Its effects are nearly as devastating as global warming and more immediate. We see its consequences in our own lives, yet struggle connecting the dots to describe it as the cause. It is the reason we resent billionaire transplants. Mapping its destruction throughout society transforms concerns over affordable housing into something greater than petty griping. The wealth gap is displacing people throughout the social strata and raising the poverty line through homelessness.
We are lately focusing on the Entrance to Aspen over the aging Castle Creek Bridge. Yet, there is a wider, deeper chasm challenging local residency and there are no detours around it. When a resident leaves Aspen today, the wealth gap all but ensures they will never return. A working person arriving now has almost no chance to call it permanent home.
Some insist that the displacement of locals is happening everywhere. They say this to make it seem like no big deal. They might as well sugarcoat global warming, too. That’s happening everywhere.
We acknowledge COVID-19 attracting the ultra wealthy to the relative safety of mountain communities. Technology now enables white-collar workers to do their jobs remotely and that has brought copious new wealth to town. Global warming plays a part in driving those who can afford it toward the luxurious escape of cool breezes, verdant landscapes and the fountainheads of water sources in places like Aspen. But, what facilitates all of these causes of skyrocketing costs and displacement of workforce is the burgeoning wealth gap transforming the planet. And we thought it only affected the poor.
According to Talmon Joseph Smith and Karl Russel in a New York Times story on the great generational wealth transfer looming in the U.S., total family wealth in this country grew from $38 trillion (adjusted for inflation) in 1989 to $140 trillion in 2022. They point out that the richest 1% in our country possess as much wealth as the bottom 90%.
The effects of the wealth gap are perhaps more obvious in Aspen than anywhere else, even if not with as dire direct consequences as in other parts of the world where the phenomenon is moving the line between life and death. Skeptics need only ponder how a handful of billionaires have simultaneously displaced thousands of local workers in Aspen while at the same time demand more services than ever from them, forcing them to commute daily from homes 50 and more miles away.
Billionaires need no longer to be satisfied with a single mansion in town. The Federal Reserve reports that through 2021, the richest 1% of Americans added more than $12 trillion to their net worth since the beginning of the pandemic. This astonishing sum is literally enough to buy all residential and commercial property in Pitkin County 1,800 times over. The ultra rich could easily buy all 525 U.S ski resorts and the entire towns around them with only the windfall they’ve accumulated since the outbreak of COVID-19. And, it appears they are in the process of doing just that.
The ultra rich are not selling in Nantucket to buy in Aspen. They are adding to their real estate collections. It’s why prices are rising everywhere. With money in bulk, it’s not even a decision to buy another mansion across the river to tear down because it’s blocking the view. If you want more privacy in the West End, you simply buy all the houses surrounding yours, just as medieval aristocrats built walls around their castles.
This process leaves far fewer houses around for the multimillionaires to showcase. What’s a merely filthy rich person to do? Well, they buy houses from the working second-homeowner to remodel and bring up to snuff. This leaves the wealthy vacationer in a bind. They are left to remodel dilapidated shacks and condominiums: You know, the places workers used to call home. These former citizens then use their windfalls to buy something downvalley. The domino effect displaces people in Basalt who then displace people in Carbondale and the transience continues to Glenwood Springs, then Rifle, and on and on. The ripples of housing displacement travel all the way to the oceans of poverty where the poor are pushed off the seaside cliffs to drown in the turbulent seas where desperation foams into despair.
This is true trickle-down economics at work.
As an incubator for the wealth gap, Aspen is hosting a major global force of destructive displacement. With our outsized carbon footprint, we are facilitating another. If we only construct a missile silo in the center of the roundabout, we would contain the trifecta of existential threats to our planet.
It took awhile. It is now clear that my angst over the burgeoning presence of billionaires throughout mountain towns and the sadness over what our town has become is not only a superficial lashing of my ego. It is finally recognizing that my beloved Aspen has been brought by greed and excess to the headwaters of some seriously bad stuff.
Roger Marolt acknowledges that billionaires pay for our bike paths. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.