APRIL 30, 2020
MY UNCLE USED to live in a trailer park not far from Jackson, Wyoming, doing maintenance-and-repair at the chic resorts. For years, he spun yarns about his celebrity sightings on the ski slopes — Bill Clinton, Harrison Ford, Paul Allen of Microsoft.
All across the West, certain mountain towns — Aspen, Vail, Park City, Sun Valley — have become playgrounds for the new and restless rich. What makes Teton County, Wyoming, so attractive to the rich and famous? On my first visit to the county seat of Jackson, it struck me most how familiar it appeared, historically speaking. Gone are the fur trades, the gold rushes, the cattle booms, the logging camps. But make no mistake, Jackson is still very much a boomtown — a product of the new rush on Western amenities.
If you asked Justin Farrell, a Yale sociologist and Wyoming native, though, he’d tell you that’s only half-correct. He has spent the last several years running in closed circles of the ultrawealthy trying to make sense of this new frontier. As it turns out, Teton County isn’t just a by-product of the leisure class in search of a fresh ski slope. It represents a dark side of “charitable” spending.
The outcome of Farrell’s prodigious research is Billionaire Wilderness, a shrewd new book, which tells a more complicated story about the one percent than greed and money grubbing alone. While scholars and journalists have written exposés on the ways the rich gobble up precious properties, he offers a glimpse into their motivations — not just how the megarich build rustic second homes in the Grand Tetons, but why. His sociological snapshot provides a glimpse into the lives of the ultrawealthy in Jackson and how attitudes toward the environment manifest in an era of wealth inequality. This is the sort of book you didn’t know you needed until after you pick it up: the tony bookend to Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, which cast a sober eye on the working class in Louisiana.
Farrell is comfortable “in the field,” as they say in sociology departments, and when he’s not running surveys and number crunching, he’s talking to his research participants, most of whom have a net worth upward of $15 million. Usually he meets them at coffeehouses and restaurants. The oil and gas executives and hedge fund managers pull up in pickup trucks wearing Wrangler’s, outerwear vests, and flannel shirts. These multimillionaires call the wait staff by name, slide into a booth, and lament the state of moose populations and coyote control. After a few more minutes of working-class cosplay, they eventually own up to their six-and-seven-figure financial giving to wildlife art museums, environmental organizations, and conservation action groups.
In the wrong hands, conservation is just another financial grift. Take the CEO from the entertainment industry who tells Farrell that he feels a “great responsibility to protect the experience of the natural world.” He closes his gorgeous properties to future commercial and residential development by putting it under easement. These preserved estates are a “win-win,” the CEO says, because it conserves beautiful scenery and cordons-off his capital assets. Moreover, these property easements save him millions of dollars in tax write-offs. This is a common financial strategy in Teton County, and the impact is only compounded by Wyoming’s loose tax rules. As one interviewee puts it, Wyoming provides the “best onshore version of an offshore trust.”
But it’s not all about economic gain. If you ask the ultrarich why they build second homes in the Grand Tetons, they’ll wax poetic about a love nature and the experience of it. They express a genuine conservationist ethic. Most try to follow the blueprint of John D. Rockefeller Jr., the oil heir, who is remembered in environmental circles for giving back through conservation (rather than for his other legacy of union busting coal miners). In 1950, Rockefeller helped create Grand Teton National Park after purchasing 114,170 acres north of Jackson. He used his oil fortune “for good, not evil.” Today, the ultrawealthy pair money and influence through a “new Rockefeller” model of environmental philanthropy. Part of this is guilt: the rich hope conservation will provide a dispensation for the profligate waste in the rest of their lives. But the other part, Farrell says, is status anxiety: the inner longing to become the Real McCoy.
The rich of the Grand Tetons have begun to worry, in other words, just as the scions of economic life have always done, that they are somehow its victims. Back in the Gilded Age, a social crisis of the bourgeoisie encouraged Eastern elites to embrace the West and nature for its “authenticity.” Teddy Roosevelt remains the poster boy of the overcivilized who sought to get back to the plain folk root of things. The same remains true in today’s new Gilded Age, when the billionaire class feels wounded by social and political stigmas. All the political talk of “millionaires and billionaires” and a “two-cent wealth tax” has begun to take a psychic toll. As Farrell earns the trust of the megarich, they open up to him, and he can’t help but observe a therapeutic worldview: a mix of feel good altruism, fantasies about health and wellness, and fuzzy science about environmental “balance.”
Whenever those in the billionaire class fantasize about heading West to achieve something real, they’re living out the oldest myth in the American cannon. The Frontier. While Farrell doesn’t reach for historical parallel, the white man’s paradise out West has always come at the expense of others. The same is true today. Beneath the glitz of the Grand Tetons, there’s a stark divide between the lives of the rich and the lives of the poor, and it is every bit as visible to some as it is invisible to others. After they arrive in the mountains, the ultrawealthy, Farrell writes, “use nature and rural people as a vehicle for personal transformation.”
Once he starts to interview workers, Farrell finds an assortment of attitudes. Some working people believe these ultrawealthy “job creators” have an important role to play in society, while others begrudge them for their presence. This is the story of men and women who, like my uncle, have lived for years on the literal and figurative edges of Jackson and sometimes made shoestring connections to the well off. That’s not unusual. According to Farrell, the ultrawealthy have plenty of “friends” in the working classes (and they showcase them every chance they get). They rub elbows with working men and women on purpose: to become earthy and downhome. They convince themselves that out West life is more egalitarian, and that class politics simply don’t matter. This, too, is a product of the frontier myth, which has erased real histories of class conflict and labor wars and replaced it with fairy tales about white cowboys and rugged individualism.
In reality, Farrell finds that most of the “friendships” the rich have with the working class began as economic exchanges. The ultrawealthy befriend their massage therapists, hairstylists, nannies, waitresses, and gardeners. At some point, the emotional labor of the service sector gets confused for friendship. That’s not to say these relationships are never sincere, but they’re hardly absent of power dynamics, of exclusion, of racism. A good share of the working class in Jackson, for example, are Latino people who perform the hidden work of the white man’s bounty. Resentment grows. A choice illustration: “Fuck you greedy bastards,” one sign read at a recent mountain town protest. “I can’t feed my babies and I work three jobs.”
At bottom, Billionaire Wilderness is a reminder that the do-gooder politics of conservation have been, and will continue to be, co-opted by rich elites. During an age of global climate change, hedge fund managers can serve on the boards of wildlife art museums, and rich actors can give speeches about saving the planet, but that’s not the same as addressing the deep-seated inequalities closer to home. The politics of “environmentalism” have too often erased economic and racial justice. What’s more, the wealthy have profited economically and socially from these “causes” that emphasize personal transformation over collective well-being.
While Farrell details how the megarich have leveraged their wealth and cultural power to become even richer, he steers clear of the easy screed. He’s revealing the pernicious side of ultrawealthy “causes.” He’s exposing how individual philanthropy can warp the “common good.” The rich want to preserve the world’s natural beauty, but the influx of great wealth to northwest Wyoming has disfigured its social and political life.
“You see a lot of charity,” one community worker says bluntly, “but very little justice.”