Every year around the holidays my wife and I used to watch a feature-length cartoon called Yogi’s First Christmas. We had recorded it on a video cassette from its original broadcast and we fast-forwarded through the commercials, which seemed to get dumber as they aged, though the cartoon itself held up pretty well. The cast featured the usual roster of Hanna-Barbera stars: Yogi Bear, the lovable faux-naïf bear who spoke in “Yogi-isms” loosely derived from the sayings of baseball’s Yogi Berra; Boo Boo Bear, his bear-cub pal; and their friends Huckleberry Hound, Snagglepuss, Augie Doggie, and the rest, along with Ranger Smith, the lone figure of authority, whose main job seemed to be keeping Yogi from stealing the picnic baskets of the visitors to Jellystone Park.
As the story begins, Yogi and Boo Boo are hibernating when the other characters show up for a week of Christmas festivities. The commotion wakes the bears, and they emerge from their dens. A sense of urgency underlies the fun: Mrs. Throckmorton, the rich owner of the Jellystone Lodge, is a surprise guest, with her difficult young nephew, Snively. She has decided to sell the lodge to developers, and Ranger Smith and the others want to show her and Snively a good time so she’ll change her mind. That the ranger, who wears a uniform like a national park employee’s, should be obliged to defer to this private person is not seen as at all out of the ordinary. The hard reality seems to be that if Mrs. Throckmorton shuts down Jellystone Lodge, that’s it for Jellystone Park.
Billionaire Wilderness: The Ultra-Wealthy and the Remaking of the American West by Justin Farrell has a similar premise. The book is a study of Teton County, Wyoming, the richest county in the United States, and the one with the greatest gap between rich and poor. Power in Teton County, whose boundaries include about 40 percent of Yellowstone Park, resides in the very rich. What will the Mrs. Throckmortons of Teton County do? Why will they do it? What do they think, what motivates them, what is it like to be them? All of the 180 very rich people interviewed for this book are disguised with made-up names to protect their privacy. On page one we meet “Julie and Craig Williams,” Teton County-ites who are hosting an informational and fundraising event about local environmental issues in their massive house on a mountain. I suppose that calling them something like “the Throckmortons” would have been too much. Using tongue-in-cheek rich-people names like Daddy Warbucks or Mrs. Plushbottom (Curious George) or Thurston Howell III (Gilligan’s Island) has become a thing of the past.
In any case, Justin Farrell would not do that. He is an associate professor of sociology at the Yale School of Forestry, and Billionaire Wilderness is a carefully researched, Yale-sponsored sociological study in which the possession of great wealth is treated with an almost liturgical reverence, and the possessors are handled like plutonium. A footnote even tells us that “the term ‘rich’ is not meant to be pejorative, despite some of its popular connotations.” In fact, the problem with “rich,” as an adjective in this context, is that it’s too vague. When you’re trying to describe people who have more money than 99 percent of everybody, but in varying amounts, “rich” doesn’t cut it. Americans might want to rethink the whole idea of not having noble titles. In tsarist Russia, you knew that a grand duke was really, really rich, whereas a mere count was only moderately rich, if that. Here the author uses honorifics like “the ultra-wealthy,” “the elite of the elite,” “the über-affluent,” “the centimillionaires,” and, of course, the “billionaires,” but I sensed a longing for better identifiers, ones that would be both classier and more precise as to dollar amounts.
To restate the book’s main point and revelation: Teton County, Wyoming, in the northwest corner of that rectangular state, remote from either coast, is the richest and most unequal county in America. Almost no one knows this, as I’ve discovered by just randomly asking around. Everybody guesses that enclaves like suburban Washington, D.C., or New York County (Manhattan), or Silicon Valley are the richest. The average income for the top one percent in Teton County is $28.2 million a year, by far the highest of all the 3,114 counties in the United States. The top one percent of Teton County residents make 233 times more per year than the bottom 99 percent. As for the top .01 percent in Wyoming, their average annual income is $368,823,036 (Connecticut is second at $83.9 million, and New York third at $69.9 million).
Wyoming has attracted the rich and extremely rich by being the Cayman Islands or Monaco of the fifty states. According to the calculations of those who study such things, it is the “wealth-friendliest” state. Wyoming has no state income tax, corporate tax, estate tax, or capital gains or interest tax, and its excise, sales, and property taxes are some of the lowest in the country. Its residency requirements are loose. A person with a massive house in Connecticut can build another massive house in Teton County, claim to be a Wyoming resident, and pay no state tax in either place, saving many hundreds of thousands of tax dollars (and depriving Connecticut of them, not to mention Wyoming).
The rich get almost all their income from investments. Meanwhile, the average annual earnings per job in Teton County is (or was, in 2015) about $41,000, a minuscule gain from what it had been forty years before. To afford an ordinary, nonmassive, middle-class house in Teton County, of which there aren’t many, one needs an annual income of at least $125,000. Thus, most of the people who do the actual physical work—busing tables, mowing golf courses, hanging shower doors, grooming ski slopes, cleaning the massive houses—must live elsewhere and commute. Most of the people who work for the rich are immigrants from Mexico, many from the state of Tlaxcala, many of them undocumented. Thirty to 40 percent of the county’s Latino population lives below the federal poverty line. About a third of the Latino children in the Teton County School District qualify for the free and reduced-price lunch programs. Immigrant families crowd ten or fifteen people into a trailer, sometimes sleeping in shifts. The parents work two or three jobs. Twenty-seven percent finished high school, and only 8 percent have a college degree. Many would like to get more education, but their schedules, and the lack of tax revenue to subsidize public higher education, rule that out.
Farrell knows and cares about the place because he’s a native westerner whose family has been in Wyoming for generations. In the introduction he describes being a kid and accompanying his mother in her daily work of cleaning the massive houses. He is the first person in his family to have gone to college. Even now, in his transformed status as a Yale professor—a status which, he says, causes his very rich interviewees to accept him at their own social level—the sense of awe he experienced when he first went into the houses of the wealthy never leaves him. When he’s having breakfast with an interview subject in a café in Jackson, they both order omelets, and Farrell says he begins “wondering absurdly to myself what a nine-dollar omelet tastes like to someone worth $90 million.” With a trace of disappointment, he adds, “Probably the same as mine, I suppose.”
The very rich present a unique challenge to a researcher. Teton County’s rich have plenty of barriers, such as gated communities and fenced perimeters manned by ex–Secret Service agents, to thwart observation. Farrell notes that all kinds of studies exist of poor people, but not many of the rich. Again and again he repeats how important it is to understand the rich because of their “immense influence,” as well as their numbers, which are growing nationwide at the rate of 10 percent a year. He then sets about overcoming the obstacles, approaching the rich of Teton County from several directions, wangling invitations to functions like the “Williams’s” fundraiser and networking from there, and by approaching the management of the Yellowstone Club, whose “membership deposit” is $400,000 and annual dues are $41,500. That he got so many very rich people to talk to him is an accomplishment. His ability to endure the self-satisfaction, vapidity, and lack of humor in most of his very rich subjects is also remarkable. Despite being in no way funny, the very rich he meets chuckle constantly. People he’s talking to say things “with a chuckle” seemingly on every other page. Sometimes the author gamely chuckles in response.
From his descent, or ascent, into stultifying very-richness, he brings back real news. First, the very rich, or at least the subset who own massive Teton County houses, do not want to be thought of as assholes. The pseudonymous Julie Williams tells him, “I like to say there is a ‘no asshole’ policy in the community.” The word comes up repeatedly. A member of the Yellowstone Club says, “I’ve not met one asshole” in it. This statement would seem to be called into question by another member who chuckles as he tells the author about his Russian fighter jet, “a little air-to-ground attack fighter,” that he enjoys flying over the golf course so low that he knocks down the flags. Another Yellowstone Clubber excites general admiration and wonder by being, in the words of a fellow member, “such an asshole outside of the club, but when he comes here, he’s the nicest guy.”
The very rich of Teton County demonstrate how “just folks” and non-assholic they are by wearing jeans. Over and over they say things like, “We’re all just in our jeans and flannel shirts.” You don’t have to bring Armani evening wear, apparently, if you’re visiting friends with massive houses in Teton County. Nope, just your plain ol’ jeans will be fine. In fact, if you wear furs and pearls (as Mrs. Throckmorton does in Yogi’s First Christmas) you will be disapproved of. Over and over and over we are told that on the streets of Jackson or Jackson Hole it’s impossible to tell who’s just a ski-bum “lifty” (someone who operates a ski-lift) or the like, and who’s a hedge-fund billionaire. The fetishistic focus on jeans, flannel shirts, and boots as magical social levelers made me wish that Carhartt or Dickies made heavy-duty tuxedos and steel-toed black patent-leather dancing pumps suitable for outdoor work. If I were a Teton County lifty, that’s what I would wear.
And what about the Spanish-speaking workers, who tend to be the poorest people in the county? Presumably they, too, wear boots and jeans. Are there billionaires in mufti also among them? The assertion that you can’t tell rich from poor seems to elide the Latinos and treat them as invisible.
Some of what the very rich interviewees tell Farrell he accepts with a touching lack of skepticism. Though he is constantly “digging deeper,” the idea that wealth is morally neutral in its origins goes pretty much unchallenged. A “medical device investor” tells him, with a chuckle, how he does deals on his phone while skiing backcountry trails in the Teton Mountains. The US has the highest health care costs by far of any industrialized nation. Is the chuckling skier making that problem better, or worse?
Parts of the West were on fire while I read this book, and my sister-in-law was waiting to see if she would have to evacuate her house (her first and only house) in Ashland, Oregon, as a town six miles away burned to the ground. The issue of climate change troubles none of the book’s rich interviewees. One of them crows to Farrell that his house looks out on the Gallatin National Forest and Yellowstone Park, land that can never be developed, and “when my daughter is a grandmother, it will look the same.” But if the West keeps burning, one day that land will not look the same.
A feature of a meritocracy, as opposed to an aristocracy based on inherited titles, is that its elite individuals have no doubt that they’ve earned their status. Their parents didn’t give it to them. Therefore, all questions about whether they deserve their massive houses and private jets lack standing. The rich interviewees tell the author how hard they’ve worked to get where they are, and he often mentions the work-related, “pressure-cooker” stress and long hours they have to put up with (or used to, before they retired at fifty). Whether the lives of the help who must live fifteen to a trailer and sleep in shifts might qualify as stressful is a question Farrell leaves for later.
The very rich are in imminent danger of burnout and collapse. To relax, detoxify, and feel real again the very rich go into the Wyoming outdoors and ski, hike, fly-fish (as someone who has fly-fished for fifty-five years, I was pained to be reminded of how the very rich have taken up the sport and oppressed it with their clenched-teeth efficiency; Dick Cheney, who has a house in Teton County, is said to be an excellent fly-fisherman). Wyomingites, rich and poor, are unified in their love for the outdoors, the rich repetitively say. In the outdoors the rich can pretend to be like everybody else.
Most people have no conception of the refuges of the very rich, or of the places where the very rich have decamped to, with their wealth that piles up on them unstoppably, like the chocolates coming off a speeded-up conveyor belt in that episode of I Love Lucy. The chocolates are piling up in Sedona, Arizona, and Hobe Sound, Florida, and Bozeman, Montana, and Big Sur, California, and Sisters, Oregon, and other scattered venues. A rich person invited me to Nantucket to give a reading one August weekend, and as the ferry came into the harbor I observed a sight seldom seen by most Americans: the billionaires’ navy was in port. Immense yachts, some with helicopters parked on them, crowded the anchorage in a gleaming, luxury-white armada from one end of the harbor to another, and spilling out on either side. Faster and faster the chocolates keep piling up; and what to do with them?
In Teton County, the recipients of the speeded-up chocolates create nonprofit corporations. There are some two hundred nonprofits in Teton County, more than the county can accommodate, according to nonprofit staff looking to stand out and raise money. Teton County considers itself, in the words of a wealthy resident, “the most philanthropic community in the country.” Farrell looks closely at the charitable scene in the county and at what and whom it benefits. A sentence in the acknowledgments at the beginning of the book tells a lot. To interview the book’s Spanish-speaking subjects the author relied on a local social services organization that helps the county’s immigrants, and he says he is disguising its name for fear of “retribution” from its wealthy donors. It and other charitable groups working with the poor get the merest crumbs compared to the Teton County nonprofits that promote causes related to the outdoors and the arts.
Farrell discovers, unsurprisingly, that Teton County’s nonprofits significantly benefit the very rich themselves. The nonprofits focused on local conservation issues have the effect of shutting down the possibility of local development even more, in a county where huge areas of public land are already off-limits. This causes the properties of the very rich to increase in value, which in turn creates a demand that makes it even less possible to build affordable housing. The Jackson Hole Land Trust boasts that it has provided the community with new bicycle trails worth $14 to $15 million, a fine accomplishment. But of the county’s two-hundred-plus nonprofits, none are devoted to housing. Again and again the author characterizes issues affecting the poor—housing and health care (60 percent of Latinos have no health insurance) and food insecurity—as “buzz-kill” issues. The very rich aren’t interested in them; they would rather save moose or bears. In this complicated and uncheerful subject, certain statistics stand out, such as the $22.5 million in assets that the Jackson Hole Land Trust had in 2014 while the Latino Resource Center had $355,452.
As the very rich fill Farrell’s notebooks and digital recordings with banalities (“There’s quite a bit of spirituality, just because you are surrounded by such beautiful scenery and it’s like, so amazing”), he begins to identify with his captors. He becomes so familiar with the Yellowstone Club, skiing the “Private Powder” (a phrase the club has trademarked), that he says he’s almost like a member, and he goes to various glitzy spots around the country for luncheon interviews where he eats “way too many cocktail shrimp.” All the time he’s digging deeper, deeper, trying to get inside these people’s minds. In his previous book, The Battle for Yellowstone: Morality and the Sacred Roots of Environmental Conflict (2015), he found that the “intractable” conflicts over resource management in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem were spiritual at their core. People who would risk their lives to save buffalo or wolves felt as they did because they held the animals sacred, and those who wanted to eliminate the same animals or reduce their numbers had holy feelings for a Western myth of man versus nature.
In Billionaire Wilderness Farrell is looking for that kind of deep, spiritual motivation in the attachment the very rich people feel for Wyoming, but it’s not there as it is in the devotees of the buffalo or the wolf. He keeps pursuing a faith model, when a more useful model might be addiction. The US is currently in the grip of two interlocking addictions—greed and anger. An alliance between greed-addicted rich people and anger-addicted not-rich people constitutes the Republican Party. In Billionaire Wilderness, the idea that greed might be “morally risky” gets passing mention. But seen in the context of addiction, the work that takes the very rich to the brink of collapse and endangerment of their well-being as they’re acquiring unnecessary additional wealth is an example of addictive behavior. The detoxing these sufferers undergo in Wyoming serves to resensitize them to the greed-drug, just as detoxing makes addicts more sensitive to their chemical of choice and able to get high on less of it. After you’ve been chilling with your nonwealthy best buds, the lifties and fly-fishing guides and other working people whom the very rich of Teton County say they’re such good friends with (“We are very close with the staff. With the waiters and pool girls…. We invite them to parties and get together with them”), an income of $368,823,036 per year seems like real money again.
By delegating the job of interviewing the Latino subjects to the nonprofit whose identity he disguises (though it must be easy to guess which nonprofit it is), the author puts us at a remove from the poorest residents. Physical description of the interview subjects does not figure much in the book. People are characterized by what they say. As you go along, you keep waiting for comment from anyone besides the very rich, but there’s not a direct quote from a Latino person until far into the book. And though the environments of the rich—the gated communities, the massive houses, and the “exclusive restaurants”—are explored, the places where the poor live aren’t. We’re told that many in the work force of Teton County must commute over a dangerous mountain pass, but Farrell doesn’t say where the pass is or what driving it is like. He must have driven it himself, maybe many times, but he doesn’t retrace it for our edification in the book.
The adjoining county where most of the work force live would seem to be another Teton County—Teton County, Idaho. As we learned in The Battle for Yellowstone, Idaho’s Teton County has been one of the fastest-growing counties in the country. The wealth of the other one must be why: $4.5 billion in personal income entered Teton County, Wyoming, in 2015 alone. A look on the far side of the pass might have been instructive.
By the time the nonrich interviewees do speak up—in the book’s last section, titled “Ultra-Wealth through the Eyes of the Working Poor”—the reader is dying to hear from them. They say that the very rich have earned their wealth, that they bring jobs, that the poor are grateful to them and ought to be. But the nonrich deflate the fantasy that the very rich and the workers are friends, as the very rich have claimed; a consensus of the nonrich agrees that the relationship is only economic. Many of the nonrich scorn the idea of Teton County as a charitable community. “It is very sad to see rich people with five, six, eight bedrooms and only their dogs live there,” while some poor families have nowhere to go, says the pseudonymous María Guadalupe Flores, who came to Teton County from Mexico City with her husband and two children twenty years ago. An employee of a social-welfare nonprofit says, “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.” Up in the mountains, the very rich live in their massive houses for maybe only a few weeks a year; meanwhile, in the valley, kids are coming to school hungry.
If the very rich are really so close to the people who work for them, say the members of the “low-income community,” they should do more for their neighbors. As Farrell himself agrees, “real friends do not ignore the suffering of their companions, especially if they have the power to alleviate that suffering.” Reading Billionaire Wilderness during the intense later days of the presidential campaign, I wondered about Teton County’s party politics, a subject not mentioned in the book. I assumed the county would be as red as the rest of the state, but it’s not. In the state’s other six counties, voters went two-to-one for Trump in 2016, but in Teton County that was reversed, with two-to-one for Clinton (in 2020 Biden did even better). How that vote breaks down among the rich and the nonrich I don’t know, but since much of the work force commutes from outside the county, the very rich had to be among the Clinton and Biden voters. If the Democratic Party appeals to people whose average income is $28 million a year, it must be doing something wrong. Bring on the wealth-tax proposals of Senators Warren and Sanders!
Wyoming can be so lenient about taxing its residents because of income from fossil fuel extraction. According to Farrell, nine of the ten biggest coal mines in the country are in Wyoming. Not to mention the plentiful natural gas and oil; one of the spiritual conflicts in The Battle for Yellowstone is about resource-rich Sublette County, a place “too special to drill,” in the opinion of those who love it, where opposition among a citizenry usually on the political right stopped a plan to bring in thousands of new fracking wells.
Legislative remedies to Wyoming’s poverty and inequality can be imagined. They would include rent stabilization—at the time of the book’s writing, tenants had no protection from landlords who could increase rents at will when better-paying tenants came along—as well as laws calling for fair wages, and, of course, reform of the state’s income-tax laws. The idea that no one but Wyomingites should decide these issues is complicated by the fact that so many of the powerful “residents” actually live in Connecticut or Florida or Silicon Valley or wherever.
At the end of Yogi’s First Christmas, Mrs. Throckmorton decides to keep the Jellystone Lodge open, to general rejoicing. That’s how the story is supposed to end. Scrooge’s heart softens, mercy tempers judgment, the trickles trickle down and become a flood. There is enough for all, and more. In Wyoming the promise of abundance is right in front of everybody. It’s a much-blessed state, with great people and natural bounty of all kinds. What the very rich say, over and over, about being united with the nonrich locals in their love for Wyoming is no doubt true. They are talking about the mountains and wildlife and rivers of Yellowstone Park and its surroundings, but the rest of Wyoming is glorious as well. The great Lakota chief Crazy Horse, who intimately knew a huge swath of the West, wanted his reservation to be on Beaver Creek, just west of the Black Hills, in eastern Wyoming. And that wasn’t for tax purposes, either.
The best news that Billionaire Wilderness brings is that people on both sides of the country’s economic divide know that things are out of whack. On the part of the very rich of Teton County, whose psyches Farrell looks into with such painstaking and commendable thoroughness, there seems to be a dawning awareness that all is not right with them. They come to Wyoming for the tax breaks; but they also want to be seen as “normal,” and for nonrich people to like them and be their friends. Maybe that’s why they in large part vote Democratic. It’s a start. Next, maybe the idea of taxing extreme wealth at two or three cents on the dollar can be proposed without causing terrified cries of “socialism!”
Gradual withdrawal from money-addiction is possible. Teton County can serve as a halfway house in which the very rich gradually wean themselves off it. The boldest among them might even begin by cutting the maintenance dosage in half. The .01 percent, instead of needing their annual $368,823,036, would try to get by on $184,411,518. Eventually they might taper off even further. At one point in the book, the author—who likes italics—asks, “What makes a good community in the twenty-first century?” Love and hope motivate the question. In the heart of America, beautiful Teton County is nowhere near a healthy or good community yet.
December 17, 2020
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