Tesla epitomizes the mutation of modern American liberalism. Once an ideology whose central concern was the plight of lunch-bucket working stiffs and oppressed minorities, liberalism is increasingly about environmentalism and related “quality of life” issues.
Framing such long-term challenges as climate change in apocalyptic terms, many “blue” Americans focus more on technocratic environmental fixes — solar energy, electric cars — than on practical solutions to the here-and-now issues of the middle class. Instead of coal miners and steelworkers, 21st-century progressives exalt Silicon Valley’s young men (and women) in a hurry, urging taxpayer financing for their “green” business plans.
And so a man like Musk — a billionaire financed by Goldman Sachs pushing a flashy, battery-powered car priced upward of $70,000 — shared top billing with former president Bill Clinton and liberal think-tanker John Podesta at a 2012 Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas hosted by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
This version of green capitalism might be justified if it delivered the public goods it promises. Tesla’s trickle-down business plan calls for sales of expensive early models to pave the way for an everyman electric vehicle later this decade.
But even if widely adopted, Teslas would have little impact on climate change as long as drivers have to charge their vehicles from a coal- and natural gas-fired U.S. electric grid. In May, JPMorgan Chase analysts calculated that the Model S’s annual fossil fuel “footprint” is bigger than that of a Honda Civic hybrid.
Nor is there a case for electric cars based on their contribution to U.S. energy security. Thanks to increased oil and natural gas production, United States imported only 40 percent of its oil in 2012, down from 60 percent in 2005, according to the Energy Department. That trend is projected to continue.
Indeed, it was already underway on May 5, 2011, when Diarmuid O’Connell, Tesla’s vice president of business development, hyperbolically told the House subcommittee on energy and power that “oil . . . is now the source of our greatest vulnerability in terms of both national and economic security.”
Nevertheless, Tesla remains deeply dependent on taxpayers. Much has been made of the fact that, last May, the company repaid a 2009 Energy Department soft loan, totaling $465 million, that had enabled it to survive the Great Recession.
As The Post’s Steven Mufson reported, Musk capitalized on Tesla’s first-quarter profit, its first ever, to engineer a stock offering whose proceeds paid back the government.
That profit, however, was accounted for by $68 million from a California state government program for zero-emissions vehicles, funded by a de facto tax on Tesla’s competitors. Tesla has logged an additional $62 million in such credits since the first quarter. It’s also gotten$20 million in grants from the California Energy Commission.