Okay, I Thought People Were Using “Affluenza” as a Joke

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That is, like "the Twinkie Defense"—a label people were using, not something specifically argued. But "affluenza" does seem to have come out of the mouth of a person who was being serious at the time. Specifically, an expert witness who testified in support of Ethan Couch, the 16-year-old rich white kid who killed four people while driving drunk on stolen beer and was sentenced to probation. The witness, a psychologist, testified that Couch should be treated instead of jailed (his parents suggested a facility in Newport Beach, which offers "equine therapy"), partly because his rich parents never set any limits for him and let him have everything he wanted. 

So you see, he's a victim too.

In an interview with Anderson Cooper, Dick Miller conceded that "affluenza" was not an actual diagnosable disorder (it isn't in the DSM, thankfully), and I doubt he actually testified otherwise. (CNN's headline for that article is "'Affluenza': Is it real?" which again proves the rule that if a headline ends in a question, that question can always be answered "no.") But he did use the term to refer to the theory that parents who refuse to discipline their children may cause the children to develop impulse-control problems of one kind or another, and he sure made it sound like a specific disorder.

"That sounds like a made-up condition," Cooper said, accurately.

"I wish I hadn't used that term," Miller responded, and I'm sure he does wish that, especially because his definition of it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. You have this problem, he said, if "you have too much and you don't know how to distribute it." Sad, yes, but what does that have to do with Couch's case? And then the very next thing out of his mouth was that in his view, this "defense" is "not exclusively for the rich." So, good news—if you live in poverty but have too much stuff to distribute, this defense may also be available to you.

One expert quoted in the CNN article ("Is it real?") said that her studies of wealthier families had shown the level of "serious adjustment problems" to be higher among children in upper-middle-class families, which seems doubtful. Another pointed out that "[rich] kids without limits have a lot more resources to use for their impulsive behavior," like access to money for drugs or alcohol or fast cars, which seems ridiculous. My understanding is that poor kids are sometimes also able to get hold of drugs or alcohol or fast cars—maybe even guns—so I don't know what point she was trying to make there. The anger, of course, is because had Couch been a poor minority kid, he would never have been cut this kind of a deal. It's no coincidence, in other words, that the argument is referred to as "affluenza."

This is not to say that throwing people in jail, especially young people, is a very good answer in these kinds of cases (or in general). We throw way too many people (mostly young black men) in jail as it is. Often I think it would be better to let the person go free so he or she can continue to work, as long as a hefty chunk of the earnings goes to the victims. But generally I think that only for non-violent offenders. Why shouldn't Bernie Madoff have to work the rest of his life solely to pay back at least something to his victims? ("Solely"=he can keep just enough to live, not to buy any of this nonsense.) 

Get the kid some therapy, fine. But it is hard not to agree with the view that the best cure for "affluenza" would be at least some jail time.