Affluenza is term that has been coming under intense scrutiny by the American public lately. Most of the discussion centers around how it is a made-up illness that allows rich people to get away with anything they want. What is affluenza and is it real?
What is affluenza?
To understand what affluenza is, we need only consider how the word is derived and how it is used. Affluenza is a portmanteau of the English words “affluence” (which means wealth) and “influenza” (the flu.) Affluenza describes consumerism as a sickness or an affliction. The Oxford English Dictionary defines affluenza as “a psychological malaise supposedly affecting wealthy young people, symptoms of which include a lack of motivation, feelings of guilt, and a sense of isolation.” The term became popular in the late 1990s after the publication of The Golden Ghetto: The Psychology of Affluence by Jessie O’Neil.
In The Golden Ghetto, affluence is described as a condition whereby the young and wealthy feel entitled, make poor choices and often turn to drugs and alcohol. The 2005 book Affluenza: When Too Much Is Never Enough describes it as aspiring to the lifestyles of the rich and famous, leading to stress, depression, and obesity as a result of feeling empty and constantly disappointed.
Is affluenza real?
It’s real insofar as any word is real–it’s a device used to bring into mind a concept, however vague or absurd. In fact, the word should be lauded for its great descriptive capacity. Whether or not affluenza should be given the kind of consideration that parallels other mental illnesses is another matter. Affluenza is not a recognized illness and does not appear in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.
The only empirical study to look at affluenza was by Peter Lorenzi and Roberto Friedman in the Journal of Behavioral and Applied Management in 2010. They concluded: “Affluenza is not prevalent nor is it apparently addictive.” But also: “The conclusion that American affluenza is non-existent may be premature given the still unrefined aspects of the instrument, and the lack of a complete understanding of the construct.”
This month a teenager from North Texas, Ethan Couch, received a sentence of 10 years probation for driving intoxicated and killing four pedestrians. After stealing beer from a Walmart, Couch drove seven passengers is his Ford F-350 with a blood alcohol level of 0.24. The prosecutors were pushing for a long jail sentence. A psychologist hired by the rich teenager’s defense argued that he has affluenza; he was raised to believe that wealth buys privilege and his actions have no consequences. A clever portmanteau just became real.
The lenient sentencing of this teen has caused an uproar. Many commentators argue that using affluenza as a defense in this case is preposterous, calling it “spoiled rich kid syndrome.” A CNN Op-Ed is titled: “The cure for ‘affluenza’ is prison.”
As a legal defense, affluenza’s moment of fame is up and it will have to be put back into the big bag of tricks for now. Even the defense’s psychologist, G. Dick Millert, said he regrets using the term.
Do other countries have affluenza?
There is no reason to think that affluenza is a uniquely American problem. In fact, the book Affluenza: When Too Much is Never Enough addresses the problem in Australia.
If we take a simple “more money, more problems” stance, then a look at the relative GDP per capita might show us other places that suffer from this fabled affliction. This is problematic; this map would seem to indicate that the places with the biggest outbreaks of affluenza include Europe, Japan, South Korea and Arab states of the Persian Gulf, but this is not the case.
In his 2008 book, The Selfish Capitalist, U.K. psychologist James Oliver argues that highly consumerist nations have more incidences of mental illnesses. He illustrates this by splicing data which shows that people in English-speaking nations have about twice as much emotional distress as people from continental Europe and Japan. The thesis of Oliver’s book is that free-market capitalism leads to greater incidences of affluenza.
Inequality and affluenza
James believes that there is a correlation between the prevalence of affluenza and material inequality. People’s desires to accumulate possessions and live outside of their means become stimulated in highly unequal societies. It would make more sense to consider the relative inequality of nations than their GDPs. The GINI coefficient is a measure of statistical dispersion that represents income distribution in a country.
Here we can see that some of the largest, most powerful nations in the world have startling levels of inequality, such as the U.S., China, Russia, and Brazil. Some places are even worse, such as countries in Latin America and Southern Africa. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime released the results of a 2012 study, and Southern Africa and Central America are the regions with the most murders.
A report published by Stanford University titled Violent Crime shows a definite link between the GINI Index and violent crime in American states. According to the report: “Generally, income inequality is positively correlated with violent crime rates within the United States.” Among OECD countries, the U.S. has the highest rate of inequality and the highest per capita homicide rate, each by far. Driving a car into people is sometimes considered vehicular homicide.
Perhaps affluenza can best be seen as a symptom of inequality. Debate rages on over whether or not affluenza is real, but there is no denying that inequality is.
By K. Elsner