Everybody knows the word “affluenza,” now that 16 year-old Ethan Couch, a wealthy kid from Burleson, Texas, got only 10 years’ probation after killing four people (and paralyzing another) while driving drunk. His lawyer made a case for “affluenza,” psychobabble for the too-numerous-to-count pathologies that can develop in somebody who has too much money. “I’m Ethan Couch; I’ll get you out of this,” he reportedly told a passenger in his pickup truck after the accident. As part of his sentence, Ethan is being shipped to a rehabilitation clinic near Newport Beach, California, that costs $450,000 a year.
“Affluenza” is not recognized as a medical diagnosis by the American Psychiatric Association. But let’s imagine that it were. A preferable treatment (at least in this instance) would surely be time behind bars.
Unfortunately, medicalization of rich-jerk behavior leads to less severe punishment, even when the opposite is called for. That’s because a person afflicted with a disease can’t be judged responsible for his actions. But not being held responsible (because you’re rich) is the very condition we’re trying to cure! So the psychiatric profession (and, one hopes, future sentencing judges) should continue steering clear of the “affluenza” diagnosis.
But as a political science term, “affluenza” has great value. Mitt Romney came down with a severe case of affluenza in 2012 when he gave his famous talk condemning the 47% of the population (actually, 46) that didn’t pay income tax. John Kerry had a mild case in 2004 when he let himself get photographed windsurfing. Wall Street crybabies who turned against President Obama after he told CBS News’s “60 Minutes” that “I did not run for office to be helping out a bunch of fat cat bankers on Wall Street” have some mixture of affluenza and Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
For the past five decades the Republican party has seen its historically chronic affluenza combine, through mutation, with the type of white populist resentment most commonly found in the American south. A remarkably hardy strain, the hybrid has lately inclined toward cannibalism, raising hopes for its eventual eradication.
The best source of information about how affluenza affects people’s political views is the Survey of Economically Successful Americans (SESA), the first-ever large-scale academic survey of the very rich (defined here as people whose net worth exceeds about $5 million). The study is still relatively new, but we’ve already found out (based on a sample limited to the Chicago area) that a plurality of the very rich believe the budget deficit is the biggest problem facing the country, while a majority of the nation at large says the economy (read: unemployment) is. Only 40% of the very rich want to raise the minimum wage, as against 78% of the nation at large. The very rich want to cut government spending, while the nation at large wants to increase it.
Do you notice a pattern? Whenever the very rich hold views at odds with those of the entire population, the federal government tends to do the rich’s bidding. In that sense, the whole country has affluenza. Which only makes it more galling that Ethan Couch’s lawyer thinks having it makes Ethan special.