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Thursday, December 19, 2013

The ‘Affluenza’ Defense

Ethan Couch, 16, was sentenced to 10 years probation after admitting to driving drunk in a crash that killed four people and injured several others. (Screenshot from WFAA-TV video)

Ethan Couch, 16, was sentenced to 10 years probation after admitting to driving drunk in a crash that killed four people and injured several others. (Screenshot from WFAA-TV video)

On Tuesday, the Tarrant County district attorney’s office announced that it is seeking additional charges against 16-year-old Ethan Couch.

There has been widespread public outrage that Couch did not receive any jail time after he admitted to driving drunk in a crash that killed four people. A judge sentenced him to 10 years of probation and a year of in-patient treatment at a California rehab center that costs $450,000 per year — to be paid by his parents.

At his trial, Couch’s lawyers argued he was afflicted by a condition called “affluenza.” The defense team argued that because Couch was brought up in an environment of considerable wealth and privilege, in which his parents did not place limits on his behavior, he did not know that his actions had consequences.

The term “affluenza” was popularized in a 1997 PBS documentary of the same name that described a social condition. John de Graaf was a co-producer of the documentary, and describes being “appalled” by the judge’s sentence in the case. In an op-ed in Time magazine, de Graaf wrote:

“We defined [affluenza] 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.”

De Graaf joins Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson to discuss “affluenza” and its use as a legal defense.

Interview Highlights: John de Graaf

Did Ethan Couch have affluenza?

“I think most Americans have it to one degree or another. You can’t help it, living in a society that tells you that the American Dream is to get as wealthy as you can, to make as much as you can, and really to blind yourself to consequences. Really for 30 years in this society, we’ve allowed ourselves to do things which have consistently benefited the top 1 percent or 2 percent while punishing others. We’re cutting food stamps as a society, while we refuse to tax at any higher rate the millionaires in our society. So I think yes, Ethan Couch did have affluenza in that sense. I don’t think, though, it’s a defense for the behavior he committed.”

“You can’t imagine a poor kid getting off because they said, ‘I stole those Nikes because I had affluenza; I was influenced that I had to have all this stuff, and there was no consequences for it.’ I mean, we would lock him up.”

On a different measure of fulfillment

“Having more and more stuff doesn’t make us happier. What makes us happier is social connection, it’s giving to others, it’s altruism, it’s having a good environment, it’s having access to the outdoors. These are the kinds of things that we are, in fact, undercutting in our relentless pursuit of wealth. So we need to have that conversation as a country. And we need to say, ‘Hey, maybe we should stop making the whole goal of everything we do increasing economic growth and instead we should be thinking about something like gross national happiness.'”


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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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