Affluenza – the all-consuming epidemic

In 2013 Ethan Couch, a sixteen-year-old Texan was drunk driving – his blood-alcohol level was three times the legal limit for adult drivers – when he rammed a pickup truck into a crowd of people who were trying to help a stranded motorist on the side of a road near Fort Worth. He killed four people.

State District Judge Jean Boyd sentenced him to 10 years’ probation for driving under the influence, killing four pedestrians and injuring eleven.

However, his attorneys successfully argued that the teen suffered from affluenza and needed rehabilitation and not prison.

The lawyers had argued that Couch was unable to understand the consequences of his actions because of his financial privilege. Thus the ‘affluenza’ defense is now an actual thing – if you will forgive the lapse into Kardashianspeak.

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Affluenza, n. a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.

Affluenza, it would seem, crosses religious lines, age lines, race, income and education. The affluenza epidemic is rooted in an obsessive, almost religious quest for Things – the core principle, it would seem, of what is the American Dream.

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to our pretty hostess Rachel. Rachel was explaining liquid lipstick to me. It seems that Kylie Kardashian has a lip kit which is so coveted that it is sold out before it hits the shelves. Every couple of months a new colour will be released, sending the fashionistas and beauty bloggers into a frenzy.

Girls are paying hundreds of dollars for a $20 lip kit.

My diagnosis? A touch of affluenza.

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The American equivalent of the Gothic cathedral is the Mega Mall. Research claims that 46 acres of prime American farmland are lost to development every hour. When a Mega Mall opens, the pomp and ceremony rivals anything Notre Dame or Chartres might have witnessed in medieval times. People go there to SPAVE – shop and save at the same time.

Consider. Some 40 billion mail order catalogues flooded into American homes each year – that’s about 150 catalogues per person. Then there are the shopping channels on TV and of course internet shopping – mainlining for those addicted to shopping.

(Why Amazon ships before I even know what I want!)

Late night comedians like to say that in America being filthy rich is the greatest good. Worshipping wealth is what it’s all about. Money isn’t everything – it’s the only thing yadayada. Says HBO’s Bill Maher ‘People talk about the sick culture of poverty. What about the sick culture of wealth?”

I don’t know. What about it?

What Bill describes as ‘sick’ may or may not be true, but Bill wouldn’t be the one to talk about it, given his personal wealth.

Along with the affluenza epidemic we learn all sorts of New Words.

Conspicuous consumption is the spending of money on and the acquiring of luxury goods and services to publicly display economic power. The development of Veblen’s sociology of conspicuous consumption produced the term invidious consumption. The latter is the ostentatious consumption of goods with the intention of provoking envy.

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I’ve been rich and now I am poor. Let the record show – rich was better. There are few things worse than having Bollinger tastes and a beer income.

This column was commissioned by Verve magazine (New Zealand).