By Justin Farrell Princeton, 392pp, £22/$15
Known as the Equality State, Wyoming is not quite the frontier state of our collective imagination.
It hasn’t been for a long time: as early as 1927, no other than John D Rockefeller Jr, an heir to the Standard Oil fortune, purchased much of the land around Jackson Hole to expand the Grand Teton National Park. It is in this part of the state that Yale sociologist Justin Farrell focuses his case study of wealth inequality.
Farrell writes that Teton County, Wyoming, whose main town is Jackson Hole, is “both the richest county in the United States and the county with the nation’s highest level of income inequality”. He paints the picture of a county with no middle class, only high net-worth investors and Mexican workers. What binds them together is the myth of Old West classlessness. Farrell explains how investors who have moved to Teton County and built lavish mansions fool themselves into believing they fit right in with Western culture. Dressed in jeans and cowboy boots, they drive trucks into town, despite flying in and out with private jets. However, the high cost of living means that most workers cannot afford to live in the county, and they commute from Idaho every day.
For Teton County’s investor class, nature is everything. After all, they only left their coastal cocoons to cleanse themselves and live in paradise. Instead of increasing the wages of their workers or supporting social justice causes, they spend most of their time worrying about the environment. In short, they care more about moose than human beings. Farrell explains this fascination for the environment in three ways: feelgood altruism, conservation therapy, and selective science. Conservation is the antithesis of altruism because it increases the cost of housing; it is merely therapeutic, because the investors’ presence causes more harm with additional pollution from their jets and cars; and it is selective because most of their wealth is derived from companies whose global footprint is a real danger.
At times, the reader may feel bad for those wealthy residents. It is true that their philanthropy may have more to do with socialising than changing the world, but aren’t they allowed to be human beings?
Farrell’s study may be academic, but it is not apolitical. Another flaw is more troubling: Farrell is required by his employer, Yale University, to anonymise the interviews he conducted, and he uses fake names. As a result, it is impossible to check how he conducted his research.
Farrell went one step further to supplement his research by conducting interviews with many members of a luxury gated community 50 miles north-west of Teton County, described as “perhaps the most exclusive private club in the world”. Despite his status as an Ivy League professor, Farrell claims that he was reprimanded by club employees for not knowing that privacy is the club’s most prized asset.
Farrell believes that most high-net-worth individuals live in a constant state of suspicion and paranoia, and that they espouse anti-government rhetoric. Any talk of wealth redistribution is dismissed as “socialism”. Yet for Farrell, the fact that Wyoming is an income tax haven, with “one of the lowest sales tax rates in the country”, explains why the workers struggle with abject poverty.
Farrell, who grew up poor in Wyoming, is intrigued by the investors’ assertion that they are “friends” with their workers. His research shows that recent arrivals from Mexico are grateful to be working for very little. However, once they start speaking English and understanding their circumstances, they dismiss those so-called friendships as nonsense. As Farrell writes, real friends wouldn’t ignore their human suffering.
Another difference is how both groups spend their time. Most outdoor activities enjoyed by the affluent, like skiing and fly-fishing, require training and expenses that are simply out of reach for the workers. Owing to low wages, those workers often have to work two to three jobs, and commute on treacherous roads back and forth every day.
The book does not cover religion at any great length, but Farrell observes that most workers are Catholic, while most investors worship nature and themselves. Their lack of Christian self-abnegation may account for their indifference and callousness towards the people who clean their houses and serve them food.
Farrell has written a lengthy and thorough case study of the most unequal county in the United States. The book does not directly attack the rich, nor does it portray Mexican migrants as passive victims. It does seem to leave out a large section of the American population, however. The American middle class, vastly impoverished since the Great Recession, is nowhere to be found. What we find instead is a dystopian reality, where the haves and the have-nots live in their own bubbles and hang on to their own delusions.