TX Drunk-Driving Teen Who Killed 4 People Highlights America's 'Affluenza' Affliction

Ethan Couch

Two weeks ago, a Burleson, TX, teen, Ethan Couch, killed four Texans. He got behind the wheel of his car with three times the legal limit of alcohol in his blood, mowed down several pedestrians, and now four families are without their children. One victim is crippled for life. "I'm Ethan Couch, I'll get you out of this," he said to one of his friends in the car afterward.

The judge let Ethan off with 10 years probation and prescribed therapy. The defense argued that Ethan has "affluenza," a condition by which rich people don't understand and are thus not responsible for the consequences of their actions. State District Judge Jean Boyd didn't say she agreed with that particular argument, but Americans everywhere have balked that the deaths' circumstances resulted in such a relaxed punishment at all. Wendy Davis spoke out against the decision, calling it a "disgrace." Even Greg Abbott says his office is looking into it.

"Affluenza" is a term popularized in 1997 by a documentary of the same name. It is about the warped worldview of Americans in uppermost echelon of financial holdings — and the consequences for the rest of us. The documentary was turned into a popular book. What the filmmakers and then authors never intended is for the term to be used, successfully no less, in defense of a killer. John de Graaf, "Affluenza" co-author, wrote an excellent piece for Time about what this case reveals about the United States:

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.

John de Graaf continues:

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."

Mr. de Graaf is on point. Maybe one of the reasons the Ethan Couch case is so appalling is not that it's not entirely surprising. We live in a country that refuses to treat its citizens as equals, and it starts with politics itself. More money means more influence right now, and it's one of the least American traits we could have. From Burleson to Bakersfield to Buffalo, the rich escape prosecutions for their crimes far more frequently than those without large bank accounts. We treat massive corporations in the agricultural and energy industries as precious entities deserving of tax breaks and subsidies while they tear down this country's future. Our tax policy and school funding system locks the American playing field into a tilt on which most Americans have to climb uphill.

"That kid killed four people and crippled my little brother and doesn't even have to serve one year? If he were poor like us, he would've gotten 10 years, I bet," one of the victim's brother said.

The lesson from the Ethan Couch story is, unfortunately, one we're all too familiar with.

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