Elon Musk vs. California
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Tesla CEO Elon Musk reopened his California factory this week, reported Tim Higgins at The Wall Street Journal, "supercharging" a showdown with government officials in a state wary of risking a new round of coronavirus infections. Defying orders from Alameda County, Musk promised to be on the assembly line at his Fremont, Calif., plant, and challenged authorities to "arrest me." Musk had already filed a lawsuit in federal court arguing that the local government had "overstepped its power" in blocking Tesla from restarting. County officials had informed Musk that Tesla could reopen on May 18 — the same day Ford, General Motors, and Fiat Chrysler plan their restarts in Detroit — but the often erratic billionaire, who recently announced his intention to sell "almost all physical possessions," decided that was too long to wait. Musk has been a vocal opponent of the coronavirus lockdowns, calling them "fascist" and "dumb." He called California's sluggishness in lifting restrictions the final straw, and threatened to move his company, the only major carmaker in the state, to Nevada or Texas.
Musk has always stood apart from his tech CEO colleagues, said Scott Rosenberg at Axios, and this issue is no different. Silicon Valley's technocrats, including Apple's Tim Cook and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, were "among the first to send workers home," and have "presented measured positions on how and when a careful return makes sense." But "a dissenting tech faction has coalesced around a 'damn the virus, full speed ahead' sentiment," and Musk has become their most public spokesman. Musk's rhetoric "mirrors that of the protesters who have taken to the streets" in other parts of the country, said Faiz Siddiqui and Nitasha Tiku at The Washington Post. Though few in Silicon Valley "support a rush to reopen," there is a strong libertarian contingent led by "self-styled contrarians" who have "grown increasingly skeptical of both institutions and established scientific expertise." That group has aligned itself with Musk — as has President Trump, who tweeted his support for reopening the Fremont plant.
This goes beyond philosophical squabbling, said Noah Feldman at Bloomberg. Legally, his argument that Alameda County is out of line "because manufacturing cars counts as critical infrastructure" is flimsy. More important than the legalities, though, is Musk's disingenuously couching his rush to open as an act of principled civil disobedience. It raises the prospect of "a truly terrible precedent if corporations could just ignore laws that they consider to be in violation of their corporate interests." Musk should not forget that California has been very good to him, said Michael Hiltzik at the Los Angeles Times. California largely created the market for electric cars and the environment for companies like his to emerge. A big source of Tesla's revenue remains "selling its regulatory credits to other companies striving to meet low-emission regulations" — a market pioneered by California and made possible by California's emissions requirements. If Musk is serious about leaving, he'll find out whether it's easy to get his engineers to move "far from Silicon Valley." Ultimately, Tesla's biggest problem is not California; it's Elon Musk. "Just think how much better off Tesla might be if its boss acted like a grown-up."
This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.