Co-Author of Affluenza: “I’m Appalled by the Ethan Couch Decision”

But his actions do reflect our national affliction that exalts consumerism above other values

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Ben Noey Jr. / The Fort Worth Star-Telegram / AP

Cars drive past the scene of a fatal wreck that killed four people in Burleson, Texas.

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.

(MORE: The Affluenza Defense: Judge Rules Rich Kid’s Rich Kid-ness Excuses Him for Deadly Drunk Driving Accident)

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?

(MORE: When Bad Parenting Excuses Murder)

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.

(MORE“Affluenza” is Junk Science, says psychologist)

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. 

36 comments
NatureBoy
NatureBoy

How does this creepy so called judge sleep at night? Hopefully Karma will bring her to her knees....

JJDiaz
JJDiaz

affluenza is just a word invented to keep the wealthy from taking accountability for their actions. And our society has condoned it. Even if those actions mortally wound others. Whether your wealthy or not it doesn't take an education or good parenting to know that driving under the influence will most likely result in an accident come on now!

Nizler
Nizler

?  This doesn't make any sense.  Poor people don't teach their children about consequences all the time, that doesn't stop them from going to prison.  How come if someone is rich, and isn't taught about consequences (because who knows not to drink and drive?) they get therapy instead of repercussions?


I don't understand, how is that a legal argument?  "Your honor, my client is too rich to be accountable!"  ..What?

jerryherrmann11
jerryherrmann11

(817) 237-5060 - Is the number to Cleburne Sheet Metal, Give them a call and let them know what you think!

IreneRoberts
IreneRoberts

Not only did the judge let his victims and the victims' families down , he let Ethan down.  The judge missed perhaps the only opportunity Ethan will ever get to learn that there are consequences for breaking the law, something that his parents haven't taught him.  He will continue breaking the law , possibly killing other innocent people expecting his rich mommy and daddy to get him out of yet another unlawful act.  He deserved no less than the above mentioned black youth from this judge.  What a pathetic judge!!!!!

Funk
Funk

The same Judge once sentenced a 14 year old (non affluent) African American child to the Texas Juvenile system, until he turns 19. If the kid violates any kind of rule while in there, he will get dragged across the street into big boy prison for longer sentencing. The 14 year old in question got into a fist fight, punched someone, and that someone hit their head on the way down and died accidentally. That judge had no problem sentencing a child for years because of a fist fight accident.

Ethan Couch, taking Valium without a prescription, stealing beer from Walmart, and he killed 4 people while seriously injuring 9 others. He had 3 times the BAC for someone who is old enough to drink, and was quoted at the accident telling his friends "It's cool, I am Ethan Couch. I can get this dropped."


Why is it ok for a 14 year old poor kid to be judged like an adult, but for a 16 year old rich kid, he gets to go have Equine Therapy?

Equine therapy is riding horses btw. The rich kid is going to a $1200 a day resort treatment facility where he gets to relax on the beach, watch tv, yoga, mma classes, go nature hiking, etc.

 

I have often been told by people money can not buy you happiness. I suppose happiness to those people is not the choice between Riding Horses and Stamping License Plates.

KathyCalm
KathyCalm

Affluenza has been a Problem since the Roman Times! All this Illustrates is that only 1 Judge has tried to stand his ground....a bit farcical in the course of Human History!

Salvaje
Salvaje

Liberty and justice for all, as long as you are affluent.  Got to love a democracy that basis itself on one principle and doles out justice on another.  All i'm getting from any of the cases seen and heard by the american public, is that if you're an ex-football player, a CEO of a fortune 500 company, part of the Hollywood and DC elite, the law is meant for the peons to obey and the rest of them are above the law and excused from any penalties that the rest of us would face.  Murder, embezzlement, tax evasion, abuse of authority, and any number of other trespasses against other human beings is Okey Dokey, as long as you can buy your way out. This abomination and misuse of power needs to come to an end.  Maybe, the american people will take the time to stick together and force the overhaul of our judicial and legal system.  If I were any part of either system, I would hang my head in shame.   

CarolannDriver
CarolannDriver

Authorities said the teen and friends were seen on surveillance video stealing two cases of beer from a store. He had seven passengers in his Ford F-350, was speeding and had a blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit, according to trial testimony. His truck slammed into the four pedestrians, killing Brian Jennings, 43, Breanna Mitchell, 24, Shelby Boyles, 21, and her mother, Hollie Boyles, 52.  - the Associated Press

chr
chr

This article, as most on the issue, clouds the basic facts of the case. The judge never cited "affluenza", nor gave any indication that Couch was not responsible for his actions - despite that assertion here. She in fact explicitly stated that he was responsible for his own actions, not his parents, directly refuting the "affluenza" defense put forth by his defense.


The sentence may be debatable, and the kid and his defense team seem deplorable, but the ignorance of the facts of this case in the general discussion is the greatest failing here.

LauraKrome
LauraKrome

Number 1, we need to take a serious look at the bench in Texas. There are all kinds of ways of rationalizing the results of income inequality in the United States and this one is not even that creative--just another way of allowing the privileged to not be responsible for their actions. De Graaf and his colleagues found an elegant and apt metaphor for the greed and self-indulgent habits that are poisoning our society and this metaphor is now being concretized and rigidified in a way that is insulting to our intelligence. Come on, let's quit wasting our precious time and acknowledge what we all know--Ethan Hawke and his parents and this judge live in one America and most of the rest of us live in the much larger other America. What are we going to do about that?

JoeFulton
JoeFulton

John de Graaf has hit the nail on the head.


The other aspect here is that there is a certain degree of rationality we should expect out of our elected officials.  This is a symptom of a much larger issue.  In a culture where a majority of the people regard creation theories as being superior to anything scientific, one should expect these lapses of logic.  After all if you can believe creation theory you can pretty much believe any kind of magical thinking.

JimSylvester
JimSylvester

I have my own definition of "Affluenza":  "Unabomber Light".


At their philosophical core, de Graaf's ideas are not all that different than those of Ted Kaczynski.  The main difference between the two of them is de Graaf had the money to put his crazy ideas into a television program, while poor Ted had nothing but bomb components and a typewriter.


Oh well, I guess we should be grateful that most obnoxious thing de Graaf ever does is symbolically wag his finger at the rest of us...

T.P.Chia
T.P.Chia

John de Graaf's analysis is commendable. The court decision that" Ethan Couch should receive therapy and probation rather than a jail sentence because he was suffering from AFFLUENZA ' is a disgrace to America, socially and judicially.

As pointed out by Mr. de Graaf, America's obsession with wealth and materialism has deeply polluted the nation's ethical and moral spirits. And it is outrageous for a court of justice to rule that Ethan Couch "is not responsible to his action because his parents had not taught him about the consequences."

Moral justice is the basis of judicial justice. The judge's ruling is morally untenable and judicially unjust.

tcement
tcement

"Let me tell you about the very rich.  They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves.  Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different."" -- F. Scott Fitzgerald, "Rich Boy"

tomkatth
tomkatth

@Funk "A fistgight accident." Wow...that's charming. There is no such thing as a "fistfight accident", if someone hits someone, they are responsible if that person gets injured or dies. I can see you are certainly no law student!

Funk
Funk

@chrNot even close. The greatest failing here is that he is virtually going unpunished, the time for any 'treatment' the kid needed was before he killed and injured people in a DWI. All sending him to that resort treatment facility with a half a million dollar price tag ( Which is conveniently owned by the psychiatrist who testified that Ethan could get better treatment at his facility than in jail) is going to do, is that it will completely reinforce the idea in his head that he did nothing wrong and he can get away with things like this. This is a kid who's friends were pleading with him to slow down before the accident, and was quoted at the accident telling his friends who could still stand 'It's cool, I am Ethan Couch. I can get this dropped.'

He can get all the treatment he needs behind bars. The Texas Juvenile Justice system offers counseling.

koine2002
koine2002

@LauraKrome  I would be for impeaching this individual judge.  However, all District judges in Texas are elected to their posts.  Granted, they all have to be bar certified attorneys (with the exception of JPs).  It'd be hard to take a serious look at the whole bench when such things are at the whim of the ability of a politician to sell themselves.  It's election time and I see campaigns such as "protecting the children," "upholding the poor," etc. in the judicial ads.  What about upholding the law and justice?  That's fundamentally what a judge is to do.  And I think you mean "Ethan CROUCH and his parents....live in one America..."

CarolannDriver
CarolannDriver

@JimSylvester You are talking out of your ass, JimSylvester, with no idea nor fact to back it up.  I personally know Mr. DeGraaf, and your allegations in no way describe him or his ideas.

If the kid got off because his parents didn't teach him responsibility for his own actions...something that everyone else in society is supposedly responsible for...then his parents should go to jail.  And so should the judge who let him off the hook.  Rich people often marry and have children and pets only as status symbols, with no thought to the responsibility of caring for that life they are responsible for bringing into their lives, nor guiding them and giving them real values.  There are rare exceptions, such as Warren Buffet, who insists that his children earn their way, and has turned out some fine human beings.  As for the rest, it's despicable and wasteful, and denigrates our entire society - and in the Couch case, has MURDERED people.  Shame on those who cannot see or who turn their backs - or have a screw loose enough to accuse a very kind man of being akin to the Unabomber.

kc42
kc42

@T.P.Chia Agreed.  With 2.5 million in jail - disproportionately black men - because of the "War on Drugs" this court decision highlights a key problem of our time.

Anna888
Anna888

@tcement that's very well said. It made me think of another article about how rich are different from us: a professor of sociology or psychology, studying greed, set up monopoly games where most people had to play by the usual rules and one was given extra privileges like getting twice as much money, permanent get-out-of-jail card, etc. The funny thing happened. People who started as privileged and soon were amassing large real estates and loads of money were becoming more and more greedy and heartless refusing to help friends, feeling like they were entitled to all this privilege and bending rules, just because they were rich. The conclusion was that greed and feeling entitled is a common human failing and happens to majority of people when they get rich. I thought that should have been  a major headline, so as society we could do something about it. So sad to see that even a judge could be so blindsided by the luster of money to make a clearly unjust decision. 



MichelleAnderson
MichelleAnderson

@tomkatth@FunkAre you actually serious ???!!!  14 year old kids DO have 'fist fights', without ANY intention of killing someone.  Were you ever a child?
Ethan Couch deliberately stole, drank and subsequently murdered 4 people.  Another individual was maimed. His daddy is paying $500,000.00 for his 'rehab' treatment.  Unless, or until, his rich parents stop bailing him out of trouble, he will NEVER learn the consequences of his actions.
As a native TEXAN, I am appalled that our justice system can be bought with cold, hard cash.
Real people died, their family and friends are mourning.
I hope you wake up some day.

MarkKatz
MarkKatz

Tomkatth

I can certainly see that you also have no law background. You are a little shallow!!! You do not understand the point Funk was making. Read it again and concentrate if you can!! Also, you need to learn how to spell!!!!!!!

Funk
Funk

@tomkatth@Funk I was Generalizing terms so people like you could understand Tom, but I can see it still went over your head there. I was offering an example, from the same Judge, where a young teen gets thrown into the system for years on "Manslaughter" charges over the loss of 1 life. Ethan took 4 lives, seriously injured 9 others, and is facing the charges "Intoxication Assault" (3rd degree Felony) and "Intoxication Manslaughter" (2nd degree Felony). Ethan will be serving no time for any of this, and will even be enjoying things like having a Chef prepare all of his meals at a $450,000 a year treatment facility in a private home in Newport Beach, California. It is owned by the Psychiatrist who testified for Ethan in court. Ethan will be going to this facility because the Judge, for some reason, feels that the counseling her state government offers in the texas juvenile justice department is inadequate in this situation specifically.

That is slightly appalling when you consider this happened in a state where the Intoxication Manslaughter Law specifically says, "If probation is granted, you must serve a minimum of 120 days in jail as a condition of the probation." 


Shame, if he were only 1 year older, he would have faced Confinement in the Texas Department of Corrections (TDC) for not less than 2 years to 20 years. Although, under Texas state law, juveniles as young as 14 may be certified to be tried as an adult. This means youthful offenders may face adult sentencing and adult prison for crimes committed as a juvenile. This usually happens in cases where juveniles commit especially violent or terrible crimes. Kind of like the terrible crimes Ethan Couch is responsible for.

Phamous_Black
Phamous_Black

@tomkatth @Funk You mean, like, when someone hits someone with a car? Or just punches someone? It's fun how you're so verbal on the fist fight, tom, but not the 2 ton wrecking ball that killed 4 people and destroyed 4 families. Maybe you and that judge have something in common, tom.

Funk
Funk

@Phamous_Black@CarolannDriver Ethan Couch has parents who own some kind of metal works company, and Ethan was driving his Dads work truck that night. Those big trucks do move pretty fast, he was almost doing 80 in a residential area.

JimSylvester
JimSylvester

@CarolannDriver @JimSylvester de Graaff should be commended for the less violent and more socially acceptable way he expresses his opinions. He is NOT a murderer like Kaczynski. That being said, his criticism of those who only wish to make a more comfortable, secure life for themselves and their loved ones makes him a philosophical ally of the Unabomber. de Graaf's  disapproval of all who disagree with him only differs from Kaczynski in the manner said disapproval is expressed.

I don't have to know either man personally to have read and/or viewed the opinions of each. I resent any person who is an enemy of personal freedom, whether or not that person ends up in Federal Prison for serial murder and mayhem, or writing elitist, holier-than-thou opinion articles for a national news magazine.

chr
chr

@CarolannDriver @JimSylvester  Is it appropriate to talk out your own ass in answer to someone else? 


"Rich people often marry and have children and pets only as status symbols, with no thought to the responsibility of caring for that life they are responsible for bringing into their lives, nor guiding them and giving them real values". Care to provide any "idea nor fact to back it up"?

Fhegenti
Fhegenti

@Funk So he was driving a work truck? I hope that company is ready to pay through the nose, too.

CarolannDriver
CarolannDriver

@chr Personal observation on a daily basis, chr.  Now, really, dear, stop trolling.