Of the 3,144 counties in the United States, the one with the highest per capita income is Teton County, Wyoming. It’s also the most unequal: Ninety percent of all income is made by 8 percent of households. Its average per capita income is $194,485, and the average income for the top 1 percent in the county is an astonishing $28.2 million.
Justin Farrell, an associate professor of sociology at Yale and a Wyoming native, spent six years interviewing the ultra-wealthy as well as the working poor in Teton County and studying the effects of wealth on this community. The result of his research is an illuminating and provocative new book, Billionaire Wilderness: The Ultra-Wealthy and the Remaking of the American West. He spoke to reporter Nick Romeo.
Most people do not associate wealth inequality and environmentalism. What’s the connection you found?
The ultrarich use nature to solve dilemmas they face. The first dilemma is economic. So you made all this money: How much should you share it, how should you enjoy it, and how should you protect and multiply it? Conservation has all sorts of benefits economically. People say that they move to Teton County for the beautiful ecosystem, the wildlife and all that, but the other major reason, the primary reason really, is it’s a tax haven. I try to show that not all tax havens are off in these faraway islands, some of them are right here in the pristine mountains of the American West: Wyoming does not have corporate tax or income tax and often sits atop Bloomberg’s wealth-friendly states rankings. So you see dollars flooding in, which impacts the fabric of the community itself. In Teton County in 1980, only 30 percent of income came from financial investments, but by 2015, $8 out of every $10 in this community was made from financial investments.
I’m a big proponent of conservation, but I don’t think we look enough at who benefits from conservation, not only in terms of tax breaks but in terms of how it affects property values and low-income people who can no longer live anywhere near where they work. Some people have to drive over an 8,000-foot mountain pass every day to get to work in the dead of a Wyoming winter. So the area is transformed into an ultra-exclusive enclave, where you need the money to buy entry. It’s basically become a gated community to the extreme.
What are the other dilemmas that the rich use nature to solve?
The second dilemma is social: How do they wrestle with the stigma of being ultra-wealthy? They are burdened by a social stigma that they are greedy, and they often feel like they’ve sacrificed something along the way to wealth. So they use nature combined with a romantic view of rural people as a way to transform themselves. I found this pattern where they create versions of themselves that they view as more authentic, more virtuous, more small-town and community-minded.
The interesting thing is that they model their personal transformation on this notion of the working poor in the rural West, especially in outdoors-oriented places. They tend to romanticize them. The image is of someone with a low-status career who doesn’t have a lot of material goods but is living close to the earth, in nature, and maybe they’re going skiing or hiking, or maybe they live in a camper van, and they are free from the traps of wealth and power that the rich have had to navigate their whole careers. The rich imagine that the working poor live more of an outdoor life of contentment, are more authentic, simpler, and that they enjoy a special kinship with nature and integration into the small-town community. All that becomes central to how the ultra-wealthy transform themselves—it’s a yearning among the ultra-wealthy for this love of a bygone small-town character kind of mixed with the cowboy ethos.
You talk in the book about how the ultrarich basically play dress-up—they wear Wranglers and plaid shirts. They pull on leather cowboy boots and drive rugged trucks.
Yeah, the dress was very surprising to me. I did not go into this project focused on how those folks dressed, but it turned out to be such a communicator of something deeper and more important. Dress was an outward performance of their conversion to this way of life, of what they view as this way of life. The image is built on half-truths and a really romanticized view of the working poor, especially in this community, where the reality of the working poor tends to be two immigrant families living in a single trailer, with the adults working two or three jobs. But that’s not how the wealthy see it. This performance also includes making friends with people who are just scraping by and going out into nature with these people, whether it’s their ski guides or fishing guide.
Right. It seemed like there was this really intense pride in having the token working-class friend. They all want to have one. But someone you interview points out that friends do not let friends suffer horribly, sleeping in shifts in the single bed of a trailer, particularly when those supposed friends have a 10,000-square-foot mansion that sits unused for most of the year.
I was surprised by how much they talk about their working-class friends. I have so many quotes in the book where they’re like: We’re friends because it’s not about money here. We’re all just in love with Wyoming, we’re all just in love with nature. We’ve all been converted by nature and maybe these friends have helped me along to see that maybe money isn’t everything.
And yeah, money isn’t everything, but it means a lot to those who don’t have it.
Some people are starting to question what is a true friendship and what is a true community. They may be nice, for example, to this wealthy person they are working for, and maybe that person also treats them with respect, but they’re missing this component of what makes a good friendship and relationship, there’s this gaping hole there. Being friendly with a person who has all this money does not help them put food on the table and does not help them be able to live within a reasonable distance and come work for the rich in a restaurant they like or caretake in their homes or take their kids to school or mow their lawn. It’s just this tragic irony that structures a lot of the social relationships in that community.
It was striking how oblivious they were to the fact that these “friendships” were one-sided and based on an economic relationship.
I should stress that a lot of ultra-wealthy folks I talked to were very kind people. But there was a willful ignorance among that group of just how bad things have gotten for some people in this community and just how exclusive a place it’s become. I just wanted to draw attention to that in a way that is based on solid evidence, on six years of research, and that is not unfairly pointing fingers at certain people. But I do point out these inconsistencies between what the wealthy think of themselves and what other people actually think of them and what other people wish the community was really like. That’s what I strove for in the book—something that could be trusted, that wasn’t just this polemical exposé based on sloppy analysis.
And you do point out that in some ways it’s a very generous group of people there. There are a huge number of nonprofits per capita, but when you actually look at where the money is going, it’s almost entirely to arts organizations and environmental organizations that are often very narrowly focused on one charismatic animal, like the moose, not something more systemic like climate change. Meanwhile, funding for human services that help the poor is minimal.
There is a narrative within the community—which has some truth—that it’s an extremely generous place with all these nonprofits. People love to talk about that. So I dug into the numbers, and they do have a huge number of nonprofits: per capita, it’s off the charts. I looked at where the money is going and asked what that says about the community. Often the money is going to arts organizations, for example maybe to fund a symphony in the summer. They bring in these world-class musicians who may stay in some of the wealthy homes. Meanwhile, there is a housing crisis, and there are children in the schools who are homeless. There are homeless children in the richest county in the richest country in the world.
So this is a philanthropic community, but virtually no money is going to organizations working in the social-services sector compared with the millions that are pouring into support the arts or a land trust or environmental nonprofit.
For example, people are really concerned about dwindling moose populations, as am I, but it’s just one animal, and that issue for them is more prominent than poverty. It’s also more prominent than environmental issues like climate change, and climate change is going to affect everything, it’s going to affect the moose. There’s also a social element—is it prestigious to sit on the board of the Latino Resource Center versus sitting on the board of a land trust or an arts organization? I did a social-network analysis of the social capital of these groups as well, and the disparity was just as wide.
The fundamental issue is that a lot of these folks go to this area to escape the homelessness and poverty that they might see somewhere else. They moved there expecting not to see it and when they do, it’s kind of a buzz kill. So they’re like, “I didn’t come to paradise to give money to a homeless person; I thought I got away from that.”
Especially people from the Eastern Seaboard still romanticize the West as being empty of people and just full of nature. But there is a real community of folks there trying to make it and often the wealthy just don’t see them, either because they don’t want to or they’re just not aware because these people are not integrated into their community, so they don’t let it spoil their version of paradise. And so that all creates a veneer both environmental and social that all is well in paradise. It covers over the policy solutions that are really needed to turn this into more of a functioning community where all sorts of people will want to live and can.
What are the effects of the wealthy on land conservation in the West?
There’s this myth that environmentalism and conservationism mean just saving a big piece of land from development. It’s seen as inherently apolitical if you buy a big piece of land and you put easements on it to protect its ecological integrity. That’s the model that people live by as the pinnacle of conservation. That’s very different from how environmentalism or conservation should work in practice. It’s an inherently political activity. They tend to have a very limited view of science—they think, you know, we just need to keep everything in balance. So if we build a house over there, maybe we should save some of the land on the other side of the stream. But they don’t want to get too involved in confrontational issues. Climate change has become a confrontational issue because of the impact of climate skeptics over the last 30 years. So that’s a hot-button issue that most of them stay away from. But when we are talking about conservation or environmentalism, the topic should be climate change. The people didn’t come out there to get politically involved, but that’s what’s required to really tackle those issues.
You use the term “connoisseur conservation” to describe the way some of the wealthy see nature almost as a luxury good, like a fine wine or fancy meal. Can you say more about what this term means?
Folks who are ultra-wealthy will say things like “This is the best that nature has to offer.” And it’s hard to disagree if you look at the mountains and lakes and pristine water and air. So they view the environment as the best of the best, in the same way you would a wine or a yacht. But because it is such a wonderful place ecologically, they are enjoying those benefits more and more, which makes it harder for other Americans to do the same.
They view nature as this medicinal and therapeutic storehouse where they can go recharge their batteries and, in a deeper sense, become whole. Some of them even use religious language. And you know, I enjoy the same benefits when I go on a hike too, so it is not unique to them. But it is unique when they are potentially colonizing that area for themselves and making it impossible for other folks who have lived there for a long time to remain there. I’m not saying other Americans can’t go visit Yellowstone and Grand Teton, but they are turning that area into a wealthy island of certain people and not others.
The quasi-religious view of nature also creates what you describe as a kind of moral exemption on spending money that promotes communion with nature. So what might be seen as extravagant if spent for some other purpose becomes completely fine when it is spent to enhance that bond with nature.
It’s kind of similar to folks who have the money to buy a Tesla and then feel good about saving the environment. Here there’s a similar phenomenon but ratcheted up like everything else. So you might build this enormous nature sanctuary from materials gathered from nearby and this might involve the burning of fossil fuels so that you can keep it heated year-round even though you’re not there, and it might prevent certain wildlife from migrating to certain areas. So there are all kinds of effects and externalities that are not considered because you’re building it with the intent of enjoying nature, which is seen as a moral good.
Tell me about the Yellowstone Club and your experience of going skiing there.
That is basically everything in the book taken to an extreme. They have a private mountain, very steep entry fees, and a quasi-militarized perimeter. I will say that it is odd to get on a ski lift, not see anyone until you get to the top, except for the person who helps you off, ski down, not see another person, and get back up and go again and not see another person. They call one of the runs “private powder,” and that’s indeed true.
They also accuse you of stealing their guest list even though you had gotten the names of residents from tax records. More broadly, it must’ve been difficult to get access to these rich people. Can you talk a little about your methods?
The short answer is that it was really hard, and that is why there isn’t a lot of research at present on the ultra-wealthy. I had this unique identity that set me up to make inroads. So first the Yale name has this elite gravitas in these circles that will initially get you a foot in the door. But I also have this identity as someone who was born in Wyoming and has what I call the Western gravitas, which can be very attractive to people who are moving to these places to pursue that kind of authenticity they view as a romantic ideal. I was able to kind of leverage those two important components.
So, when I wrote an initial letter to invite them to have a conversation, I wasn’t pitching a study on wealth inequality. I knew that was present in the community, so I invited them to participate in a study on how this area is changing, what they like about it, what they don’t like about it. Just very general terms. And we did talk a lot about wild places and all of that, but I also had questions about the income gap here and the fact that this place doesn’t have income taxes. The conversations would just unfold in a natural way.
I also promised anonymity to everybody, and I made sure they knew I was not out to get them. I was not interested in singling out individuals; I was interested in general patterns and telling stories about those patterns through individual lives. I was committed to being accurate and impartial: I made clear that it was not going to be this sloppy attack. I think part of it is that as an academic I do the kind of work that is independent and can be trusted because it’s rooted in reliable methods of sampling and interviewing and participant observation and all of that.
Have you had any responses to the book from the ultrarich yet?
I had some positive reactions where folks were like, “yeah, that’s why I moved here. I like the Wyoming culture and I like wearing jeans and that’s true.” There are others who have pushed back a little bit on my characterization of their philanthropy, saying they are doing it out of the goodness of their heart and they care about the issues, which may be true, but when you look at the numbers, it tells a different story. So, it’s been a little mixed, but I haven’t received any major blowback. Honestly, I think it’s because I built some pretty good relationships with many of these folks, and I do see them as people. People with immense power and immense wealth that have disproportionate impact and who may not understand the reality of life in the rural West or the reality of environmental conservation and the problem of climate change.
There are these stunning examples of cognitive dissonance that you depict where someone flies into Wyoming on a private Learjet but thinks of himself as an environmentalist. Or someone who made their money in oil and gas but supports some moose charity, so they think of themselves as an environmentalist. Given their extraordinary inability to perceive their own hypocrisy, what do you think can be done?
Yeah, I would think more about the policy side than necessarily changing the minds of the rich. Many of the problems that we see in a place like Teton County have been created by the massive concentration of wealth. So I think there’s a myth that needs to be overcome that we need to rely on the ultrarich to solve the problem. They have all these fundraisers and events and there’s so much optimism about the potential to transform these communities because they have so much wealth and human/social capital, but it’s not happening. So, first and foremost I think the state of Wyoming could look at their tax structure for that county.
I do think that there is an opportunity to draw upon the romantic ideals that people have of the West and nature and to harness that for good. It’s important to educate the ultra-wealthy about what’s really going on, there are opportunities for that and that can really make an impact locally. But I think in the long-term, structurally more deeper changes need to happen so that we’re not relying on the whims of those folks. There are some well-meaning ultra-wealthy people who have done a lot of good in the community in terms of giving money to schools and education, but that can fluctuate. If someone decides to go back to Connecticut because they had their fun, you lose a source of income that maybe the community depends on.
Is this community a microcosm for the general challenges America is facing with wealth inequality, NIMBYism, hypocrisy, and the tokenization of the working class?
For sure. That’s one of the reasons I undertook the project. I’m hesitant to generalize very far in the book, that’s just an academic thing—being careful not to assert things beyond your data. But you look at other locales, even places like San Francisco or Seattle where there is growing wealth disparity, you see the same problems with affordable housing, eviction, new immigrant communities coming in, and recreation growing quickly on or adjacent to public lands that provide natural resources. A lot of these patterns are playing out across America and in beautiful natural settings throughout the American West.