Affluenza Goes From Cute to Crass


The word “affluenza” has moved from cute to crass with lightening speed. “Affluenza” is part of the title of a book by authors John DeGraaf, David Wann and Thomas H. Naylor.  The full title is Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic and the book was published in 2005.

In its description, Amazon says the book “uses the whimsical metaphor of a disease” to explain over consumption. Affluenza is kind of a fun new way to talk about serious old topics such as limited resources, pollution, and even bankruptcies. Apparently, Americans, among others, are just buying too much stuff.

Although “Affluenza” makes a clever book title, the word was barely used and those who used it, meant it as a light way to talk about something that was really serious.

Then, a 16 year old boy in Texas driving a Ford F-350 truck with seven passengers slammed into a group of pedestrians who were helping a stranded motorist.  The driver of the car and the three people who were assisting her were killed. In addition, two passingers were thrown out of the back of the truck. One is paralyzed and the other is recovering from internal injuries and broken bones.

The driver of the truck, Ethan Couch, was drunk and his blood contained traces of Valium. During Couch’s trial in December, 2013, a defense expert witness suggested that Couch was the victim of affluenza, a condition that made it difficult for him to understand the consequences of his actions.

Not only did a lot of people hear the word for the first time, but almost instantly, affluenza went from cute to crass. It seems, after all, a bit crass to use a word that is kind of cute, perhaps even whimsical, in reference to a situation that resulted in the deaths of four people and serious injury to two others. It is difficult to feel much sympathy for someone who has just had it all “so darn good” that he does not understand his behavior is bad.

At the end of three days of testimony, Couch confessed to intoxication manslaughter and was sentenced to 10 years of probation by Texas District Judge Jean Boyd. Prosecutors, who were asking for 20 years in prison, were disappointed.

This last week, Judge Boyd considered two additional charges of intoxication assault for the two passengers who were severely injured in the accident. Again prosecutors asked for a 20 year jail sentence.

Once more, Judge Boyd declined to sentence Couch to any jail time. She did, however, express concern that the Texas Juvenile System did not provide the kind of treatment Couch could get privately. With that in mind, she ordered Couch to a locked rehabilitation center.

The location of the center was not disclosed, but during the first trial, Couch’s parents offered to pay $450,000 a year for treatment at a center in California.  In addition, the judge did not specify a term of treatment. Apparently the teenager could be held for 10 years or freed after only a year or so.

This is a puzzling decision. If affluenza is actually a dreadful condition caused by far too much affluence, an effective treatment might be withdrawing some of that affluence. Judge Boyd, on the other hand, seems to believe that affluenza is best treated and possibly cured by even more affluence. It will be interesting to see how that works out.

In the meantime, the word “affluenza” has plunged from cute to crass. It may be possible in time to recover both its originally intended meaning and some of its cuteness, but the word will never be quite the same.

Editorial by Sharon I. Fawley




NY Daily News

Los Angeles Times

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