Op-ed: Cure to 'Affluenza' is bitter pill to swallow

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  • Jason Johnson is an HLN contributor, professor and author
  • He says the recent incidents in the news show that none of us is immune
Op-ed: Cure to 'Affluenza' is bitter pill to swallow
Jason Johnson

Editor’s note: Jason Johnson is an HLN contributor and professor of political science at Hiram College in Ohio. He is the author of “Political Consultants and Campaigns: One Day to Sell.” He is on Twitter.

As a kid, the first time you heard someone say, “Life isn’t fair,” was probably right after something really unfair just happened. Everyone acknowledges that it’s not fair, but no one want to do anything about it, almost like it’s a disease that nobody wants to acknowledge or admit to having. Unfortunately that’s what many Americans are doing in the wake of three huge “Affluenza” cases that have been in the news the last several months. Want to know how bad the “Affluenza” epidemic is? Consider these cases:

--December 2013, Texas: Ethan Couch, the son of wealthy parents whose drunken driving killed four people, was sentenced to 10 years of counseling, but no jail time.

--March 2014, Delaware: DuPont empire heir Robert H. Richards IV, found guilty of raping his 3-year-old daughter, gets probation, but no jail time.

--March 2014, Arizona: Homeless single mother Shanesha Taylor is arrested and facing felony child abuse for leaving her two children in the car for a 45-minute job interview.

Yes, all of these are "Affluenza" cases, and we can cure them -- if we’re willing to take some tough medicine.

Affluenza is a term that came back into vogue during the sentencing of Couch last year. The 16-year-old stole a truck from his dad’s company, got drunk off some beer he stole from Walmart, took some Valium, then crashed into parked cars on the side of the road, killing a youth minister and two good Samaritans who were trying to help a stranded driver.

Couch’s defense attorneys argued that he suffered from Affluenza, that is, his parents had given him so much wealth and privilege that he never learned that there were consequences for his actions. To make sure this lesson stuck, the judge ordered Couch to have 10 years of therapy at a private facility, rather than the 20 years in prison the prosecution asked for. The press and public were outraged, and suddenly we were checking the nation’s pulse to see if there was an Affluenza outbreak. The problem is, we’ve had the disease for years -- it’s just that now the symptoms are easier to see.

“Affluenza” was the name of a PBS special produced in 1997, which was really ground zero for the American infection. In the robust economic times of the late 1990s -- E-trading, Internet jobs and a government surplus that seemingly would last forever – Affluenza, as Time magazine reported, was defined as “a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.” It was a fancy-pants way of saying “Keeping up the Joneses,” but over the next decades, as we saw the Enron scandal, Bernie Madoff, the housing crash, and the bank bailout, Aflluenza metastasized into a more virulent strain.

You see, we’re all affected by Affluenza, it’s just that some people have it full blown and others just carry the virus. The virus makes us blind to evidence, according to research, that the poor receive longer jail sentences for the same crimes that middle class and rich people commit. The full-blown Affluenza sufferer believes that their money and wealth protects them from reality or consequence. 

Think of bankers complaining about lost bonuses while taking bailouts, NFL owners poor-mouthing while charging up to $300 for game tickets -- and who could forget Mitt Romney, who was so sick with Affluenza that he made $10,000 bets with other Republicans during debates, as CNN reported, and said that 47% of the country was lazy, when he was born a millionaire.

Americans should have been outraged by how this disease was taking over our politics and popular culture. But most people won’t call out carriers of Affluenza because secretly, we hope we’ll have Affluenza as well, even though this new more virulent strain is likely hereditary.

All of which brings us to the two major Affluenza cases in the news this week: Robert H. Richards IV, heir to the Du Pont family empire and father of two, and Shaneesha Taylor, a homeless 38-year-old woman with a 2-year-old and a 6-month-old.

Richards, whose unusual sentence was brought to light this week as court documents were unearthed, was found guilty in 2009 of sexually abusing his daughter. The judge gave him eight years of probation because, she said, Richards “wouldn’t fare well in prison.”

In Arizona, Taylor, a homeless mom, left two of her children in a vehicle for 45 minutes in late March to go to a job interview. She was arrested and jailed for child endangerment. I guess the judge figured a homeless single mother trying to get work would “fare better” in prison than a billionaire child predator. This is Affluenza, full blown.

Curing Affluenza requires that Americans don’t just focus our collective gaze on the occasional heinous illegal acts of the rich but also acknowledge the horrible day-to-day legal abuses suffered by the poor. It means we stop electing judges and congressmen who scream for mandatory sentences while ignoring data on racial, gender and financial inequalities in sentencing and arrests.

Of course, most Americans aren’t ready for that kind of radical treatment. It is much easier to ignore Taylor -- and feign anger at Couch and Richards -- all the while privately hoping one day we come down with the same disease.  

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