The word "affluenza," which I'd never heard for the first sixty years of my life, is apparently nearly as old as I am, which is fairly darned old for a nonce word. It's been part of a couple of book titles over the years, but this incident is what elevated it to hashtag level:

In December 2013, State District Judge Jean Boyd sentenced a North Texas teenager, Ethan Couch, to 10 years' probation for driving under the influence and killing four pedestrians and injuring 11 after 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. The defendant had been witnessed on surveillance video stealing beer from a store, driving with seven passengers in a Ford F-350 stolen from his father, and speeding (70 miles per hour (110 km/h) in a 40 miles per hour (64 km/h) zone). Couch was also driving while under the influence of alcohol (with a blood alcohol content of 0.24%, three times the legal limit for an adult in Texas) and the tranquilizer Valium. At a February 5, 2014, hearing, Eric Boyles — whose wife and daughter were killed in the crash — said, "Had he not had money to have the defense there, to also have the experts testify, and also offer to pay for the treatment, I think the results would have been different."

This seems at least slightly consistent with F. Scott Fitzgerald's observation in his novella The Rich Boy:

Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves.

Still, it doesn't explain one fundamental question at the heart of it all: do rich folks gradually become asshats, or are asshats more driven than others to become rich? Or does the truth lie somewhere in between? I'm not the only person to question the asshat-making potential of large sums of money, and I've often heard people volunteer to accept such sums, purely in the interest of experimental science, of course. I know I would happily submit myself as a test subject. As close as I'm going to come, I suspect — I did not buy tickets for the current Powerball, which has a jackpot just this side of $1 billion — would be my exit from a debt-repayment plan last year, which had the effect of a near-50 percent pay raise. So far, I find myself slightly more generous, charity-wise, and slightly less insomniac, though I attribute the latter phenomenon more to reading stuff in the daytime on the tablet instead of at night in bed.

And it occurs to me: if this particular pathology exists, does its polar opposite also exist? Are there individuals who will excuse their own sociopathic tendencies on the basis of poverty? There was one in West Side Story — "Hey, I'm depraved on account I'm deprived!" — but what about real life? Mark Steyn can tell you about that:

This week I was on the BBC's current-affairs flagship Newsnight. My moment in the spotlight followed a report on the recent [2011] riots in English cities, in the course of which an undercover reporter interviewed various rioters from Manchester who'd had a grand old time setting their city ablaze and then expressed no remorse over it. There then followed a studio discussion, along the usual lines. The host introduced a security guard who'd fought for Queen and country in Afghanistan and Bosnia and asked whether he sympathized with his neighbors. He did. When you live in an "impoverished society," he said, "people do what they have to do to survive."

I'll take that as a Yes.

The subject came up last week, when I said to my luncheon companion of the day: "What's the opposite of 'affluenza'?"

She snapped it right off: "Poorlio."

A spit-take and 600 words later, here we are.

The Vent

  9 January 2016

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 Copyright © 2016 by Charles G. Hill