When Vivia Boe and I produced the popular PBS special Affluenza in 1997, we had no idea how the word would be used nearly two decades later. But this past week, a judge in Texas ruled that teenager Ethan Couch should receive therapy and probation rather than a jail sentence because he was suffering from “affluenza”—his rich parents had not taught him about consequences, and he was therefore not responsible for killing four people while driving his truck with a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit.
Our film, seen by millions, led to a best-selling book of the same name, published in 2001. We did not invent the word “affluenza”—it may have been coined in 1954 by the head of a family foundation who sponsored research on wealth—but my co-producer, co-authors and I certainly popularized the term. We defined it as “a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.”
Ours was social criticism, not psychiatry. We laid bare the ugly consequences—both social and environmental—of America’s obsession with wealth and materialism. It was partly tongue-in-cheek—our film even included a comedy news segment wherein the Joneses—“that family we’ve all been trying to keep up with for years”—formally surrenders.
Like most Americans, I was appalled by Ethan Couch decision. The “affluenza” plea seems about as serious as the famous “Twinkie defense” that Dan White used in his trial for killing Harvey Milk. And if Couch is not responsible for his actions, but rather a victim of poor parenting, then why shouldn’t his parents serve the time?
It seems clear that this decision is really special treatment for the rich, who often go unpunished for their misdeeds. Imagine an inner city kid claiming he stole Nikes because he had “affluenza” and wasn’t taught responsibility by his parents. Not likely to work in a country where a homeless, freezing, Texas man spent months in prison for stealing blankets, or where Curtis Wilkerson got life in California for shoplifting a pair of socks.
Liberals and conservatives alike have condemned the Texas decision. But before we cast the first stones, let’s admit that Couch’s actions do reflect our national “affluenza.” After all, we have exalted consumerism above other values. And while we pride ourselves for our “exceptionalism,” we have for years been exceptionally irresponsible in our naked pursuit of wealth.
We refuse to increase taxes on millionaires while cutting food stamps for the poor, and advocate cutting social security while ignoring the obscene bonuses of bankers whose speculation caused the 2008 crash. We allow thousands to die each year for lack of health insurance. We strip the mountains of Appalachia and poison our water to continue our addiction to fossil fuels. We have made war under false premises while our drones kill civilians with impunity. We have supported murderous dictators—think Pinochet or Rios Montt—to assure continued profits. We could virtually end world hunger at an annual expense equal to what we give our military every week, but we refuse to do it. And we deny our role in changing the climate in drastic ways.
All of these actions flow from affluenza, greed, and refusal to consider consequences. We rage about the Couch decision but ignore our greater responsibility to the world and future generations. In 1877, the Sioux chief Sitting Bull spoke of the light-skinned people who were overrunning his lands: “They make many laws which the rich may break but the poor may not, and the love of possession is a disease with them.”
That’s the real “affluenza.”
John de Graaf is a public television producer and the co-author of Affluenza: Why Overconsumption is Killing Us and How to Fight Back (third edition to be released in February, 2014) and What’s the Economy for, Anyway? The view expressed are solely his own.