Ethan Couch has become the poster child for teenagers who, because of their privileged upbringing, have a distorted, bankrupt, unfeeling vision of the world—a kind of Bret Easton Ellis of the South.
This summer, the 16-year-old Couch stole two cases of beer from Walmart, drank himself silly, and lost control of his father’s Ford F-350 pickup, killing four people. His trial, which concluded Tuesday in Texas with a sentence of probation, left many people with their jaws on the floor. His defense hinged on the testimony of G. Dick Miller, a psychologist who claimed on the stand that Couch’s parents had provided him “freedoms no young person should have.” He then introduced a new term into the vernacular, “affluenza,” which suggests that moral deficits are the inevitable consequence of privilege. The suggestion was that Couch, a child of wealth, could not be held accountable for his actions. The judge ultimately sentenced him to 10 years of probation, and “affluenza” has dominated the conversation ever since. But there’s another part of this story.
Texas, in many ways, is its own country, and drunk driving there is a systemic problem; perhaps, it’s the inevitable consequence of a state that tends to see legislation as an intrusion, except when it comes to abortion. Over the last couple of years, Texas was America’s runaway leader in drunk-driving deaths. In 2011, for example, 1,216 died—comprising 40 percent of the state’s total fatalities. That was almost twice as many as the state with the second-most drunk-driving deaths, California. Outside Texas, the national average for such fatalities hovers around 180. That can hardly be blamed on “affluenza.”