Why do billionaires love Wrangler jeans?
This is just one of many essential, puzzling and surprisingly heartbreaking questions asked by Yale sociologist Justin Farrell in “Billionaire Wilderness,” a sweeping new study of the ultra-wealthy who’ve moved to — or at least declared residency in — Teton County, Wyo., as well as the largely Latino underclass that serves them.
The answer to that simple wardrobe question encompasses all the incentives warping this part of the country. Start with the jaw-dropping national parks, the postcard images of cowboys, ranches and ski slopes. Layer on the lack of any income tax, add in the mechanisms for donating land that result in even lower taxes and higher land prices, and multiply all that by the consolidation of global wealth over the last 50 years. What you end up with is absurdly wealthy people who can live anywhere increasingly opting for this underpopulated, overdetermined haven from stress and taxes; wanting to blend in, they buy Wranglers.
The numbers are staggering: In 1970, Farrell writes, $52 million in annual investments entered Teton County; in 2015, that total was $3.4 billion. (Even Kanye West, who no one would think of as fiscally or logically constrained, has chosen for his Western sojourn the thriftier town of Cody, Wyo., five hours away.) Across the state, the top 1% of earners now make half its income — the highest share in the U.S. The average annual income for the top .01% is $369 million, compared to roughly $84 million for Connecticut and $70 million for New York. This is a serious, ugly, crazy amount of wealth, and while it feels extreme, it’s important to understand as a taste of what might be in store for the rest of America.
Having conducted hundreds of interviews over many years, Farrell systematically outlines what drives this class away from places like Fairfield County, Conn., and toward the beauty and distraction of a place like Wyoming. There are, of course, other wealthy enclaves — that rock off Massachusetts, the tip of Long Island, California wine country — and these places suffer from similar levels of inequality and similar pageants of rich people pretending they’re normal. But Teton County, by the numbers, allows Farrell to sound the shrillest alarm.
Borg-like, unoriginal, instinctively cagey about hard questions for fear they might lead to redistribution, the wealth-hoarders of Wyoming hide in exclusive gated communities and dress up like the rugged ranch workers they admire and envy. Outside their sprawling mansions, the millionaires and billionaires brag about being authentic and having so many friends among the nonwealthy, but it turns out that these friends are actually servants, workers who are too busy supporting their families to overthrow their masters. It’s like “Get Out,” but with cowboys, in the mountains.
Farrell is told again and again that getting back to nature is a way to “heal” and that healing is what the ultra-wealthy “deserve.” Their crankiness, paranoia and exhaustion over the actual working state of the world close off anything beyond a sixth-grader’s understanding of the role they might play in societal and economic dysfunction. In the social realm, they display a shut-in’s idea of friendship and fellowship and a robot’s idea of what fun looks like.
The ultra-wealthy Farrell talks with also betray a persistent and hazy obsession with “balance,” this notion that the market just works and everything is OK. Most criticisms of wealth are seen as “irrational, unfair, and unmerited,” Farrell writes, “and thus there exists no reason to feel any deep sense of guilt.”
To the contrary, the titans of Teton County insist they are actually quite generous, pointing out to Farrell all the nonprofits they’ve founded and the galas they attend. But as our guide elaborately documents, almost all of this generosity goes toward local arts programming and land conservancy — self-serving points of interest for the donors — and rarely if ever to benefit any of the actual human beings who struggle to feed themselves on the two or even three jobs necessary to afford dwindling housing and overpriced food in this corner of paradise. A family given just an iota of support might, Farrell reasons, have the free time to figure out how to legitimately extract some portion of the wealthy’s stranglehold on real income.
You start to feel a bit sorry for them. They “wanted to know that money hadn’t turned them into out-of-touch monsters,” Farrell writes. They go on mountain bike rides and then hide in their castles, all while wearing blue jeans — ”no longer the scrappy underdog, but the privileged aristocrat. They now play a different, and seemingly less honorable, role in the American story.”
If the book stumbles at all, it’s in the hammy way Farrell sums up his approach and flaunts his equanimity, as well as his tic of referring back to and even quoting in bold earlier sections of the book — as if we weren’t stunned the first time by the super-rich guy claiming his fishmonger is a really good friend.
But for all the performances on display, this is ultimately a book about actions that speak louder than rationalizations. “In my discussions with some ultra-wealthy,” Farrell writes, “it was as if they could not envision any other option for their money other than to enjoy it themselves.” He also cites studies detailing how wealth actually changes our brains, zapping out the part that feels any empathy.
So are these people biologically incapable of being generous or good? Or is it the world that makes them so? The astronomical accumulation of wealth and the system built to perpetuate it is creating versions of Teton County all over the country and the world. It’s time, Farrell concludes darkly in this excellent and inspiring new book, to take some of that money back.
Deuel is the author of “Friday Was the Bomb: Five Years in the Middle East.”
Princeton University Press: 392 pages, $27.95