What Elon Musk & Tesla Are Saying About Reopening The Economy — It’s About Economics & Liberty, Not Science

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On this site we frequently talk about climate change more than economics and liberty, but the concepts are certainly related. This article is going to be about the current COVID-19 crisis, not the climate crisis, but some of what I point out here will also be true for climate.

I started off writing this article about a week ago, but the article turned into a breaking news story on the Tesla lawsuit against Alameda County.

The Shutdown

We covered the Tesla Fremont factory shutdown a month and a half ago here, when California (and Alameda County) announced a stay-at-home order. Governor Gavin Newsom specifically said, “This is not a permanent state, this is a moment in time. We will look back at these decisions as pivotal.” It seems since that time the objectives have changed. While the hospitals are less busy that normal, since we stopped so much “elective” medical care, in some areas, nurses and doctors are being furloughed. As always happens, the restrictions are difficult to manage since the government (even if it is attempting to do what is best for the people) has a severe knowledge problem. It can’t possibly have as much information as millions of citizens have.

“Inhibiting new infections to reduce cases (vertical axis) at any specific time is known as flattening the curve. It allows healthcare services to better manage the same volume of patients by spreading out demands over time (horizontal axis). Dashed line indicates healthcare capacity. Image Credit: RCraig09 / CC BY-SA 4.0

The country (as is frequently the case in the early phases of a crisis), was quite united on the need for the shutdown. Many of us read news of hospitals being overrun in Italy and China. Now what is important in the image above is the number of cases of Covid 19 later in the graph. You notice if we flatten the curve (which we have certainly done), we have more cases on the right side of the graph than if we let the virus just run freely, where it quickly peaks and then quickly falls. It was frequently described by medical professionals that the total volume is the same under the two curves (letting it peak naturally and quickly versus the more mild peak under stay-at-home orders). So, you notice the argument was clear — we needed the stay-at-home over for 2 reasons:

  1. The cases would quickly grow and overwhelm our hospital, ICU, and ventilator capacity. This would cause many needless deaths, since many COVID-19 patients that could be saved with some treatment would just be left to die, since there would be no capacity to treat them. In addition to the needless COVID-19 deaths, many people with “regular” conditions like heart attacks and cancer (and many other conditions) would die because the hospitals they usually go to (and that usually are pretty effective at treating their health problems) would be full and, if overwhelmed, might be too dangerous for the sick to enter. The last thing anyone wants is for someone with a non-COVID-19 emergency (like a car accident or heart attack) to go to the emergency room, have the original issue (car accident trauma, heart trauma, or whatever) solved and then contract COVID-19 in the waiting room or such and die from it.
  2. It would give us time to increase bed capacity, ICU capacity, and build more ventilators. We have done some of that, but for the most part stopped. We have stopped because we aren’t even using the capacity we have, let alone the new capacity. We could also learn more about how to treat or prevent the virus in this time.

I’m not going to present evidence that we have been successful at flattening the curve because it is just obvious that we have in the US. In every state update I read or hear on TV, the state says they have extra hospital beds, ICU space, and ventilators and the numbers of new cases is either flat or declining (with an occasional exception).

Where we diverge, primarily on traditional politically lines, is what to do now. Republicans and Democrats mostly agree that we should carefully reopen the economy with the following elements:

  1. We don’t just go back to normal, we need to go back to a new normal, where certain behaviors (like coming to work with a cold) are no longer acceptable.
  2. We open up slowly, in stages, not all at once.
  3. We open open up based on data, not on predefined timelines. It’s okay to say we hope to have bars open by the 4th of July, but that you shouldn’t do it unless the data shows we have things under control.
  4. We need to continue to increase testing.
  5. We only continue to open the economy if the testing shows new cases are flat and hospitals have spare capacity.
  6. The most vulnerable (the elderly and those with existing conditions) should be protected.

I think we are all on the same page here.

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The Split

But we aren’t in agreement on everything. There is a significant divergence in the country and it seems to be primarily along traditional political lines. Republicans and Democrats do seem to disagree on the following points.

  1. Should we wait for the disease to go away before we reopen? There does seem to be a more aggressive goal in some (primarily Democrat) circles that we should do like China and South Korea and not just flatten the curve, but eliminate the virus (like we did with Ebola and the bird flu — I think those are pretty much gone). Others (primarily Republicans) feel that may be a worthy goal, but the virus is just too widespread to have any chance of accomplishing this. The regular flu and common cold are both in the category. Nobody seriously thinks we can eliminate either of those from this planet. I tend to think Republicans are right on this point. It is appealing to say, “but if we were more like China and South Korea, we would have much lower death counts.” That is true, but the USA just isn’t set up for that. The people that came to the USA didn’t come here to avoid risk — they (or their ancestors) came here to take risks. Almost everyone in the US has a story about how they or a parent or a grandparent left their country where it wasn’t great but was stable, and with only a dollar to their name came to the US. They came here with next to nothing and made something of themselves. The people who do this are not the kind of people who are willing to give up their freedom so easily. “Give me freedom or give me death” was the quote from Patrick Henry that rallied the country to elevate the concept that freedom is an important concept, more important than life to many.
  2. Should we listen to the medical scientists for economic advice. Most everyone agrees it makes sense to listen to medical professionals for advice on how to prevent and treat the COVID-19 virus. Many of us disagree as to whether we should listen to medical professionals or economists on how to reopen the economy. Just like every other decision in our lives, the decision can be centralized or distributed. The decision of what time you wake up in the morning and what you eat for breakfast is usually decentralized. There are some influences from others (what food is available to buy and what time your work or schools are open), but for the most part we agree that those decisions should be individual decisions. But when it comes to opening up the economy, we are split. It seems some (primarily Democrats) only (or primarily) acknowledge one threat to humanity, COVID-19, and ignore the greatest threat to our existence over our history, starvation. Starvation (as opposed to hunger) is very rare in modern economies. I’ve heard millions of kids go to bed hungry every night in the US, but I’ve never heard of a person actually dying of starvation. This next concept will not be popular, but must be said. Before we invented the concept of free markets and capitalism, actual starvation was quite common. Extreme poverty was what most people lived in and hunger was as normal as sleeping. A couple hundred years ago, economists came up with a concept that maybe we should try letting regular poor people make more decisions for themselves and not take all directions for what to do from a central government or religious leader. So, to bring it back to COVID-19, Republicans (and Libertarians and others) are concerned about leaving the economy shut down for too long for 2 reasons.
    1. Because they feel deceived. They were told to shut down to flatten the curve and now the goals are changing, but we never agreed on the new goals. It feels like government officials are just making a power grab.
    2. Because they compare the shutting down of the economy to the time we didn’t have economic freedom. For most Americans, this would be when you or your ancestors lived in a place were a king or dictator told you what to do and you weren’t allowed to determine your own way of  life.

 Elon Musk & The COVID-19

I have some thoughts on Elon Musk, but I hope they are not random and make more sense than the article we published recently. In that article, Steve called Elon an “arrogant ass.” My rebuttal is that sometimes the world needs an “arrogant ass.”

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” — George Bernard Shaw

If you are willing to wait 30 or 50 years for reasonable men to make a decent electric car, you don’t need Elon Musk. But if you think there is a climate crisis (personally, I’m unsure), then you need unreasonable men like Elon to push to change the world instead of just accepting it and adapting to it.

Another point in Steve’s article was that Elon has no right to tell Alameda County officials how to run their county. I would turn that around and simply say, what gives Alameda County the right to tell Tesla and Elon Musk how to run their factory?

Last night I saw this 3 minute video on Twitter and I think it sums up in a crude and funny way what many Republicans, Libertarians, and even Independents feel about where we are. Elon loved it!

The main points of this video that helped inspire this article are:

  1. Governments are moving the goalposts from flattening the curve till we find the cure, which could be forever.
  2. People’s lives are being ruined by the shutdowns.
  3. Our economy is finished if we don’t open up.
  4. Some people are willing to take the risk that they get COVID-19 to pursue their dreams.

Many states are opening up pretty quickly and it will soon be obvious which path is the right one. If hundreds of thousands die in the upcoming weeks in Texas and Florida, then opening up gradually was a huge mistake, but if deaths stay under control and unemployment drops quickly in these states and stays high in California and states that open more slowly, you will see a lot of people “vote with their feet” and move to those states that have greater economic opportunity. And if they do, some can work at the new Tesla factories in these locations, because you can be sure Tesla is unlikely to build any new facilities without studying very carefully how business friendly a potential location was during the COVID-19 crisis.

Editor’s note: Among CleanTechnica writers and also among broader cleantech and Tesla fans and supporters, there is vast disagreement on how society should be proceeding right now, and also how public figures should be expressing their viewpoints. I am running opinions from regular writers as they feel compelled to write them. For more context, please read this piece: “Thoughts On The Tesla Drama & Covid-19.”

Also, I will say that I think Paul expressed this viewpoint as well as anyone I’ve seen. I wish more people pushing for this would use Paul’s thoughtful, considerate, clear, context-laden approach. — Zach Shahan

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Paul Fosse

I have been a software engineer for over 30 years, first developing EDI software, then developing data warehouse systems. Along the way, I've also had the chance to help start a software consulting firm and do portfolio management. In 2010, I took an interest in electric cars because gas was getting expensive. In 2015, I started reading CleanTechnica and took an interest in solar, mainly because it was a threat to my oil and gas investments. Follow me on Twitter @atj721 Tesla investor. Tesla referral code: https://ts.la/paul92237

Paul Fosse has 233 posts and counting. See all posts by Paul Fosse