobile franchise dealers, auto blog Jalopnik reported GM’s position as follows:
“Competition is always healthy,” GM spokeswoman Heather Rosenker tells Jalopnik. “But it needs to be on a level playing field.”
In the context of the substantial aid Tesla receives from federal, state and foreign governments, it is easier to have some sympathy for the plight of traditional manufacturers—and their dealers.
Ultimately, that sympathy shines a spotlight on the problems created when government starts “tinkering” in the market. Inevitably, that initial, well-intentioned tinkering necessitates ever more intrusive secondary tinkering aimed at remediating the unintended side effects of its initial foray into the market.
Consider health care. Inflation in the cost of U.S. health care began to outpace the general rate of inflation when the government began subsidizing health care costs. Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman has estimated that real per capita health spending is twice what it would be in the absence of third party payments, and that Medicare and Medicaid are responsible for 43% of that increase. The remaining portion can be blamed in large part on the third party payments from mandated employer health care coverage, further separating patients from the cost of their care and eliminating the market forces that would otherwise keep costs down. Add to the foregoing the government-enforced monopolies on health care education, leading to 22% fewer medical schools in the United States now than one hundred years ago, despite a 300% increase in population, and attendant provider shortage. All that well-intentioned tinkering created a whole host of ugly, unintended side effects, necessitating more tinkering. The federal government responded with the Affordable Care Act and its accompanying thousands of pages of new regulations.
Everywhere the pattern repeats. The cost of higher education outpaces general inflation precisely because the government wants to help people pay for it. The unintended side effect is increasing numbers of graduates with useless degrees and few job prospects, necessitating further tinkering in the form of loan relief, jobs programs and minimum wage hikes. The Federal Reserve suppresses interest rates to artificial lows in the well-intended effort to speed recovery from the bust of the dot-com bubble. The unintended (in this case, it may actually have been intended, at least by Paul Krugman) side effect is a new bubble in housing. When that bubble bursts, the government must step in to bail people and banks out of their bad investments, create new bureaucracies and new regulations making it harder for people to qualify for loans (in contrast to previous tinkering designed to make it easier).
Lather, rinse, repeat.
I am not a radical free-marketer because I dislike poor people or have a special love for corporations. I am a radical free marketer because I know no amount of tinkering ever produces results as beneficial as what the market produces, naturally and efficiently, all on its own.
Sarah Baker is a libertarian, attorney and writer. She lives in Montana with her daughter and a house full of pets.