Billionaire Wilderness: The Ultra-Wealthy and the Remaking of the American West
When you spend time with the wealthiest people in the wealthiest county in America, “you start to feel a bit sorry for them,” said Nathan Deuel in the Los Angeles Times. Sparsely populated Teton County, Wyo.—home of two national parks and picturesque Jackson Hole—has become a haven for members of the ultrarich, who wear Wranglers to blend in with the local servant class and who fret about having become out-of-touch monsters. Sociologist and Wyoming native Justin Farrell has interviewed many of these creatures, and his compelling new portrait of their world details how they rationalize the inequality that their actions quietly promote. Though Farrell’s Jackson Hole can seem an extreme case, “it’s important to understand as a taste of what might be in store for the rest of America.”
Behind Jackson Hole’s pretty scenery lie social dynamics that are “a lot less pleasant to look at,” said Mark Huffman in the Jackson Hole News & Guide. The county’s top 1 percent now has an average income of more than $28 million a year, generally from investments, while the average salary of a fully employed person—$41,000—has been stagnant for 30 years. The rich, attracted by Wyoming’s lack of state income and inheritance taxes, also focus their charitable giving on land preservation, which makes housing scarcer and more unaffordable. As longtime residents have been pushed out, the Mexican-born population has exploded, filling low-wage jobs, tripling up in trailer homes, and enduring persistent ostracism.
The challenges Farrell describes might be most acute in the West, said Heather Hansman in Outside. For centuries now, “Americans have gone west to escape the ills of society,” and at some point a myth arose that the wildness to be found there is equally accessible to all people. But in today’s Teton County, where 97 percent of the land is under federal conservation and the fortunate live high off unearned income while the working class struggles to get by, “it’s becoming more apparent who really gets to live out a Western fantasy.” ■