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Welcome to Musklandia: Austin adjusts to life with Tesla and its eccentric billionaire boss Elon Musk

Kara Carlson, Austin American-Statesman on

Published in Science & Technology News

—He tweeted a joke that he was considering starting a new university in Texas, whose name could be used to form a rude acronym.

—He acknowledged on Twitter that Tesla's self-driving was having software issues and announced that an update would be rolled back after Tesla owners reported cars behaving erratically.

—He pushed back on President Joe Biden’s proposed tax plan, dubbed the Billionaires Income Tax, which would add a tax on the assets, not income, of billionaires. "Eventually, they run out of other people’s money, and then they come for you," Musk tweeted on the same day he gained $36 billion in personal wealth from the Tesla stock surge.

—He called Biden a “puppet” for the United Auto Workers union and pushed back on his plan for electric-vehicle purchase tax credits proposed in the president’s infrastructure bill. The plan would exclude nonunion automakers, such as Tesla.

—He exchanged tweets with David Beasley, director of the U.N.'s World Food Program, who urged Musk to donate 2% of his estimated net worth, or about $6 billion, to help fight world hunger. Musk said if the program laid out a detailed plan for how exactly the $6 billion would be used and the donation went through open source accounting, he would donate. Beasley said that was possible, and he would meet him anywhere, “earth or space,” to discuss further. No donation has been made.

While most of that social media activity hasn't focused directly on Austin or Texas, there are signs Musk is starting to take more of an interest in what's going on in the Lone Star State.

'Going to be some ruffled feathers'

When Musk announced he was moving Tesla's headquarters to Austin, he didn't mention previous clashes he'd had with California officials. However, industry analysts say that while Austin is more affordable than Silicon Valley and still has the tech and engineering talent Musk needs for his companies, it seems clear he decided he preferred Texas' more business-friendly environment over California's more regulation-heavy approach.

"I think Musk selected Texas in particular because of its kind of frontier style. He's always thought that California's heavy regulatory environment was not particularly conducive to his style," Kay said. "He's made it really clear that he doesn't think public authorities have any business telling him what to do."

All of which means officials in Texas — and in Austin — could eventually find themselves getting the same pushback California did from Musk if regulatory conditions rub him the wrong way.

 

Musk tends to do what he wants and is clever and aggressive in how he goes about disputes, Kay said. At the same time, he will bring a lot of jobs and tax revenue to the region, which gives him cards to play.

"He'll say, ‘Well, listen, you want me to just pick up stakes and go to Mississippi?’” Kay said. "There's probably going to be some ruffled feathers there when he says, ‘It's my way or the highway and now I own your highway, You can't say anything about it. You do — well, then I'll bring all my resources to bear upon you.’”

It remains to be seen how Musk might aim to influence state or local policymaking.

In September, Gov. Greg Abbott said that Musk supported Texas' social policies. In response, Musk tweeted: "In general, I believe government should rarely impose its will upon the people, and, when doing so, should aspire to maximize their cumulative happiness. That said, I would prefer to stay out of politics."

However, Musk has weighed in on some Austin political issues already.

"Austin should be its city, not a San Francisco copycat," Musk said in a Halloween tweet replying to a tweet about Proposition A, which didn't pass earlier this month. The proposition would have required the city of Austin to hire hundreds more police officers.

Whatever positions Musk takes, they are sure to have influence in Austin, across the state and globally, Ives said — in large part because of Musk's immense wealth and the power that affords him.

Musk recently became the first person in the Bloomberg Billionaires Index to have an estimated net worth of more than $300 billion, making him not only the wealthiest person in the country but also the richest person in history. Musk's current estimated net worth is somewhere between $280 billion and $300 billion.

Having Musk and Tesla here comes with "exponentially more positives than negatives for Austin," Ives said. "But Austin has to embrace Tesla and Elon, and not just treat him like any other business person. There are 300 billion reasons he's not."

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