Billionaire Wilderness: The Ultra-Wealthy and the Remaking of the American West
March 06, 2020
"In a revealing look at the intersection of wealth, philanthropy, and conservation, John Farrell takes us inside the exclusive world of the ultra-wealthy, showing how today's richest people are using the natural environment to solve the existential dilemmas they face."
Billionaire Wilderness: The Ultra-Wealthy and the Remaking of the American West by Justin Farrell, Princeton University Press
When we read about the financialization of the economy, the coverage tends to focus of urban enclaves—New York, San Francisco, London, Chicago—but it is perhaps nowhere as severe as in Teton County, Wyoming, where “In 2015, nearly 8 out of every 10 dollars in income earned … came not from traditional wages or salary but from interest and dividends.” It has made the area, in the words of sociologist Justin Farrell, a “living laboratory of extreme wealth disparity.”
What most people don’t know is that the grandeur of its wilderness is matched by the awe-inspiring concentration of wealth and the canyon-size gap between the rich and poor there: It is both the richest county in the United States and the county with the nation’s highest level of income inequality.
The study of economic inequality is generally focused on those being crushed by it. Books like Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, which offer a deeper dive into both sides of the divide, are rare. Examinations of the ultra-wealthy, though becoming more common, are still scarce by comparison. And books that take up the topic in rural areas are, in my experience, almost nonexistent. Farrell helps correct that with his book about Teton County, Billionaire Wilderness.
A native of Wyoming who is now a Yale professor, Farrell was uniquely positioned to gain nearly unprecedented access to the inner circles of the ultra-wealthy in Teton County—both because of the gravitas his position as a professor at such an elite institution gives him among the elite, and as an authentic rural Westerner many of them idealize and emulate. That access is uncommon and important, because information on the ultra-wealthy remains “empirically shallow” due to their small numbers and the exclusivity of their social and cultural institutions (indeed, much of their existence). The access he gained into this rarified world, access he extends to readers through his interview notes and analysis, makes the book one of the most fascinating and important portraits of modern American life that I have read.
But the book is even more remarkable for the way his access to the wealthy is balanced by the voices of those in the community that are employed by them—often in their homes and other very close quarters—and interact with them often. These “paired experiences” paint a fuller picture than focusing on one or the other alone would, and a picture of our society that is broader than the Teton community itself. On a larger scale, it is an examination of how we view and treat extreme wealth in society, the pervasiveness of consumption culture, the hollowing out of the American middle class, and the efficacy of trickle down economics and the current neoliberal order. At the local level, it is a story of wealthy migrants relocating (at least part time) to more idyllic and mostly untouched (before they arrived) natural areas, and the (mostly Spanish-speaking Mexican) immigrants living at poverty-level around them—or, as they are increasingly priced out of the communities they’ve become a part of and contributed to for so long, at a distance from them. It is about being able to buy peace of mind through buying a piece of land, and striving for “normalcy” through conforming to a romanticized ideal of the West—an active yet laid back lifestyle and style of dress, sense of community and connection to nature.
The benefits to wealthy migrants extend beyond a more stress-free existence and the opportunities for recreation that come with being close to such a pristine landscape. As Farrell shows:
They transform wild settings into ultra-exclusive enclaves for enjoying wealth, multiplying wealth, and gaining social prestige through environmental conservation.
When asked about their involvement in the community, the ultra-wealthy individuals of Teton County often turn to their involvement with the Jackson Hole Land Trust. But such involvement comes with economic perks, such as the huge tax deductions—often in the millions of dollars—that come with the conservation easements they champion to protect land from further development, as well as the social perks and prestige that involvement in such organizations bestows. It has been described as the most philanthropic community in America, but the private charitable foundations that are so prevalent there are also, as one interviewee told Farrell, “the best onshore version of an offshore trust” available. In spite of that:
Land Trusts conserve land by working directly with private landowners, which is viewed by most as a safe and noncontroversial activity in comparison to more “political” or “extreme” environmentalist approach that might challenge deeply ingrained commitments to private property rights or neoclassical economics.
It is, in short, a way to preserve the environment they’ve come to love while preserving the system of wealth that has so enriched them. Ironically, the state’s lack of any income or corporate tax—which is touted in many real estate brochures and has undoubtedly played a large part in attracting the ultra-wealthy—is “made possible by the state’s lucrative oil, gas, and coal industries” which actively undermine the kind of conservation goals that drive much of their philanthropy. Indeed, many of the ultra-wealthy made their fortunes in such industries, or in their investments in an economic system undergirded by them. So, while promoting the forces of the free market in their professional life, they have purchased a respite from it in Teton County, bordered by federally protected lands on all sides, in their private lives. In other words (in my reading of it, at least), they are privatizing for their personal use a bit of pristine landscape that their professional activities make it harder to come by. They may now consider the therapeutic qualities of nature to be priceless, but many have spent their careers putting a price on it. They go there to get away from it all, to realize that, in the end, as one ultra-wealthy resident responded, when faced with the grandeur of nature:
“As long as you enjoy what Teton County has to offer, you’re totally welcome. The money doesn’t do you any good. It doesn't really matter.”
A notion to which Farrell responds:
But, of course, money does matter—especially for those who don’t have it—because it requires immense money to live amid the priceless grandeur of nature in Teton County, and nearly every ultra-wealthy person I interviewed has spent many millions on homes, services, and other goods.
Indeed, it raises the question of if they’d find the experience as therapeutic if they weren’t experiencing it in $30 million dollar homes, without heated driveways and helicopters, without servants, private guides, and exclusive club memberships. Would they find views of the Teton Pass therapeutic if they were forced to commute over its dangerous and sometimes deadly terrain every day to work, as the people who work in the community and in their very homes now must because they can’t afford to actually live in the community? That reality has come to pass, in fact, because of the very easements the Land Trusts set aside and the scarcity for it causes—driving up property values and housing costs in the process. Money is of no concern to those that have more than they could possibly spend in a lifetime, but it is to those facing eviction because they don’t have enough to pay the 40 percent rent increases that are becoming common in the community due to a lack of affordable housing and rush to develop every piece of available property left (even if there are already people living on it).
What Farell found is that the sense of community and perceived benefits of environmental conservation among the wealthy are often vague, but their impact on both that community and environment are very real. Their desire to keep “everything in balance” through their conservation efforts is belied by the broader impact of their economic activity in business and their impact on the local community, which lacks balance.
Certainly, almost every ultra-wealthy person I spoke with wants what is best for the community. Yet, somehow, in the richest county in the richest nation in the world there are homeless kids who attend the local high school, multiple families living wedged into a single motel room, a quarter of all kids receiving free and reduced lunch and breakfast, kids too exhausted for school because lack of bed space means taking turns sleeping, families being forced to choose between paying high rents or buying food, affordable trailer parks being torn down for new luxury construction, and in general people facing dim prospects of upward mobility, despite hard work and plenty of hope.
When a CEO in the entertainment industry suggests they limit growth in the community to “not screw this place up,” one wonders if they already have. Farrell relates how one member of the exclusive Yellowstone Club is “frustrated by the fact that people like to criticize wealth without knowing the stories of ‘how we worked our asses off to get it.’”
In his view, popular criticism is based on jealousy, but also because people just don’t take the time to get to know the ultra-wealthy to truly understand how hard they’ve worked.
Perhaps they don’t understand because they’re busy working two or three jobs themselves just to make ends meet. Also, in light of the damage the financial industry has wrought, and the fact that its business model remains inherently extractive even in the wake of the Great Recession (as well documented in the book, Sabotage), one wonders if society would benefit if they worked less hard. They talk about how much they’ve sacrificed to gain such affluence. But perhaps we’d be better off if they didn’t sacrifice—time with their family, their ideals or moral character—to the point they feel as if they’ve lost something in their quest for economic success that they must now recover it by purchasing large swaths of pristine land for their private enjoyment or to assuage personal guilt through gilded philanthropy.
The fact is that the pressures and sacrifices the wealthy speak of are “life-balance questions faced by all working people from all social classes.” And yet, it remains critically important to understand what motivates those at the top, because:
As long as extreme wealth inequality in the United States persists, the need to understand the motives and methods of ultra-wealthy benefactors becomes all the more important, and questions about the impacts of plutocracy all the more relevant. How relevant? The top 10 percent of families owns 76 percent of all wealth in the United States ($67 trillion in 2013). The bottom 50 percent—meaning half the entire population of the United States—is left to divvy up just 1 percent of all wealth.
Yet, in their interviews with Farrell, they repeatedly express feelings that they’ve worked hard and not only deserve such a disproportionate share of national income, but deserve a respite from the world they have helped create through their work—work that ultimately undermines environmental protection on a larger scale, the authenticity of the community they’ve adopted as their own, and the upward mobility of those that work there.
Is there a way to resolve this?
As one respondent noted, “If we had a reasonable sales tax or property tax, we would have so much more money coming in than has ever come in from these voluntary donations.” What you don’t see them doing, in her words, is them “trying to create a system where you don’t need to do charity,” summed up in her remark “you see a lot of charity but very little justice.” IRS and Census data show Teton County has “the largest discrepancy between the number of people who actually live there and the number of people who claim it for tax purposes.” Of course, this also means that they have homes here that sit mostly empty while the working poor squeeze multiple families into a single trailer and sleep in shifts. Still, the vast majority of the over 200 considerably well-funded philanthropic organizations in the area goes to environmental causes and the arts, while community advocacy groups struggle for funding. You hear many in the community wondering whether the wealthy care more about moose than they care about the people struggling in the community they claim to value so much or the employees they have come to count as personal friends (even if the understanding of that relationship is not, it turns out, usually reciprocated).
Focusing on the community over the individual, Farrell explores all of this with much more nuance, patience, and academic authority than I can muster. Most importantly, he does it with profound empathy, with the goal of truly understanding the thought process and motivations of those with immense wealth and privilege and those with neither, without falling into stereotypes of either the ultra-rich or the working-poor. Taking wealthy individuals' altruistic motivations as authentic and sincere, Farrell’s search for authentic community rather than the veneer of it in instructive. Along with an interest in extending justice rather than philanthropy to individuals and the environment, and the steps he sees the working poor now taking to advocate for their own interests, he provides a refreshing look at bridging a divide wider than the valley in Jackson Hole—one encapsulated almost perfectly in it.