This Land Is Their Land By Barbara Ehrenreich Essays

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This essay is adapted from Barbara Ehrenreich’s latest book, This Land Is Their Land: Notes from a Divided Nation (Metropolitan).

I took a little vacation recently–nine hours in Sun Valley, Idaho, before an evening speaking engagement. The sky was deep blue, the air crystalline, the hills green and not yet on fire. Strolling out of the Sun Valley Lodge, I found a tiny tourist village, complete with Swiss-style bakery, multistar restaurant and “opera house.” What luck–the boutiques were displaying outdoor racks of summer clothing on sale! Nature and commerce were conspiring to make this the perfect micro-vacation.

But as I approached the stores things started to get a little sinister–maybe I had wandered into a movie set or Paris Hilton’s closet?–because even at a 60 percent discount, I couldn’t find a sleeveless cotton shirt for less than $100. These items shouldn’t have been outdoors; they should have been in locked glass cases.

Then I remembered the general rule, which has been in effect since sometime in the 1990s: if a place is truly beautiful, you can’t afford to be there. All right, I’m sure there are still exceptions–a few scenic spots not yet eaten up by mansions. But they’re going fast.

About ten years ago, for example, a friend and I rented a snug, inexpensive one-bedroom house in Driggs, Idaho, just over the Teton Range from wealthy Jackson Hole, Wyoming. At that time, Driggs was where the workers lived, driving over the Teton Pass every day to wait tables and make beds on the stylish side of the mountains. The point is, we low-rent folks got to wake up to the same scenery the rich people enjoyed and hike along the same pine-shadowed trails.

But the money was already starting to pour into Driggs–Paul Allen of Microsoft, August Busch III of Anheuser-Busch, Harrison Ford–transforming family potato farms into vast dynastic estates. I haven’t been back, but I understand Driggs has become another unaffordable Jackson Hole. Where the wait staff and bed-makers live today I do not know.

I witnessed this kind of deterioration up close in Key West, Florida, where I first went in 1986, attracted not only by the turquoise waters and frangipani-scented nights but by the fluid, egalitarian social scene. At a typical party you might find literary stars like Alison Lurie, Annie Dillard and Robert Stone, along with commercial fishermen, waitresses and men who risked their lives diving for treasure (once a major blue-collar occupation). Then, at some point in the ’90s, the rich started pouring in. You’d see them on the small planes coming down from Miami–taut-skinned, linen-clad and impatient. They drove house prices into the seven-figure range. They encouraged restaurants to charge upward of $30 for an entree. They tore down working-class tiki bars to make room for their waterfront “condotels.”

Of all the crimes of the rich, the aesthetic deprivation of the rest of us may seem to be the merest misdemeanor. Many of them owe their wealth to the usual tricks: squeezing their employees, overcharging their customers and polluting any land they’re not going to need for their third or fourth homes. Once they’ve made (or inherited) their fortunes, the rich can bid up the price of goods that ordinary people also need–housing, for example. Gentrification is dispersing the urban poor into overcrowded suburban ranch houses, while billionaires’ horse farms displace rural Americans into trailer homes. Similarly, the rich can easily fork over annual tuitions of $50,000 and up, which has helped make college education a privilege of the upper classes.

There are other ways, too, that the rich are robbing the rest of us of beauty and pleasure. As the bleachers in stadiums and arenas are cleared to make way for skybox “suites” costing more than $100,000 for a season, going out to a ballgame has become prohibitively expensive for the average family. At the other end of the cultural spectrum, superrich collectors have driven up the price of artworks, leading museums to charge ever rising prices for admission.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the Pew Research Center finds happiness to be unequally distributed, with 50 percent of people earning more than $150,000 a year describing themselves as “very happy,” compared with only 23 percent of those earning less than $20,000. When nations are compared, inequality itself seems to reduce well-being, with some of the most equal nations–Iceland and Norway–ranking highest, according to the UN’s Human Development Index. We are used to thinking that poverty is a “social problem” and wealth is only something to celebrate, but extreme wealth is also a social problem, and the superrich have become a burden on everyone else.

If Edward O. Wilson is right about “biophilia”–an innate human need to interact with nature–there may even be serious mental health consequences to letting the rich hog all the good scenery. I know that if I don’t get to see vast expanses of water, 360-degree horizons and mountains piercing the sky for at least a week or two of the year, chronic, cumulative claustrophobia sets in. According to evolutionary psychologist Nancy Etcoff, the need for scenery is hard-wired into us. “People like to be on a hill, where they can see a landscape. And they like somewhere to go where they can not be seen themselves,” she told Harvard Magazine last year. “That’s a place desirable to a predator who wants to avoid becoming prey.” We also like to be able to see water (for drinking), low-canopy trees (for shade) and animals (whose presence signals that a place is habitable).

Ultimately, the plutocratic takeover of rural America has a downside for the wealthy too. The more expensive a resort town gets, the farther its workers have to commute to keep it functioning. And if your heart doesn’t bleed for the dishwasher or landscaper who commutes two to four hours a day, at least shed a tear for the wealthy vacationer who gets stuck in the ensuing traffic. It’s bumper to bumper westbound out of Telluride, Colorado, every day at 5, or eastbound on Route 1 out of Key West, for the Lexuses as well as the beat-up old pickup trucks.

Or a place may simply run out of workers. Monroe County, which includes Key West, has seen more than 2,000 workers leave since the 2000 Census, a loss the Los Angeles Times calls “a body blow to the service-oriented economy of a county with only 75,000 residents and 2.25 million overnight visitors a year.” Among those driven out by rents of more than $1,600 for a one-bedroom apartment are many of Key West’s wait staff, hotel housekeepers, gardeners, plumbers and handymen. No matter how much money you have, everything takes longer–from getting a toilet fixed to getting a fish sandwich at Pepe’s.

Then there’s the elusive element of charm, which quickly drains away in a uniform population of multimillionaires. The Hamptons had their fishermen. Key West still advertises its “characters”–sun-bleached, weather-beaten misfits who drifted down for the weather or to escape some difficult situation on the mainland. But the fishermen are long gone from the Hamptons and disappearing from Cape Cod. As for Key West’s characters–with the traditional little conch houses once favored by shrimpers flipped into million-dollar second homes, these human sources of local color have to be prepared to sleep with the scorpions under the highway overpass.

In Telluride even a local developer is complaining about the lack of affordable housing. “To have a real town,” he told the Financial Times, “Telluride needs some locals hanging out”–in old-fashioned diners, for example, where you don’t have to speak Italian to order a cup of coffee.

When I was a child, I sang “America the Beautiful” and meant it. I was born in the Rocky Mountains and raised, at various times, on the coasts. The Big Sky, the rolling surf, the jagged, snowcapped mountains–all this seemed to be my birthright. But now I flinch when I hear Woody Guthrie’s line “This land was made for you and me.” Somehow, I don’t think it was meant to be sung by a chorus of hedge-fund operators.

Capturing the spirit of an era is American journalism’s holy grail, as elusive as it is pursued. What makes the great decade-capturing books great isn’t so much the originality of their themes — Michael Lewis wasn’t the only guy to write about rapacious ’80s bond traders — but the delicious precision of their details. Take the beginning of Tom Wolfe’s “Radical Chic,” in which Wolfe savors the “little Roquefort cheese morsels rolled in crushed nuts” Leonard Bernstein served to real Black Panthers at a fund-raiser in his apartment. It’s a moment so keenly observed, so wicked, so right, that it reveals more about the late-’60s style of self-congratulatory slumming than any sweeping pronouncement could have.

This kind of texture is what’s missing from Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book “This Land Is Their Land,” a collection of short opinion pieces for The New York Times, The Nation and elsewhere repackaged as a bid to define the Bush years — “America in the aughts,” as the jacket copy puts it. We experienced Sept. 11, Ehrenreich explains, as a patriotism binge, a “spasm of unity,” but then came the hangover from which we still have not recovered. We woke up to find that somebody had stolen our civil liberties, our international reputation had been ruined, our mortgages had gone bad, our sinking dollar couldn’t buy us a cup of coffee in Tijuana, the poor had gotten poorer and the rich richer and, perhaps, our country didn’t even feel like ours anymore. In the aughts, Ehrenreich concludes, political and economic villains slyly snatched away the American dream, leaving us only a “bleak landscape cluttered with boarded-up homes and littered with broken dreams.” This land is their land now.

But the first thing you notice about Ehrenreich’s book is that the villains who did the snatching are only vaguely present. When the people oppressing the poor are mentioned, they’re the vague, crudely drawn fat cats of populist morality tales: “plutocrats”; the “bloated overclass”; people who “for all we know ... sip their single malts in mahogany-walled dens” and tool around in private jets.

And Ehrenreich offers what read now as obsolete explanations for their behavior. In one column, she theorizes that the wealthy are so greedy for money because they don’t eat enough fat. “Unbuttered low-fat muffins and delicate slices of melon fueled the crimes of Wall Street,” she says, while “grease was for proles.” It’s a mordantly funny piece, but it must have been written before fat came back into fashion — before Daniel Boulud started serving hamburgers stuffed with foie gras and pork began turning up in everything from chocolate bars to cocktails, none of which did much to curb the appetites of the hedge fund managers and subprime lenders who have gotten us into our latest mess. Reading Ehrenreich’s lifestyles-of-the-rapacious essays in 2008 can’t help disappointing: it would have been more fun to watch her riff on the Bush era’s barbecue-fueled quest for culinary authenticity than on the food fads of the ’80s and ’90s.

Ehrenreich is at her best (and she’s very, very good) when chronicling the outrageous human downside of our economy, the costs it imposes on people who can’t afford a bacon-infused old-fashioned. There’s the hospital worker whose employer garnished her paycheck for an emergency room visit, “a condition of debt servitude reminiscent of early-20th-century company towns.” There’s the poor man who got himself arrested in order to live more comfortably in prison, because “we are reaching the point ... where the largest public housing program in America will be our penitentiary system.” Remove the less-than-trenchant lifestyle and culture essays, and you’ve got a tight and chilling companion volume to “Nickel and Dimed,” Ehrenreich’s account of her own experience working undercover in the low-wage economy.

Surely someone of Ehrenreich’s political persuasion could have found more time to skewer the things I really associate with the Bush era: Iraq, the lobbying scandals, reality TV, BlackBerrys. Cultural criticism sinks or swims on the keenness of its observations, and too often, when Ehrenreich turns her sights away from the poor, she lapses into vagueness. Her most vividly painted ultravillains of the aughts are fictional ones in the now-forgotten big-screen “Miami Vice.” And while the poor suffer, she writes, “you can bet ...that those C.E.O.’s who cooked the books and ransacked their companies’ assets did not start the day with two eggs over easy, a rasher of bacon, and a side of hash browns.” But why bet when you can write about the real thing?

Continue reading the main story


Reports From a Divided Nation.

By Barbara Ehrenreich.

235 pp. Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Company. $24.

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