If Wealth reduces Empathy, how can we expect the Aspen Institute to train Liberal Elites who will Care?

Life isn’t quite typical in this remote but picturesque mountain skiing village. In fact, its own heritage would bely the glamour and prestige it finds its modern reputation built upon. Indeed, for several generations, the ultra luxurious winter playground of the world’s top 1%, a small mountain town named Aspen sat fallow; Founded in the late 19th century as a silver-mining village, Aspen, a Colorado hamlet in the Rocky Mountains followed the silver mining boom right till its bust during the Panic of 1893, a period of economic depression which saw the once thriving village decay from a growing town of tens of thousands to 700 residents as villagers and migrant miners fled to greener pastures, seeking gainful employment.

During World War 2, the US military used the Rocky Mountain village as a training camp for the 10th Mountain Division, once again, the echoes of men and activity, heard amongst the surrounding aspen trees from which the town takes its name. After hostilities ended, returning soldiers with fond memories of the beauty and majesty of their training area enlisted the help of industrialist Walter Paeckpe, who then developed the neighbouring Aspen mountains into a Ski Resort, reviving the fortunes of the remote outpost where, as historian Mike Monroney paints it, “a few hearty souls somehow scraped by (and grew their own food) at nearly 8,000 feet.”

Today, Aspen is a far cry from Historian Monroney’s description. In 2015, celebrity Drew Barrymore hosted a session at the Aspen Food & Wine Classic festival with around 5,000 attendees paying up to $1,450 to listen to Barrymore shill her brand of Pinot Grigio along with other ultra exclusive talks like “Wines for IPO Billionaires”. More recently, Mariah Carey and paramour made headlines in 2018, tossing snowballs at awaiting paparazzi as she shopped at Louis Vuitton.

Population barely 6,600, make no mistake, Aspen is as exclusive as it is luxurious. Accessible only by plane or private jet, the sophisticated ski resort and home to some of the finest hotels in the world and a capital for socio-political, cultural and intellectual discourse thanks to three institutions which call Aspen home, two of which Paepcke himself helped found: the Aspen Music Festival and School, the Aspen Center for Physics, and the Aspen Institute, a policy think tank which has trained captains of industry and political leaders for the last 70 years.

Founded in 1949 as the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, the think thank and its international partners promote values-based leadership and free exchange of ideas with the  lofty ideal of a world governed by humanist values and egalitarianism. Hence, it is greatly ironic that the town which itself calls home has rapidly become a village of the wealthy who visit and the less wealthy who serve them.

In 2012, Berkeley psychologists Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner ran several studies looking at whether social class (as measured by wealth, occupational prestige, and education) influences how much we care about the feelings of others and the study concluded that wealth did have an inverse relationship with empathy.

If Wealth reduces Empathy, how can we expect the Aspen Institute to train Liberal Elites who will Care?

According to economist Emmanuel Saez of the University of California, Berkeley, Aspen is emblematic of massive income inequality: the rich are getting richer while the rest are simply trying not to fall below the poverty line. From 2009 to 2012, inflation-adjusted income for the wealthiest 1 percent of U.S. households surged 31%, while income for the other 99 percenters grew only 0.4%. In real terms, here are some quick statistics of the beloved elite escape – an average Aspen house costs $5 million. During Christmas, a private plane lands or takes off at Aspen airport, the only way into the remote mountain village, at six minutes intervals but more often than not, planes are forced into a holding pattern as more and more of the world’s top 1 percenters own jets. In short, Aspen has incidentally become the world’s first laboratory experiment where the deleterious effects of income inequality can be studied and understood.

There are multi-million dollar vacation homes and there are people who need to clean these homes and maintain the gardens. There are guests in luxury hotel suites and there are staffing requirements for people needed to cater to their every desire – obviously the rank and file middle income salaried employees are going to need a place to live. Encompassing an area of just 10.05 km2, Aspen does have an affordable housing program but not nearly enough for the majority of its residents who struggle to find affordable real estate amidst a lifestyle environment that’s anything but affordable.

Speaking to Associated Press in 2015, Bill Hettinger, founder of Prosperous Communities and author of “Living and Working in Paradise”, a book studying communities like Aspen, he opined that jobs in these communities are largely in the lower-paying service industry, yet the resort towns are a destination for the global upper class. Hettinger said, “In New York City, you can house your resort workers in the Bronx or Queens. But in Aspen, they’re in Rifle, (about 70) miles down an icy mountain road. That’s the problem any resort community faces. It has no middle-income base to build on.”

While it is true that Aspen’s median family income of $71,000 is higher than the state average, the number falls as you drive outwards towards neighbouring “suburbs” like Rifle where the median family income continues to drop, averaging $54,000 for blue collar professions like carpenters and plumbers. In fact, the same AP news story profiled Loly Garcia, a naturalised migrant worker who arrived from El Salvador 20 years ago, and living just half the distance towards Glenwood Springs 50 miles away, found her daily commute averaging 10 hours a week, taking its toll on the 49 year old, “it’s like working an extra day,” said Garcia.

Save major holidays, the non-partisan Aspen Institute serves a year-round curriculum of policy and leadership-development seminars for a plethora of political leaders from both sides of the spectrum, Republican and Democrat, along with Nobel Prize winners, artists, intellectuals and other captains of industries including those from the corporate sector. That said, given the liberalist leanings of the think tank, there is a slight majority of left-leaning attendees with The Economist reporting at least five candidates in the Democratic presidential primary who have held Aspen fellowships.

Given that the Institute purports to confront the world’s greatest challenges – climate change, trade wars and rising inequality, politicians from all over the world including France, Spain, Italy, and even Ukraine where nearly 10% of their parliamentarians including the Ukranian Prime Minister, have attended Aspen. The altruistic, do-gooder policy centre with affiliate branches in Berlin, Kiev, Madrid, Paris, Prague, Rome, Mexico City, New Delhi and Tokyo; albeit all in elite enclaves of their respective cities – case in point: Institut Aspen France is on 203 rue Saint Honore – the same street as Hermes. 

Aspen, Disneyland for Elites. Aspen Institute, School for Elite Leaders.

A growing body of research shows that immense wealth can create an empathy gap. In an editorial for GlobalPolicyJournal.com, psychologists Angela Robinson and Paul Piff explored data points from the World Economic Forum across the spectrum of social classes and they discovered that those with fewer resources attend more to the needs of others. In one instance, a joint Berkeley and Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto social experiment found that people driving the older, cheaper cars were more likely to stop for an experimenter waiting to cross the street at a crosswalk while those driving nicer, luxury cars were more likely to drive right by without pausing to allow the researcher to cross.

With the hypothesis that lower-class individuals may be more motivated to behave unethically to increase their resources or overcome their disadvantage, the data collected and the conclusions were opposite – instead, greater resources, freedom, and independence from others among the upper class gave rise to self-focused social cognitive tendencies, which in turn facilitated unethical behaviour. 

In fact, the data becomes even more damning when a Chronicle analysis of Internal Revenue Service data showed that proportionally, less wealthy individuals donated a greater percentage of their income than wealthier individuals from the bottom to the highest strata. When Walter Paepcke founded the Aspen Institute, it was conceptualised as a place of moral instruction for leaders of the world, the hope was that in gathering politicians, intellectuals and businessmen together they would overcome “the vulgarity and aimlessness of American life”.

Where Wealthy Vacationers live: Aspen’s Luxury Hotels

Ironically, Hotel Jerome, once a refuge for the poor who couldn’t afford to heat their house during frigid Colorado winters of the late 1800s, is today, one of the finest hotels in Aspen.

Hotel Jerome

Nestled in the heart of Aspen, this landmark hotel and the Colorado village’s first, is just a ten-minute drive from the Aspen Airport. A social hub of Aspen since its opening in 1889, it was recently refurbished in 2003, Hotel Jerome counts 92 richly appointed guest rooms and suites, celebrated restaurants, ever-popular J-Bar and Library and unsurpassed guest services such as twice-daily maid service among its many sought-after offerings. Stays from $460 a night to  $2360

The Limelight Hotel Aspen

Featuring 126 luxury rooms and suites within easy walking distance to the slopes of Aspen Mountain, the Limelight Hotel Aspen is one of the relatively modern newcomers to Aspen’s thriving hospitality scene with modern offerings to boot. More a lifestyle than a simple stay, Limelight community engages you right from check in with a Bike & Beer Series following hotel staffers on bicycles on rides up, down and around Aspen, followed by local beer happy hours in the Lounge. Possible rides include “chasing the snow” up Independence Pass, and making the steep climb up to the iconic Maroon Bells. Yes, the bikes are complimentary. Stays from $360 a night to $960

The St. Regis Aspen Resort

Ideally located at the base of Aspen Mountain, the St. Regis Aspen Resort is a majestic destination in any season, mere steps from historic downtown attractions. Possibly one of the most ideally located Aspen luxury hotels on the list. St. Regis Aspen enjoys an enviable vantage point where guests can enjoy world-class skiing or stroll over to historic Aspen, where luxury boutiques and charming restaurants now await instead of the soot and grit of original Aspen or enjoy the  heated outdoor pool and hot tubs overlooking Billionaire’s Mountain. Stays from $580 a night to $2500

The Little Nell

Guests have called The Little Nell, “the Aspen of Aspen.” Indeed, with 20,000 bottles in its wine cellar and dedicated, specialist concierges in the lobby and on the mountain, the lot on which The Little Nell sits today has had quite a history over the past several hundred years: it was the summer hunting ground of the Ute Indians. A miners’ retreat during the boom, a grazing pasture for Aspen Dairy during the bust and in the 20th century, a skiers’ watering hole. Attracting a diverse international clientele, including celebrities, dignitaries, Fortune 500 magnates and political leaders, The Little Nell underwent a major renovation in 2009, In celebration of its 20th anniversary, at the hands of renowned interior designer, Holly Hunt. Stays from $790 a night to $4300

If you earn less than $150,000 per annum, you’re eligible for affordable housing, this means that Aspen’s resident doctors and lawyers qualify. Aspen is America’s fourth-most-expensive residential real-estate market, just behind Jupiter Island, Florida, and Montecito and Atherton, California. Aspen’s 1% live on Red Mountain, aptly nicknamed “Billionaire Mountain” in a 2012 article by former Forbes staff writer, Morgan Brennan, the mountain stands as a symbol of Aspen’s inane concentration of wealth, boasting record-breaking luxury real estate with selling for as much as $49 million, driven by massive square footage, and scenic views of downtown Aspen and of course, the all important snow-capped neighbouring mountains.

According to Forbes, Walmart heiress Ann Walton Kroenke, the oil billionaire Sid Bass, the candy mogul William Wrigley Jr., and the casino magnate Neil Bluhm have all had houses there, ranging in price from $7.4 million to $38.4 million, Even parents of the top 1 percenters call Aspen’s Billionaire Mountain home, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ parents had a 10,600-square-foot home valued at $20 million in Lower Red Mountain, and Dell CEO Michael Dell’s grandparents owned a $10.5 million, 8,520-square-foot home in Upper Red Mountain. in fact, prices go up as you near the sky, the Summit House sitting atop Billionaire Mountain  was Colorado’s most expensive available home when it was listed for $65 million in 2014 but recent market conditions have forced a more palatable albeit still eye-watering listing of $40 million.

In fact, the founding Paepcke family still live there, recently selling their Erickson Ranch for a cool $18 million ranch In March 2019. Whatever the Paepckes’ philanthrophic leanings are today, it is clear that given the current excesses of capitalism, an erosion of meritocracy as elite families pay their way into Ivy League universities and growing leadership with questionable moral compasses, it’s unclear if Paepcke’s Aspen Institute is still producing the leaders he had hoped to lead.