December 12, 2013
This guy definitely has it. (Jonathan Ernst, Washington Post)
This guy definitely has it. (Jonathan Ernst/Washington Post)

Until this week, I had never heard of affluenza.

But now it’s been used by the attorney for a wealthy 16-year-old as a defense against what could have been a 20-year sentence for killing four people in a drunken driving accident. Yes, really. As Max Ehrenfreund writes:

Prosecutors had asked that the boy be sentenced to 20 years in prison, but Gary Miller, the psychologist who testified in his behalf, recommended counseling. Miller said that the boy had an unhealthy relationship with his wealthy parents, who used him as a tool and a hostage to extract concessions from each other.

Meanwhile, they neglected to teach Miller that dangerous behavior could have serious consequences, according to the psychologist.

“He never learned that sometimes you don’t get your way,” Miller said. “He had the cars and he had the money. He had freedoms that no young man would be able to handle.”

He used the term “affluenza,” which describes the ennui and depravity of certain very rich people, and which was popularized by psychologist Oliver James in a 2007 book by the same title. … The judge in the case, Jean Boyd, rejected the suggestion that the boy’s parents were ultimately responsible for his actions, and told him at his sentencing that he was at fault, according to WFAA.

Yet Boyd agreed that the defendant needs therapy and said that she feared he would not receive it from Texas’s juvenile system.

All this about affluenza leaves me with one question: How do you catch it?

It sounds like the best disease ever. Symptoms include: having money, having lots of money, having so much money you are actively unhappy about it, having lots of things, having lots of things and money, having so much money that none of your actions have consequences.

Sign me up!

With a name like affluenza, it sounds relatively contagious. I think I remember reading about the Spanish affluenza epidemic that followed World War I? Suddenly everyone was confined to bed with more money than they knew what to do with, and it was only cured by the sharp stock market shock of October 1929.

But clearly the virus is still out there. How to catch it? I pondered this for some time.

The trick, I reasoned, would be to find a place where wealthy people congregate and try to expose myself.

So I stood on a country club lawn for several hours, hoping someone would sneeze. Nothing. I got hit in the head with a golf ball, though, and someone shouted something disparaging that I couldn’t quite make out that sounded like “99 percenter something something this wouldn’t happen in Romney’s America!” And then a butler came by and removed me, and I am right back where I started.

“Perhaps, however,” writers John de Graaf, David Wann and Thomas H. Naylor say in their bestseller “Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic,” “affluenza is more like a sexually transmitted disease.”

Ah. Clearly I had been going about this wrong. I’m going to slip into something more comfortable and trek back out to that golf course. “Hey,” I will murmur, gazing at my bow-tie-clad interlocutor and fingering the rim of my cocktail glass, “do you have affluenza? Because if so, I’d like to catch it!” That’s sexy, right?

Soon I look forward to calling into work “affluent.” “Sorry,” I will say, rattling a sack of gold coins into the receiver, “can’t come in to work today. My affluenza is acting up again. I have to stay in the house buying expensive shoes but feeling really, really unhappy about it. Later I’ll go out and throw coins to the unafflicted. I’m sorry, did I say ‘to’? I meant ‘at.’ ”

“What?” my beleaguered employer will respond.

Instead of saying anything, I will rustle several bills of different denominations and a giant blank check into the phone. “Did you not understand that, non-affluent person?” I will yell. “Money is speech, remember? I am fluent in money — one might even say, AFFluent!” My money and I will titter over this joke, then hang up. Later I will melt a whole pile of Rolexes and pour them into an anthill, just to see what happens. With affluenza, you need fear no consequences. “I can’t possibly be guilty of a crime, officer,” you point out, if anything comes up. “I have far too much money.” This is sound logic. You dangle a few dollar bills out the window, and suddenly it turns out you weren’t speeding at all. Most things, money can buy. And for everything else, there’s more money.

This might be a laughing matter if it hadn’t actually happened. But it has. After the Texas case, several psychologists told the AP that this was clearly not a real diagnosis to be used in court.

“The simple term,” said one, “would be spoiled brat.”

Nonsense. There’s a clear difference between a “spoiled brat” and “a poor affluenza-afflicted youth who cannot be made to suffer the consequences of his actions.” About three or four figures, I’d say.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.