Poor Little Ethan Couch:
The Junk Psychology Of Affluenza
by Michael Maynard
January 16, 2014

The judge’s ruling in the Ethan Couch vehicular homicide/driving while intoxicated case is emblematic of how the wealthy are treated differently by the law in this country.

Anatole France, winner of the 1921 Nobel Prize in literature once stated, “The law in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread.”

A recent case in Texas is indicative of this feeling that there are two Americas operating under two different sets of rules and laws. Ethan Couch, a 16-year-old from a wealthy family in Fort Worth, Texas, killed 4 and critically injured 11, while driving while intoxicated by alcohol and Valium. It was not young Couch’s first DWI incident.

“One of them, Sergio Molina, remains paralyzed and brain damaged after several months in a coma, and can only communicate by blinking his eye.” the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported.

“Authorities said Couch was going 70 mph on the rural 40 mph stretch, and a breath test showed his blood-alcohol-content was .24 — triple the legal driving limit for someone over 21.”

During the trial, an “expert witness” in Couch’s defense blamed the boy’s parents for their teenager’s behavior and said that Couch suffered from “affluenza.”

“Prior to sentencing, a psychologist called by the defense, Dr. G. Dick Miller, testified that Couch’s life could be salvaged with one to two years’ treatment and no contact with his parents.

Miller said Couch’s parents gave him “freedoms no young person should have.” He called Couch a product of “affluenza,” where his family felt that wealth bought privilege and there was no rational link between behavior and consequences.

He said Couch got whatever he wanted. As an example, Miller said Couch’s parents gave no punishment after police ticketed the then-15-year-old when he was found in a parked pickup with a passed out, undressed, 14-year-old girl.

Miller also pointed out that Couch was allowed to drive at age 13. He said the teen was emotionally flat and needed years of therapy.”

Miller then made the additional mistake of appearing on “Anderson Cooper 360” defending his testimony.

The public outcry about this case is centered upon the decision by State District Judge Jen Boyd to sentence young Couch to a luxe “rehabilitation clinic.” His stay at this rehab clinic will be paid for by his parents. The judge also put him on 10 years’ probation. Texas law clearly states what the appropriate punishment should be.

Sections 49.01, 49.02, 49.04 and 49.08 of the Texas Penal Code:

(1)  “Alcohol concentration” means the number of grams of alcohol per:

(A)  210 liters of breath;

(B)  100 milliliters of blood;  or

(C)  67 milliliters of urine.

(2)  “Intoxicated” means:

(A)  not having the normal use of mental or physical faculties by reason of the introduction of alcohol, a controlled substance, a drug, a dangerous drug, a combination of two or more of those substances, or any other substance into the body;  or

(B)  having an alcohol concentration of 0.08 or more.

(3)  “Motor vehicle” has the meaning assigned by Section 32.34(a).

(d)  An offense under this section is not a lesser included offense under Section 49.04.

(e)  An offense under this section committed by a person younger than 21 years of age is punishable in the same manner as if the minor committed an offense to which Section 106.071, Alcoholic Beverage Code, applies.


(a)  A person commits an offense if the person:

(1)  operates a motor vehicle in a public place, operates an aircraft, a watercraft, or an amusement ride, or assembles a mobile amusement ride;  and

(2)  is intoxicated and by reason of that intoxication causes the death of another by accident or mistake.

(b)  Except as provided by Section 49.09, an offense under this section is a felony of the second degree. 

Section 12 of Texas Penal law states that the penalty for second degree felony is:

Sec. 12.33.  SECOND DEGREE FELONY PUNISHMENT.  (a)  An individual adjudged guilty of a felony of the second degree shall be punished by imprisonment in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for any term of not more than 20 years or less than 2 years.

(b)  In addition to imprisonment, an individual adjudged guilty of a felony of the second degree may be punished by a fine not to exceed $10,000.

There is no recognized psychological condition as “affluenza”. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, published in 2013, does not list affluenza as a valid psychological condition. The term was first coined in 1997 by therapist Jessie H. O’Neill in her book “The Golden Ghetto: The Psychology of Affluence”. Ms. O’Neill is not a doctor, but is the champion of “affluenza” claiming to have experienced it herself. Her definition of affluenza is:

“Simply put, affluenza is a harmful or unbalanced relationship with money or its pursuit. Clinically, Jessie defines affluenza in the individual as the collective addictions, character flaws, psychological wounds, neurosis and behavioral disorders caused or exacerbated by the presence of or desire for wealth.”

Investopedia.com, a popular website for investors, defines affluenza as:

“A social condition arising from the desire to be more wealthy, successful or to “keep up with the Joneses.” Affluenza is symptomatic of a culture that holds up financial success as one of the highest achievements. People said to be affected by affluenza typically find that the very economic success they have been so vigorously chasing ends up leaving them feeling unfulfilled, and wishing for yet more wealth.

Affluenza is arguably present in the United States, where the culture is one that prides itself on possessions and financial success. Mainstream media outlets, such as television broadcasts, tend to show how pervasive the idea has become.

While affluenza cannot be quantified easily, those wishing to avoid the condition should look to be the master of, not a slave to, the things they have or wish to obtain.”

But does affluenza really exist? I think the above definitions give the wrong impression. They focus on the psychology, but not the actions caused by it. Affluenza is a state of mind, but it is the state of mind that the rules that apply to everyone else don’t apply to you because you’re rich. It exists when you use it to escape jail time. It exists when you use it to buy your way out of a very costly legal battle.

“After Michael Eisenga, a wealthy GOP donor and Wisconsin business owner, failed to convince several courts to lower his child support payments, he came up with an inventive plan B – he recruited a Republican state legislator to rewrite Wisconsin law in his favor.

A set of documents unearthed Saturday by the Wisconsin State Journal shows Eisenga and his lawyer, William Smiley, supplying detailed instructions to Republican state Rep. Joel Kleefisch on how to word legislation capping child support payments from the wealthy. Kleefisch began work on the legislation last fall, weeks after an appeals court rejected Eisenga’s attempts to lower his child support payments.

According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Eisenga’s current child support payments for the three children he has with his ex-wife are set at $216,000 a year. (Per the couple’s prenuptial agreement, the divorce settlement left his $30 million in assets untouched.)

Current law instructs judges to calculate child support as a percentage of income, with no cap and the option to include assets. Under Kleefisch’s bill, which is making its way through the Wisconsin statehouse, payments would top out at $150,000 annually, and judges would be prohibited from taking assets into account when determining child support. The bill also includes language that would allow Eisenga to restart court proceedings over his child support payments, as it requires courts to slash such payments if they are 10 percent higher than they would be under the new cap.

In 2010, Eisenga donated $10,000 to Kleefisch and his wife, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, according to the Journal Sentinel. Eisenga also donated $15,000 to Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

The drafting documents, available on the Wisconsin legislature’s website, leave no doubt that the bill was written to Eisenga’s specifications. According to the documents, on September 5, Eisenga’s lawyer briefed him on changes he was suggesting to a draft of Kleefisch’s bill. “We focused only on the portion that would require the court to modify your child support order based solely on the passage of the bill,” Smiley wrote. Eisenga then forwarded that letter to Kleefisch and one of his aides, saying, “Please have the drafter make these SPECIFIC changes to the bill.” The next day, Kleefisch’s aide forwarded the letter to the legislative lawyer drafting the bill.

(Note: this legislation has now been withdrawn after it received extensive news coverage.)

The primary symptom of the affluenza epidemic is that there are two sets of laws: one for the rich and one for everyone else. What the Investopedia definition means is that affluenza is just another name for the concentration of wealth that is robbing the country of its democratic principles founded on the rule of law. If you are allowed to kill people with your car while drunk, then why not be able kill people with your car while rich? You are just under the influence of a different opiate, aren’t you?

As Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz writes in his New York Times opinionator blog, “The Great Divide”:

“Trust is what makes contracts, plans and everyday transactions possible; it facilitates the democratic process, from voting to law creation, and is necessary for social stability. It is essential for our lives. It is trust, more than money, that makes the world go round.

We do not measure trust in our national income accounts, but investments in trust are no less important than those in human capital or machines.

Unfortunately, however, trust is becoming yet another casualty of our country’s staggering inequality: As the gap between Americans widens, the bonds that hold society together weaken. So, too, as more and more people lose faith in a system that seems inexorably stacked against them, and the 1 percent ascends to ever more distant heights, this vital element of our institutions and our way of life is eroding.” (From “In No One We Trust”)

I wish that Anatole France’s maxim was correct – that the law is majestic in its equality. When it is applied equally, then there is trust in the basic governmental structures. If this trust in the law cannot be maintained, as Stiglitz states, there is no social stability, which can lead to anarchy.

Can that trust be maintained when there is a growing disparity between the rich and the middle class and poor? Can the trust be maintained when laws are passed that benefit only the wealthy? Can the trust in society be maintained when there is no transparency in how those laws are created and who is paying the lawmakers to create them? Can the trust be maintained when poor get the food stamps cut, when the unemployed get their support cut off, and when both are told they are lazy leeches who only want to suck money from the rich?

No, it can’t. There is a growing ugly mood that affluenza causes “the system is rigged.” That what goes on in Washington, D.C., is completely disconnected from the rest of the country. That the U.S. Senate, House of Representatives, Supreme Court and Executive Branch act secretly in the interest of the rich, while publicly stating that they are working to maintain democracy. As the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said:

“We can either have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”

There is an epidemic of affluenza going around. It is treatable. You just need the trust to take the right cure.

Columnist/Journalist/Writer/Book Editor Co-Founder/CEO of Azimuth Partners, high tech consulting firm for 30+ years. Former columnist for the Washington Post/Newsweek syndicate.

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