By Audrey Andrews | May 8th, 2020
Billionaire Wilderness: The Ultra-Wealthy and the Remaking of the American West by Justin Farrell delves into a side of wealth inequality we often fail to study. Farrell, a Yale sociologist, spent five years researching and conducting interviews in the county with the largest wealth gap in the United States: Teton County, Wyoming.
Home to the sensational Grand Teton National Park, the wealthy have flocked to neighboring Jackson in recent decades. Wyoming offers tax rates as heavenly as the Grand Tetons. In conjunction with virtually nonexistent residency requirements, they lure the ultra-wealthy to the West.
Billionaire Wilderness is more academic than other books about the changing West, which enhanced its credibility and piqued my interest. Farrell acutely lays out the questions he aims to answer and how he plans to answer them. He is exceptionally wonderful at explaining how his privilege affects his research and why the ultra-wealthy deserve to be closely studied. While most income inequality research focuses on the poor, the ultra-wealthy are just as, if not more, involved in such institutionalized oppression.
Farrell argues the ultra-wealthy appropriate the life of the rural working poor in an attempt to alleviate guilt stemming from their wealth. He does not focus on how the ultra-wealthy feel, but their perceptions of themselves and how this affects their actions and, consequently, their community. For example, he provides numerous accounts of ultra-wealthy who describe servants as friends, a description the servant would not concur with. Of course, these relationships are economy-based. Farrell asks how an ultra-wealthy individual could allow their poverty-stricken “friend” so much suffering.
Farrell also examines the supposed philanthropy of the ultra-wealthy in Teton County. Of course, their philanthropic efforts are not as selfless as they seem. Specifically, the ultra-wealthy of Teton County became inexplicably interested in local environmental preservation. Ironically, many of these same individuals became ultra-wealthy by decimating the environment through investments in oil, or worse. But, by promoting local land and animal preservation, they maintain the exorbitant home prices of Teton County. Meanwhile, local humanitarian efforts remain underfunded and ignored.
Billionaire Wilderness expertly delves into issues largely overlooked. While wealth inequality easily shows itself in close urban quarters, Farrell demonstrates its extremes are found in the midst of the pristine panorama of the Tetons. Perhaps his research will bring those suffering out from the shadow of the mountains.