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The Forest for the Trees: Billionaires in the Wilderness

Billionaire Wilderness:
The Ultra-Wealthy and the Remaking of the American West
by Justin Farrell
Princeton University Press, 2020, 392 pages

In America over the last fifty years, class divisions have widened in both economic and social terms. Gone are the days when the upper, middle, and working classes attended the same churches and participated in the same civic organizations. Gone too are the days when most American children attended the same schools, and when stable families were the norm, not the exception.

Today, the plight of the working class is not well understood, but it is well documented: families are brittle, young men are discon­nected, and cities and neighborhoods have been hol­lowed out by the loss of industries.

But there is also a sense that America’s rich have lost something significant, too. Perhaps as a consequence of the death of the small town, the wealthy have become disconnected from healthy communities and from American civic life. As working-class problems have grown, America’s upper class has withdrawn.

Justin Farrell’s Billionaire Wilderness examines a peculiar instance of this growing class divide. The “wilderness” of Farrell’s title is Teton County, Wyoming, the beautiful yet sparsely populated area sur­rounding Jackson Hole. Here, the pioneer spirit has been replaced by a self-serving meritocratic ethos, and Farrell’s study of the social structure of Teton County suggests that America’s elite has indeed lost its way.

Teton County, Land of Inequality

Teton County, Wyoming, is the richest county in the United States: its per capita income is $194,485, while Manhattan is a distant second at $148,002. But it is also the county with the nation’s highest level of income inequality. As wealth has flooded in over the last thirty years, little has trickled down to the working-class residents of the county. According to Farrell, “in 1970 the average earnings per job was $39,943, and by 2015 this number had climbed only to $41,052—an increase of just $1,109 in 45 years, making it difficult to survive amid inflation and now-untouchable home prices.”1 Land values in Teton County are among the highest in the United States, and the county possesses some of the most expensive homes in the nation.2 This combination of skyrocketing property values and stagnant wages has produced a predictable result: the nonrich have been increasingly pushed out.

Still, even in wealthy Teton County and the surrounding area, poor people exist, and Farrell paints a vivid picture of the hardships they face. A typical case is that of Hector Padilla and his family, undocumented migrants from Mexico, who were “evicted from their trailer to clear the way for a new upscale development called ‘Na­ture’s Escape.’” Hector and his wife Dolorita now live in Idaho and drive through the 8,431-foot Teton Pass every day to get to work. Farrell tells many other stories of residents who struggle to get by in Teton County: families faced with unexpected, extreme rent hikes; children going hungry, and even several attending the local public school who are homeless; multiple migrant families forced to cram themselves into the same mobile home, sleeping in shifts. Most, like the Padillas, are surrounded by wealth but “live on razor thin mar­gins.”3

Meanwhile, the middle class in the region is already gone. Farrell examines the “barbell distribution” of incomes in Jackson Hole, whose population is sharply bifurcated between the ultrawealthy at the top and a low-income group—mainly Latino, like the Padillas—struggling to get by, with virtually no one in between.4 Such a sharp division of wealth, Farrell notes, is one that has long been seen as a danger for any polity: he likens Jackson Hole to those cities described by Plato as “divided into two, one the city of the poor, the other of the rich . . . at war with one another.”5 In a country where modern-day feudalism is often said to be a creeping problem, Teton County could be the closest thing America has to lords and serfs.6

“Gilded Green Philanthropy”

The story of the lost middle class does not start—or end—with high land values caused by amorphous “market forces.” Rather, it is the direct result of restrictions on land and housing that make only high-end homes possible in the county. These restrictions have been put in place by the elite through a system of self-serving charities that Farrell calls “Gilded Green Philanthropy.”

Teton County is home to many tax-exempt charities, officially dedicated to environmental causes and usually backed by millions of dollars, which directly seek to restrict further development and which thereby boost existing home and land values. The wide use of tax breaks for conservation easements and land trusts means that the county suffers from a kind of nimbyism on steroids. Farrell explains the effects of this system of self-interested environmental activism: “Restricting development, either through private conservation ease­ments or otherwise, creates even greater scarcity, maintains the scen­ery for the wealthy who already have homes, continues to drive real estate prices even higher, and creates roadblocks for building afforda­ble housing.”7

The biggest villain in Farrell’s analysis is the Jackson Hole Land Trust, a local environmental nonprofit. Its recruitment materials tout the economic benefits of participation for wealthy landowners, noting that “a conservation easement donor can enjoy significant income and estate tax savings, which can help offset the acquisition costs of a new property.”8 Environmentalism in Teton County, Farrell argues, is thus a “tool not only for preserving wealth but also for multiplying it.”9

Farrell writes that Teton County has a thriving “charitable-indus­trial complex”—used not just as a means for multiplying wealth but also for gaining social prestige—that is a point of pride for the Jack­son Hole elite.10 Wealthy residents of Teton County interviewed by Farrell brag about their charitable work, seemingly oblivious to the consequences it has on people like Hector and Dolorita Padilla. A “left-leaning financier” from Boston tells Farrell, “there are over 200 not-for-profits in this community of 20,000 people, which is a pretty amazing number! On a per capita basis, I would bet that it’s the most philanthropic community in the country.”11 Others are more honest about the effects, but try to shift the blame to neighbors or new arrivals, a virtue-signaling contest pitting Silicon Valley transplants against the East Coast rich flooding into the county.12

In fact, new nonprofit foundations are ubiquitous in Jack­son Hole; they usually arrive with much fanfare, seeking to be the talk of the town, and then continue on mostly unnoticed. There are also many family foundations, and these private foundations are usually the organizations with the most assets in the county. This influx of family money is a result of the elite’s desire to shelter assets: they treat Wyo­ming, with its loose financial regulations, as a domestic tax haven. As one ultrawealthy interviewee put it, Wyoming is “the best onshore version of an offshore trust.”13

True, charities like the Jackson Hole Land Trust are self-serving, and many families create foundations for the purpose of tax avoidance, but what does it all add up to? If the elites are bragging about the number of nonprofits per capita in Jackson Hole, then the region should at least be full of altruistic social organizations. Unfortunately, as Farrell shows through his rigorous analysis of publicly available data, the reality on the ground isn’t pretty. Put simply, the charity of Teton County’s elite does virtually nothing to help the poor of the area.

Of Teton County’s roughly two hundred nonprofit organizations, most are focused on land conservation and the arts. A deeper problem is the disparity in funding between different categories of organizations: of these two hundred nonprofits, some are bursting at the seams with cash, others struggle to get by. In general, nonprofits fo­cused on social welfare are grossly underfunded or even ignored. Elites come to Jackson Hole and “get involved”—but not in humanitarian causes.14 Charities that serve the interests of people in need or that work to relieve the plight of the migrants who serve the rich in the county are dismissed because of their focus on “buzzkill issues.”15 This is why “social service nonprofits have a hard time raising mon­ey,” as one county employee notes; instead, “environmental issues carry the most social weight.”16

The scale of the funding disparities between trendy arts and envi­ronmental charities, on the one hand, and humanitarian charities, on the other, can be staggering. For instance, one popular nonprofit, the Community Center for the Arts, had $268,158 back in 2000, but its assets grew to $40 million just seven years later—an increase of nearly 15,000 percent. Likewise, environmental charities have also seen stunning growth: in 1997, the Jackson Hole Land Trust had $3.9 million in assets, but by 2014 it had $22.5 million. Meanwhile, the Latino Resource Center, a prominent human services organization, had $355,452 in assets in 2014, a relatively modest increase from the $126,438 it had in 2005—giving it roughly 1 percent of the assets held by some of the more fashionable conservation and arts charities.17

Disparity in funding is not the only problem. Farrell writes that “the top 10 percent of organizations (twenty-eight nonprofits) ac­count for half of all social connections,” which means that “non­profits at the top—conservation and arts—enjoy a disproportionately large slice of social and human capital.”18

The juxtaposition between how elites treat the local animal pop­ulation and how they treat workers, the servant class of the county, is not flattering. In what seemed like a common occurrence, Farrell says he had a beer with “an affable hedge fund millionaire from Boston, who lamented the declining moose population in the national forest adjacent to his Wyoming property.”19 Yet Hector Padilla “wonders aloud whether wealthy people care more about saving a moose or a bear than helping him and other immigrants who are suffering.”20 Another working-class resident, discussing an event at the popular Paws Animal Shelter, opined that the progressive rich in Teton Coun­ty “give more money to dogs than humans.” And an auto mechanic told Farrell that the wealthy “take care of the wolves more than the Latino workers in this community.”21 According to Farrell, such com­parisons between the treatment of animals and humans have become “a familiar refrain” in discussions about philanthropy in the region.

Even the way the elite of Teton County view the poor is out of touch with reality, as Farrell discovers in interview after interview. In the minds of the elite, the poor in Teton County are “ski bums” and nature lovers who have given up the pursuit of wealth in favor of outdoor adventure. If they resent the rich, goes the elite thinking, it is because they secretly wish they had made better life choices. The rich therefore feel no moral imperative to help those whom they see as ski bums who, after all, chose to be poor. The reality of poverty in Teton County is quite different, however: the poor and working class residents of the area are disproportionately Hispanic migrant work­ers, whose wages have been stagnant for decades. Most work long hours at multiple jobs and still struggle to get by.

When Farrell asks these workers about wealth and about the elites they serve, their responses are quite different from those imag­ined by the local rich. Despite hardship and low wages, they are overwhelmingly grateful to have the jobs. Instead of resentment, they assume that the rich earned their success through hard work and so deserve their wealth. Questions of immigration law aside, the poor of the re­gion are generally humble, religious (most are Catholic), hard-working, law-abiding people, who embody what are supposed to be American values.

When the elites are asked about their own wealth, by contrast, they sometimes offer a less traditionally American answer. Instead of hard work, a handful of Farrell’s interviewees attributed their wealth to natural advantage, crediting superior intellect or even genetics. “You know, that’s just how it is, and some people are born smarter than other people and it’s not their fault . . . some people just don’t have the capability,” a wealthy resident told Farrell. Another resident said that the “gene pool is another element of it.”

Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous

Not all of Farrell’s interviews with the wealthy leave the reader with a bad taste—there are genuinely good people in all walks of life. But the very reason that he was able to access the elite of Teton County smacks of their disconnect from the rest of the country.

Although much is made of income inequality in contemporary politics, there are surprisingly few ethnographic studies of America’s elite. Part of the value of Farrell’s book is that it offers the reader unprecedented access to the lives and minds of the superrich. Yet Farrell’s access hinged on him being a Yale professor and a native of the Jackson Hole region: his mother cleaned houses in the area when he was young. “The elite cachet this group attributes to a place like Yale opened the door for my initial access to this exclusive world,” he writes.22

What Farrell is able to document as a result of this access is a profound sense of alienation among America’s superrich. Interviewees consistently struggle with feelings of inauthenticity, which they hope to assuage in Teton County. On the East or West Coast, they feel as if they lack true community; as transplants in Jackson Hole, they seek to blend in with the local working class by copying its dress and similar affectations.

The quest for normality and authentic community leads many to brag to Farrell about how they have poor or working-class “friends,” such as a “poor construction worker” who was at the last wedding one interviewee attended. But their egalitarianism is mostly fake, and their sense of community in Jackson Hole largely a matter of self-deception. Farrell’s working-class interviewees do not see their inter­actions with the ultrawealthy as friendships. Instead, they see the true nature of acquaintances based on economic transactions: the maid, the barber, or the nanny are only being spoken to because his or her service is needed to support a wealthy client’s lifestyle.

One area that deserves deeper examination in Billionaire Wilderness is the political ideology of the superrich. Farrell’s book is cer­tainly not a simplistic attack on the evils of wealth, but his criti­cisms of Jackson Hole’s rich do lean on some left-wing tropes. For example, he casually mentions the environmental damage that results from “capitalism” and he seems to single out fossil fuel CEOs as particularly guilty. By contrast, he entirely ignores CEOs who have offshored industrial production to China—a country that is an environmental wasteland relative to the United States—or technology executives whose server farms emit more greenhouse gases than many American cities.

Farrell also implies, without directly saying so, that many of the elite in Teton County are politically right of center, but later in the book the truth comes out: “Teton County is a progressive blue island here in a staunchly red state.”23 This, of course, matches with the overall demographics of America’s elite: the majority of the ultrarich are, in fact, “progressive” Democrats. Dave Toledo, a working-class resident who strings together multiple jobs to make ends meet, says that “progressiveness for this community is often about making sure that there’s wildlife available for rich people to view . . . and let’s take care of the environment, it’s really important that we recycle here, and we’ll make sure that we do that on our way to the airport to fly out in a private jet.”24 In the same interview, he continues, “The thing that bothers me is the lack of self-awareness, and that we think we’re this progressive town . . . but what does it do? It doesn’t do anything for mouths. At the end of the day it’s just bull—platitudes.” Another resident says that the wealthy’s environmentalism consists of “flying around in a jet and talking about how much I wanted to save the moose.”25 This convergence of progressive ideology with extreme wealth disparity deserves to be explored more fully.

A Gilded Cage

Overall, Farrell’s book is an admirable achievement. It dutifully ful­fills its stated goal—to uncover the lives and motivations of the superrich inhabitants of Teton County—and it does so in a comprehensive and largely unbiased manner. As one reads Billionaire Wilder­ness, however, it is impossible to ignore the fact that the behaviors and attitudes of the wealthy of Teton County can be found among America’s elite more broadly. What, then, does Billionaire Wilderness reveal about America’s ruling class as a whole? That the ultrarich are shockingly self-serving in their philanthropy and their politics is impossible to ignore in Farrell’s account. But what motivates this extreme self-absorption?

To attempt to answer this question, Farrell turns to psychology. He locates the origin of elite attitudes specifically in a lack of empa­thy. And this problem is compounded by elites’ fundamental lack of self-awareness: they are unable even to see how little empathy they have. But while Farrell’s analysis of elite psychology has much truth, it does not fully explain the origin of their worldview.

All humans suffer from some level of selfishness and a lack of empathy. Although the self-interested behavior of the ruling class is of greater social concern, since this class is in a unique position to benefit and harm others, our elites are not a different species from the common man. Further, historical comparison shows that the self-serving behavior of our current ruling class cannot be attributed sole­ly to its possession of great wealth: America’s old elite was often involved in local civic life, once building museums, libraries, and other public resources that the entire community could share.

A more nuanced view would suggest that the problem originates in how the current elite made its money: largely in either finance or Silicon Valley. Indeed, Farrell suggests as much, lamenting the finan­cialization of the economy and tax policies that allow the rich to keep an increasingly large share of their income (though Farrell notably does not explore issues outside of tax policy, such as the link between monetary policy and the inflation of financial asset values). These industries typically don’t have to deal with large, working-class labor forces, and physical capital investments in specific localities are of relatively little importance to their business models.

For these and other reasons, in contemporary American society the working class and the elite no longer mix. Mid-twentieth-century America was much less class-segregated; people used to mix at church or through the other “little platoons” of civil society, like the Rotary Club or the Lions Club. In most parts of America today, however, those days are gone. As a number of prominent studies have observed, contemporary American society is increasingly isolated and segmented, the social capital that used to bind communities together is depleted, and the population is atomized even within their respective social classes.26 Without any real cross-class social interaction, the rich are less likely to develop a sense of empathy toward the middle and working classes. It is possible that they simply do not understand these people.

Our current elite’s lack of true community also explains, in part, their default posture in favor of globalism: they are placeless. His­tory and geography mean much less to them than they do to the Wyoming rancher whose family has lived on and worked the same tract of land for four generations. Many of the wealthy profiled by Farrell are the products of elite enclaves in “global cities” on the East or West Coasts; in Jackson Hole they seem to be searching for some lost sense of community, but in a haphazard way.

The elite aren’t just disconnected from the working class, community, and geography; they are disconnected from tradition. Elites interviewed by Farrell often expressed a sort of pantheism—or even neopaganism—seeking “spirituality” in the mountains as an ersatz substitute for traditional religious belief.27 One woman profiled ex­pressed the vague and noncommittal faith of her class: “I think religion here is probably more like ‘I’m going to go climb a mountain today, that’s my religion, spirituality, we come here for that.’ You know, to each his own.”28 Similarly, a wealthy medical executive from the East Coast, who says he had previously lacked faith altogether, claims to have become more religious in the Tetons and to have found a new house of worship: “my cathedral is the mountains.”29

This religious devotion to the natural world colors how Jackson Hole’s residents view their time and money—and where they spend it. Elites routinely confessed to Farrell a sense of guilt over the wealth they have accumulated and the long hours they have spent in their careers. To make recompense, they speak of “giving back”—but to nature, rather than to God or neighbor. They give back to the earth on their own terms: by spending time in the outdoors, or being in­volved in environmental nonprofits.

The Policy Wilderness

Considering how many of the elites in Farrell’s book are self-serving and disconnected, a deeper political question arises: should this set of people have the large influence over policy that it currently possesses?

Despite the fact that Teton County is “a progressive blue island,” Farrell interviews both Republicans and Democrats. But despite their partisan differences, American elites have a political ideology in common—one certainly not shared by the common folk.

This ideology is a sort of “cafeteria libertarianism.” They are often liberal or agnostic on so-called social and cultural issues. On economics, they believe government should apply a light touch: it should do little to restrict immigration or trade; it should not seek to impose onerous antitrust requirements or heavily regulate corporate activity. Yet when the stock market crashes, these same elites clamor for the Federal Reserve to step in. If their company is in trouble, they do not hesitate to turn to the government for a bailout. Of course, they also insist that such a bailout should come with as few strings attached as possible—rules that would disallow offshoring jobs, or limit CEO salaries, or grant government equity in the company—because the government should not interfere with the free market.

In other words, government intervention is bad when it is against their interests but good when it suits their interests. In Teton County, this inconsistency of principle transfers to local government issues: self-professed libertarians who speak to Farrell are quick to justify their support for restrictions on development. They did, after all, pay a lot to live in Teton County. At a certain point, it seems pedantic to point out the inconsistency of their principles; Farrell’s superrich simply don’t bother to distinguish between principles and self-inter­est at all.

Dig deep enough, and a key source of American political division comes down to disagreement over whether the great divide between America’s wealthy and its working class can be explained by merit alone or instead by some confluence of merit, policy, and privilege—but mostly policy and privilege.

Most conservative pundits, politicians, and institutions lean explic­itly toward the former, meritocratic view, in spite of the fact that the great majority of the voting public—including conservative voters—subscribes to the latter. On the other side of the political spectrum, Democratic voters may assume that their party’s elite holds the latter view—that it’s not all up to merit—as they typically claim. But in fact, many of the Democratic Party elite secretly harbor the view that class divisions can be explained mostly in terms of merit, or even “genetics,” as witnessed in Farrell’s interviews.

The division—not of party but of class—bleeds into governance and affects how politicians answer key policy questions. Republican politicians and pundits see tax cuts as an a priori good and prioritize them, overlooking other policy options that could make communities and families stronger, such as creating jobs that make working men more marriageable. To this crowd, the problem is fundamentally one of merit, not economics. Conservative pundits like the National Review’s David French all but say that if the lower class lived better, they could be successful like me.30 The view on the right that govern­ment policy can somehow decisively impact corporate behavior, but barely impact poor American families, is a massive contradiction.

On the left, the same contradiction lives, only here it is so big and so obvious that many no longer bother to point it out. It is likely that much of the Left’s obsession with racial and gender identities arises in part from the failure of Democratic Party bosses—whose party now dominates the country’s wealthiest zip codes—to propose meaningful new policies to aid the lower classes. Part of this reluctance arises from political self-interest: why aid poor families by reforming inner-city schools when it might anger teachers’ unions, which are such a powerful political partner? But some of it may be the result of pessimism: party elites, implicit believers in meritocracy, simply think there is nothing policy could really do to improve the lives of the lower classes, and so have nothing to offer beyond decades-old, often unsuccessful government transfer programs. The Democratic Party’s campaign message to poor black America every election cycle essen­tially amounts to the threat that, while things won’t get any better, you should be scared that they could get worse. At the same time, Democrats aren’t above rewarding their allies atop the meritocracy: congressional Democrats are quietly seeking to remove the 2017 caps on state and local tax deductions, for example, which would be a huge gift to the blue-state rich.

On either side, this meritocratic orthodoxy is destructive to the country. The working-class Americans in Teton County profiled by Farrell do not struggle due to a lack of personal responsibility. They struggle because their opportunities are compressed and their lives are so precarious that their margin for error is minute. It is probable that a similar precarity is the reason why working class Americans across the country—regardless of race or background—struggle, too. Amer­ica used to stand apart from Europe’s class-based and entrenched society. In the last several decades, that has faded, at least partly due to the collapse of the working-class family.31 The disconnect of the elite, so ably showcased in Billionaire Wilderness, only further affirms the need for an American political movement focused on working-class issues: good blue-collar jobs, families that do not face huge financial pressures to split apart, and a society that both values chil­dren and reduces the cost of rearing children for working families. In the end, not just Teton County, but the entire country, may depend on the success of such a movement.

This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume IV, Number 4 (Winter 2020): 167–78.

1 Justin Farrell, Billionaire Wilderness: The Ultra-Wealthy and the Remaking of the American West (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020), 36.

2 Claudine Zap, “226-Acre Ranch in Wyoming with Massive Mansion Is Most Expensive New Listing,”, December 20, 2019.

3 Farrell, 14

4 Farrell, 41, 97.

5 Farrell, 10; Plato, Republic 4.422e–423a.

6 Joel Kotkin, “America’s Drift toward Feudalism,” American Affairs 3, no. 4 (Winter 2019): 97–107.

7 Farrell, 44.

8 Farrell, 86.

9 Farrell, 91.

10 Farrell, 45.

11 Farrell, 121.

12 Farrell, 90.

13 Farrell, 127.

14 Farrell, 136.

15 Farrell, 161.

16 Farrell, 159, 161.

17 Farrell, 131.

18 Farrell, 135.

19 Farrell, 3.

20 Farrell, 15.

21 Farrell, 271.

22 Farrell, 20.

23 Farrell, 270.

24 Farrell, 270.

25 Farrell, 271.

26 Perhaps the best-known recent treatments of this fragmentation are Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000) and Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010 (New York: Crown Forum, 2012).

27 Farrell, 150.

28 Farrell, 150–51

29 Farrell, 151.

30 David French, “Working-Class Whites Have Moral Responsibilities—In Defense of Kevin Williamson,” National Review, March 14, 2016.

31 James Heckman and Raj Chetty, “Two Leading Economists Disagree about the Flagging American Dream,” Economist, May 14, 2020.

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