Justin Farrell spent five years in Teton County, Wyoming, the richest county in the United States, and a community where income inequality is the worst in the nation. He conducted hundreds of in-depth interviews, gaining unprecedented access to tech CEOs, Wall Street financiers, oil magnates, and other prominent figures in business and politics. He also talked with the rural poor who live among the ultra-wealthy and often work for them. The result is an account of the far-reaching consequences of the massive accrual of wealth, and an eye-opening and sometimes troubling portrait of a changing American West.
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 ... 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 ... 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 ... 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.
Justin Farrell, associate professor of sociology at Yale University, has managed to write a book interesting from acknowledgements to footnotes, but not without significant blemishes ... It is true that the agreeable tax environment of Wyoming is appealing to any billionaire, and Farrell is careful about his sampling methods, but certainly there is some self-selection going on here. When you study an idiosyncratic group of people who have chosen to live in such a unique place, it is not surprising in the least that they also tend to be those experiencing some disquietude about their extreme wealth ... One recurring frustration is that his otherwise commendable academic approach prevents him from making obvious moral assertions, but somehow doesn’t prevent him from walking the reader to the threshold of value judgements and allowing them to take the obvious next step ... Even with these problems, the subject matter here is inherently interesting, and Farrell is an effective writer (other than his obnoxious, pretentious over-use of italics and the word 'veneer') ... Much of the book, moreover, is obviously of value to social science ... Value-free social science probably isn’t possible. But in falling so short of it, in cheaply incorporating an anti-capitalist dimension based on the wealthy’s inauthenticity, all the while maintaining its pretense (we won’t say veneer), Billionaire Wilderness leaves behind a residue that could easily have been avoided.
Farrell brings a good mixture of information and perspectives to his research ... Farrell clearly outlines the roots of the problems: policy, western mythologies, tax breaks, and selfishness. As a reader, I wanted more analysis of what could bring both economic justice and land protections to areas like Teton County. Billionaire Wilderness ponders what makes a good community in the 21st century; Farrell mentions trust and empathy, government incentives for smart growth and community development, and local policies designed to do less harm to low-income residents. But he doesn’t squarely answer the question. Perhaps with so many conflicting interests, there is simply no clear answer.