American Culture

Born rich: “Affluenza” is now a license to kill if you’re wealthy

Accountability? Not for rich people: being wealthy absolves you of responsibility for your actions.

We have a new legal defense and this one will be the death of us: Affluenza. I have to admit that the term, used here on Scholars and Rogues in a number of previous posts, including Amusing ourselves to death, circa 2010 and Affluenza: Black Friday is America’s new high holy day, both by Sam Smith, had not seeped into my consciousness. It took a death, four of them, actually, to emblazon the term on my mind. In case you missed the story out of Texas, a 16-year-old stole alcohol from Walmart, got drunk, drove recklessly, and killed 4 innocent people. His court ordered punishment: 10-years of probation and some pricey rehab to be paid for by mums and daddums. No jail time. None.

And why does this thieving, drunken killer get away with it? He was spoiled! Station KHOU described how a psychologist, working for the defense, Dr. G. Dick Miller, testified that Ethan Couch’s parents “gave him ‘freedoms no young person should have.'” Couch ended up suffering from “affluenza,” wherein “his family felt that wealth bought privilege and there was no rational link between behavior and consequences.”

Spoiled rich kids without boundaries or morals are nothing new. Maybe it’s time we brought back one of my favorite anachronistic terms: “wastrel.” A wastrel in literature was generally someone who burned through an income or inheritance because of bad behavior. Wastrels were often pictured as embarrassing burdens to their families. My favorite literary wastrel is George Wickham from Pride and Prejudice. George Wickham may have been a debaucher, but he was not a killer.

The problem is that wastrels have become pop icons and their behavior is celebrated. Think Lindsay Lohan’s bad driving and revolving door rehab stints. Think Justin Bieber and his monkey and pot smoking and being carried up the Great Wall. Think Amanda Bynes and–well, on second thought, don’t. Being bad–not just having a bad attitude–has become cool. Flaunting the law publicly is no longer a problem for many people.

Privilege is nothing new for the wealthy. The phrase “it’s good to be the king” was coined for a reason. Perhaps the issue is the growing gulf between the wealthy and everyone below them. Instead of noblesse oblige, there is only privilege.

Over a decade ago I encountered my first students who were afflicted with “affluenza.”

Junior was a sophomore at a private school. By the end of the first semester, he was failing all but one of his classes. As soon as the second semester started, he stopped bothering with the one he was passing. The school had what the teachers called a “Come to Jesus Meeting” with the student and his parents. The parents begged the school to allow their son to finish the year “so he can repeat his sophomore year somewhere else next year and still get into a good college.” The school acquiesced. Junior had his own car, his own credit card, a cell phone, and all the other accoutrements of wealth. When Spring Break rolled around, Junior went to the Bahamas and spent his time gambling. He “finished” the school year and topped it off by cutting school half way through an exam. His parents supposedly sent him to an isolated and Spartan boarding school the next year to give someone else a shot at disciplining their son.

Marvin and his buddies were on a hike during their sophomore retreat. During a break, the conversation turned to one of their favorite pastimes: shoplifting. They were never lacking in spending money, but stealing was more fun. They compared notes on the best ways to steal from big box stores: old bags, old receipts, big pockets, etc. They seemed to view it as some sort of art form. Marvin got busted later that year for selling pot on campus to his buddies, nine of whom also got busted once the snitching started. Marvin was, however, the only one allowed to return after being expelled for a year.

Charlie was also a sophomore. He was smart, good-looking, charming, and generally, a pretty nice kid. He was an outstanding baseball player. In February, he had some videos to return to Blockbuster and he borrowed his dad’s new car to return them. A Jag. Charlie, who had only recently gotten his license, sped around a corner at twice the speed limit and put the car upside down into a tree. He died at the scene. His father wore Charlie’s baseball cap when he delivered his son’s eulogy. He passionately defended his decision to hand over the keys as something that anyone would do “for his best friend.” I still feel angry when I write about that memorial. Sometimes the parents are the affluenza sufferers.

The faces of the affluenza cases have blurred over the years. Fortunately, most of them are still alive and have not killed anyone through their pursuit of pleasure. At least not that we have heard. Yet.

22 replies »

  1. I like this post. We don’t talk about class enough in the U.S. It comes up in a lot of conversations about social issues, and we always end up saying, “Yes, but how do we talk about the class angle without people getting all defensive and dismissing everything else we’re saying?” So it’s nice to see someone talking about wealth & privilege in a way that really clarifies the problem without oversimplifying.

    • You’re right about it being complicated. Noblesse oblige used to carry with it the idea that “With great power comes great responsibility.” We know that, historically, such has not always been the case, especially when the person in question was a younger sibling of the person who stood to inherit. But what happens when NO ONE in the family tree feels a sense of responsibility and only operates out of self-interest (and can afford to do so)?

  2. This entire thing has appalled me, and one of the reasons is that I teach so few students who are inflicted with this particular disease.

    Instead, I teach students who haven’t gotten to buy their first laptop until the age of 18/19 with their loan money, from schools too poor to have many computers, and these students have real problems operating a computer system that requires more than the use of their thumbs.

    Years ago, though, I worked for a camp that, as its cost was about $3,000 for a 4-week stay, was full of rich kids. I worked with 15 year-olds mainly, though there were kids as young as 8 there. Many of them had been shuttled from boarding school to summer camp and would be shuttled back to boarding school. They were chess pieces. Annoying chess pieces. Their need for some real affection instead of just money being thrown at them was a real need. They did stupid things. They probably still do stupid things.

    Funny, my students now have less tolerance for the antics of Lindsey Lohan, Amanda Bynes, and their ilk (they really just call them crazy and write them off, which we’ve had to talk about at length) than my preteen camp kids, who idolized Lohan and Hilton. Wealth is celebrated by the wealthy.

    But I’m unwilling to excuse either set of people for causing the death of another person (or persons, as in this case). Particularly not when that behavior is alcohol related. That the justice system has caught and released this kid is a terrible reflection of the privilege that comes with money, and that an expert has offered up this “diagnosis” is a reflection of psychology gone wrong, twisted to do things it shouldn’t be doing. That anyone bought it-and the use of that metaphor itself-is an American tragedy.

    • Love the “Wealth is celebrated by the wealthy” idea. Some of the organizations that were formed to promote and protect their own interests (Club for Growth, Americans for Prosperity, etc) need to solicit the support of large numbers of people who are not wealthy and they can only do that by convincing them that “All this can be yours.” Your students, at least some of them, get that such a belief is not realistic. It’s laudable that they dismiss the accompanying weird behavior.

      • I don’t think they do it consciously. There’s not even an illusion anymore for them that they might be able to have what the elite have. They’re more interested in making to the middle, not realizing that the middle is getting so far away from the top that it might as well be separated by a canyon.

  3. What I don’t get is the complete lack of culpability. Even a shifting of criminal liability would make more sense than this travesty. Young Ethan isn’t responsible because he was raised all wrong? If that’s the case, where are the criminal charges against the parents if the way they raised him was so damaging as to create this entitled walking/driving disaster waiting to happen?

      • Rich people buy umbrella liability policies just for rainy days like this. Let the insurance company pay the for the broken bowling pin bystanders and their petty torts.

        Juvenile court is an entirely different arena than criminal court. Kid gloves are worn, there’s a box of crying rags on every table and defendants are not prosecuted so much as counseled and at worst remanded to a juvenile facility for a period not to exceed their 18th birthday.

        That’s why you hear district attornies demanding a minor accused of a heinous crime (this case would have been a perfect subject) be charged as an adult so the full range of criminal law penalties can be brought to bear.

        I don’t believe the juvenile court had much else in it’s bag of punishments to whack this kid with.

        • This is all kinds of confusing. I guess Texas does things differently. For starters, in most juvenile court systems the kid’s name would never have been made public. Second, the story says the kid could have been sentenced to 20 years – most places he could only have been held until he was 18.

        • He was charged as a juvenile, “The teen pleaded guilty to four counts delinquent conduct/involuntary manslaughter and two of delinquent conduct/intoxication assault” but revealed in the press as an adult. I’m with you guys on this–confusing.

    • Environmental influences, while acknowledged, don’t usually excuse the behavior at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale. I’ve had “Gee, Officer Krupke” rattling around in my brain since I first started reading these articles.

      There is some really warped parenting out there and even if it does not result in immediate criminal behavior, it sets some horrible examples. I had one family push to get their son diagnosed with ADHD so he could get extra time on his AP exams and get an advantage. Another family fought a drug and alcohol expulsion through the courts until the kid graduated–then the outcome didn’t matter any more.

      • Yes, I painted with too broad a brush Sam, every jurisdiction treats juveniles somewhat differently. It appears that in Texas if the crime is serious enough the offender can have their name released and also after receiving a determinant sentence may be turned over to the adult corrections department after they turn 18. Certainly questions of judicial propriety are in order considering the havoc this little cretin wreaked.

        • Until your comment this morning I hadn’t even noticed that he was being tried as a juvenile. I knew his name and that he could have gotten a long sentence and my mind assumed he was being tried as an adult.

        • And then reading between the lines the plot thickens. “Scott Brown, Couch’s lead defense attorney, said the teenager could have been freed after two years if he had drawn the 20-year sentence. Instead, the judge “fashioned a sentence that could have him under the thumb of the justice system for the next 10 years,” he told the Star-Telegram.”

          Maybe Judge Jean Boyd was doing the best she could within the framework of the system she was working under. Judging people in the court public opinion is fun and I’m as guilty as anyone of doing it but it really isn’t conducive to justice. Hell, we’d just start hanging everybody if the whole country got to weigh in on every case.

        • You’re probably right, but my concern really isn’t this case, per se. While I find the idea that you can be deemed not responsible for your actions because you’re rich abhorrent, that isn’t really what’s happening. The issue is that you’re a kid who has never been parented. Affluence has been, in point of fact, inflicted on you. That sounds silly, but the people that it sounds silliest to are also likely those prone to saying things like “money can’t buy happiness.” We have all the evidence in the world that wretched excess can fuck people up. Wretched poverty can do it, too. If I spent a few minutes, I could probably craft an argument that what we have here is the flip side of what you see in poor, often minority neighborhoods. That environment can breed a lack of parental engagement, too, and in the end the result can be what we see here – an inability, on the part of a kid, to really grasp right from wrong and to understand responsibility. Different roads, but they lead to the same spot psychologically.

          So the issue isn’t this kid. At one level it’s his parents, who somewhere along the line lost touch with some things that are very important. At another level, it’s that affluenza is a social disease. It attacks at the macro cultural level.

          If you haven’t read the book that I note in the pieces Cat links to, you really oughta. It won’t tell you things you don’t already know, exactly, but it will arrange what you already know in a fashion that will help you focus in ways you maybe haven’t before.

        • I hear Mother Theresa quoted a lot, “There are poor people everywhere, but the deepest poverty is not being loved” (and more in that vein). I hear what Sam is saying, but it makes me very uncomfortable. The Mother Theresa angle seems to be self-serving for people who are supposed to be serving “the poor” when they can redefine the poor to include the wealthy. Very soothing and so much cleaner than serving the economically poor.

        • Happiness is a narrow mountain top with steep cliffs on either side. If we’re so poor that we can’t provide basic necessities for ourselves and our loved ones then obviously there can be little happiness.

          But expanding on Sam’s thoughts, having scads of money is no guarantee of happiness either. I know a paper billionaire, several hundred millionaire at the least, and he’s about the most miserable soul I’ve ever met. His wife has no respect for him and his son is a wastrel who will inevitably end up dead from a drug overdose or incarcerated long term for crimes supporting his habits. I wouldn’t trade lives with the father for anything.

          In short, most Americans don’t know how lucky we are to have enough to get by on without having so much as to ruin us. Like the old lab experiments with rats given cages with buttons that when pushed dispense cocaine or orgasms…the rats all die and fairly quickly. Too much of a good thing is as bad or worse than none at all.

          And Sam, I’m ordering up Technopoly and Affluenza from Amazon, were there any others germane to this subject that I missed?

  4. This is a great post. We have all encountered this “money talks and BS walks.” It’s as true today as in the past, but as you say, “celebrated” today where in the past it was shameful.

    • I generally detest cautionary comparisons with the Roman Empire and its widespread dissipation because it’s not as easy of a comparison as some make it out. But I can’t help but think of the bad behavior of the Caesars and how many commoners were appalled but incapable of changing the situation.

  5. Yes, Affluenza is indeed a very serious disease deserving of our research dollars, prayers and a spirited discourse in the halls of congress. Instead of blaming this poor lad, a victim of society’s jealousy fueled judgments, we should be thankful that our pharmaceutical industry will soon have an effective medication available for our nation’s war on Affluenza. I also take great offense that the statement ” All rich kids should be placed in a cage for a televised death match” to be an insult to our Christian values not to mention our fine cultural heritage. I urge all Americans on this Sacred Season to be particularly mindful in their practice of proper mental hygiene.

  6. i’ve been watching this awhile, but from a slightly diff skew. it’s long amazed me that it’s virtually impossible to convict a celebrity or wealthy person in america, or at least it seems so–robert durst, oj, robert blake, roger clemens, barry bonds. of course, maybe that’s always been the case–that texas lawyer percy foreman didnt rack up 1000 acquitals defending legal aid cases

    and i agree. i’ve heard parents say they want to be their kid’s best friends and i’m apalled, simply apalled. the high school my kids attended (new trier–which might well be the model for affluenz high schools,) had 4000 kids. when my kids would say, “i don’t like you (meaning me” I always answered, “go find a friend. that’s not my job. my job is to be a dad. there’s only one of me, there are 4000 friends out there”

    4 people dead and the kid doesnt even learn anything. how sad.