Updated: Nov 4, 2018
Working my way west and south from North Dakota I spent a couple of days in Driggs, Idaho, near Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I'd never been there and didn't appreciate that Jackson Hole is a valley - a "hole" surrounded by the Grand Teton mountains (and reached by driving 20 miles on steep, twisty roads). The "Hole" includes several towns, the largest of which is Jackson. One afternoon I went for a glorious hike through the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve, in the town Moose (where I saw moose for the first time - really!), just north of Jackson. "Starting in 1927, John D. Rockefeller Jr. purchased much of the land in Jackson Hole for the creation of Jackson Hole National Monument and the expansion of Grand Teton National Park. But he retained the 3,100-acre JY Ranch as a family retreat. Over the years the family gave most of the ranch to the national park"(Wikipedia).
I'm glad the Rockefellers contributed this land to the public park. And I also think about the origins of the wealth that made their ownership possible and of John D. Rockefeller's role in the history of U.S. capitalism.
Most of what I have known about Jackson Hole has to do with its present day connections to power and wealth. It is the site of the annual economic policy symposium hosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City: "Symposium participants include prominent central bankers, finance ministers, academics, and financial market participants from around the world." I also knew people went there to ski. Driving to Moose I passed the buildings and grounds of the Jackson Hole Golf and Tennis Club. Signs of significant wealth are evident around the town of Jackson: fur coats, stores, restaurants and other businesses catering to the wealthy. In 2017 the median list price for single-family homes in Jackson was $2.65 million (Casper Star Tribune, 1/30/18).
The area's natural beauty is certainly a draw. But so too is Wyoming's 2015 Chartered Family Trust Company Statute. These trust companies "can be wholly exempt from the regulation normally required of an entity formed to offer trustee services to the public at large" and provide "a combination of low taxes, advantageous trust statutes and asset protection laws, and a state legislature that is consistently friendly to and proactive when it comes to wealth-protection." (Frontier Administrative Services)
The amenities offered in Jackson Hole require large numbers of retail and service workers. Hourly wages for these jobs are somewhat higher than in other areas: "infant educator" pays $14-18, "front desk agent at a hotel" $17, "snowmobile concierge agent" $12-15 (Indeed job posting site, 11/2/18). Given the high cost of real estate and rentals (two-bedroom apartments cost about $2,500), many of the area's low-wage workers commute over the twisty roads from communities on the other side of the mountains. Others live in trailers and campers, some in parking lots behind downtown businesses, with visible signs of permanent - and family - residence (picnic tables, kids' bikes, etc.).
A 2016 report by the Economic Policy Institute identified Jackson as the metropolitan area in with the greatest income inequality in the U.S. In 2013 the "top 1 percent in 2013 earned on average 213 times the average income of the bottom 99 percent of families". For someone in the bottom 10-20% that 99% the ratio would be much higher.
Jackson Hole is extraordinarily beautiful. But it also showcases important aspects of capitalism in the U.S. today.