The Real Stories Billionaires Tell Themselves to Justify Their Wealth

A Yale professor interviewed the ultra-wealthy in Teton County, WY to find out what it’s like to be really, really rich

TTeton County, Wyoming — home to Jackson Hole, Yellowstone National Park, and Grand Teton National Park — is the most unequal county in America. Over the past two decades, the ultra-wealthy have flocked here, an area of extreme natural beauty and nonexistent personal and corporate income tax. The median salary for locals is only $41,000 a year, and housing is nearly impossible to find, starkly dividing the area between those who have wealth and those who serve them.

In his new book, Billionaire Wilderness, Justin Farrell, an associate professor of sociology at Yale, interviewed more than 155 multimillionaires and billionaires who spend at least part of their year living in the mountaintop towns of Teton County. Farrell pursued the region’s ultra-wealthy as a sociological study, giving his subjects the option of anonymity to speak freely. They responded eagerly, ready to dispel myths about what it’s like to be really, really rich in America today.

GEN: How did you approach the superrich about interviewing them for your book?

Justin Farrell: It started with the need within the academic literature to have an up-close study of the ultra-wealthy. We have economic studies that are important to show the extreme concentration of wealth in the U.S. Still, there was a gaping hole: We didn’t have a lot of rigorous research at the ground level of the superrich.

Getting access to the ultra-wealthy is difficult. I’m a Yale professor, and the Yale name carries a lot of weight in elite circles. I was also born in Wyoming, and this Western identity plays well in Teton County, where a lot of the ultra-wealthy live at least for part of a year. I approached the ultra-wealthy by chatting about their love of the area, benign topics that anyone enjoys talking about: Where do you like to go hiking? What do you like about the wilderness?

I also promised them anonymity. I was genuinely interested in doing an academic study that sought to be accurate and impartial about the superrich. I think they trusted me.

You write about coming into contact with the wealthy as a kid while following your mom around while she cleaned houses. What did you understand about wealth as a child?

I didn’t grow up in poverty by any means. But there’s a handful of those experiences seeing wealth and experiencing it firsthand that made me wonder, “What do these people think about the money they have?” I’m interested in the topic of morality, how we think about ourselves as good people, what we believe a good life looks like, and how we go about leading one. Wealth is central to that for many people.

One of the people you interview is desperate to dispel certain stereotypes about wealthy people.

We have these different myths about the rich: that they are greedy, they are monsters who are out to get everybody. But at the same time, our culture praises and glorifies wealth. We have a president who we elected based on this image of wealth.

We don’t have a lot of reliable, rigorous, and objective studies of the very wealthy. We have exposés or polemics that either attack the wealthy or defend the wealthy. I wanted to contribute something that would be longer-lasting, a document that would be reliable for lawmakers, journalists, or people who make decisions about policy — something trustworthy.

The book is critical of the ultra-wealthy, and it needs to be. But it doesn’t just peel back the layers so you can see how the rich and famous live.

Some of the people you talked to wanted to impress upon you that they’re “normal.” They may have the ability to buy anything in the world, but they’re still human. Why do the ultra-wealthy feel the need to emphasize that humanity?

The ultra-wealthy genuinely want to be accepted by the rest of society. They feel they’re unfairly stigmatized, so they attempt to transform themselves into people they view as more “authentic.”

What’s ironic is that they model this “normal” person on a romantic ideal of the working poor in Teton County. They view this area as providing an opportunity to live out a lifestyle free from the traps of wealth or the snares of power. Going West has always offered that to people.

The ultra-wealthy perform this social conversion by dressing down: They hang out with the working poor, they grab beers with them, they love to talk about how they are friends.

The way you describe Teton County in the book makes me think of the upstairs-downstairs relationship in a manor house. Does the working class there primarily serve the billionaire class?

Yes, without a doubt. That’s why workers come there. Jobs are plentiful — you can find a job almost in a day. But does that job pay very well? Does that job pay enough even to live there? No. But there’s work. So whether that means being a cook, or working in construction — building a 10,000-square-foot house that has a heated driveway — there are jobs, resources, and labor.

One of the reasons they live here, or came here, is because it is beautiful. They don’t take that for granted. I think a lot of them would say they wish they had more time to actually go out and enjoy it with their families. But it’s not concern number one. Concern number one is housing. It’s putting food on the table. It’s avoiding eviction.

Is there middle-class life in Teton County, or is the middle hollowed out?

There was, and there still is, a dwindling middle class. You have teachers, you have people in the police department. But a lot of those folks have been forced to move out of town. You have a huge nonprofit sector that, again, employs quite a few people, but it’s becoming harder and harder for those folks even to survive. A middle-class professional in Teton County would need to be a doctor or a lawyer. Then you have people for whom the threshold for what constitutes livable housing is lower; they might share a trailer with a couple of families. But on the whole, the middle class has largely been hollowed out.

One ultra-wealthy person told me in an interview that he refers to Teton County as a “barbell community” — you have two ends of the spectrum and no middle. It’s not this extreme yet around the United States by any means, but it’s a picture of what the United States could look like if things keep accelerating. It shows in sharp relief what a community defined by inequality looks like.

How did it come to this? Why does western Wyoming have all the billionaires?

Not all tax havens are on offshore islands. Wyoming is widely known now within the finance community as the place to go if you want to avoid corporate or individual income tax.

Until the 1980s, Teton County mirrored the rest of the United States in terms of financial and investment income. Then it grew and grew and grew. By 2015, eight out of every $10 made in the county came from finance and investments.

You also mention that it has to do with the rise of telecommuting, that you can still be the boss of the company from your mountaintop mansion.

This was a huge deal. One guy told me a story where he took a conference call at the top of a mountain, at 10,000 feet, and then skied back down. Another guy told me about how he did a multimillion-dollar pipeline deal on a ski lift.

It’s like the rise of digital nomad culture, but for billionaires. It’s the continued search for a better quality of life that we’re all looking for — but with no taxes.

The ultra-wealthy are working in coffee shops just like us, but they’re also doing billion-dollar deals. They have satellite phones they bring with them everywhere so they know they’ll be able to get a connection. They can live in Teton and fly back to the city when they want. They can have it all.

How do the ultra-wealthy see their responsibility to the community? Who do they think their peers are?

The ultra-wealthy always want to emphasize it’s not about money here. It’s not about social class, they say: I don’t even see social class. I’m going to go to the coffee shop in my jeans, and I’m going to sit there and read the paper. I’m going to talk to the barista who is making $12 an hour, and I’m just going to be a normal person to them. They don’t know I was a CEO and finalized the multibillion-dollar merger last week. We’re just all ordinary people here — that’s what a good community is made of.

But the reality is that the barista is being evicted. Home values have skyrocketed. There’s opposition to affordable housing in Teton County, and social support is fragile. There are ironies built into the experience of being “normal,” of wanting this old-fashioned community where we all get along. But that’s just a veneer. It masks a lot of other patterns of racial and ethnic inequality, as well as true divisions in social class. To even talk about what needs to be done can be perceived as class warfare, where the working poor aren’t being appreciative of the jobs provided by the ultra-wealthy lifestyle.

Now that you’ve spent so much time with the ultra-wealthy, can I ask you about the billionaires that ran for the presidency? How has writing this book informed your understanding of how a Michael Bloomberg or a Tom Steyer sees the presidency as something that’s available to them?

There are a lot of things billionaires can overlook because of their day-to-day life as a moneyed person: the things that people don’t say to them in a meeting, the positive things they always hear their friends say about them and how great they are. But there is still a deep insecurity that they’re going to be taken advantage of.

I’m not saying billionaires shouldn’t be able to run for president, but it does seem to be out of balance with our democracy in terms of who gets to be on the stage talking. It cuts both ways too, because people critique billionaires pretty stridently, whereas a lot of candidates for president are wealthy. At what point are you too wealthy to run for president? That would be the question I would want to ask.

When I look at Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg, I can see how they believe they’re doing good — the fact they can buy anything they want is second nature to them. They don’t even see it as a form of power, it’s just the air they breathe.

Being able to buy something is pretty damn important to a lot of people who can’t afford it. But I do think some billionaires are well-meaning. That’s why it was so difficult to write this book because a lot of these folks are well-meaning. My wife and I were watching Tom Steyer speak during a debate, and I’m like, “If I read a transcript of this, and I didn’t know who was talking, I would agree with this person.” But I’m judging Steyer because of his wealth. What does it say about our democracy, that folks like this can just catapult themselves onto the ballot for president?

You write that this book is primarily to help policymakers — otherwise, the only things we would know about billionaires would be their lifestyles.

There’s a tendency to be like, “Oh, shiny object. Rich people.” That’s what all these reality shows are about. I didn’t want my book to be like this because we have enough of that in society.

Because ultimately, it’s policy that got us here. Or the lack of policy…

The issue is not about one or two millionaires or billionaires screwing everybody. It’s about working within a system that allows for it and encourages it. I mean, how would I behave if I had a billion dollars? I try not to rush to judgment or cancel these people right off the bat because I don’t think that’s useful.

Were there billionaires you talked to who were like, “I shouldn’t exist?”

They wouldn’t put it that strongly, but they would lament the inequality that exists. There are people like, “I earned it, so I don’t give a damn what anybody says.” But some people think, “It was too easy for me to make this much money.” When it comes to fixing these issues, it’s going to take better policy. Whether that happens, and how hard that proves to be, is the real question.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Deputy Editor, GEN. Previously an editor for Topic, Longreads, The New Republic, and Lapham’s Quarterly.

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