America’s Love-Hate Relationship with the Wealthy

Not so long ago, Canadian anti-consumerist group Adbusters kicked off a protest movement known as Occupy Wall Street. You may remember the protests by images of disgruntled protestors camped out in tent cities in New York’s financial district. The movement’s organizers hoped to create “a presidential commission to separate money from politics.” “We are the 99%” became something of a rallying cry for the protestors, referring to the concentration of earnings among the top 1% wealthiest tax-paying Americans. According to Jeff Cox of CNBC, the 1% have become “the most vilified members of American society.”

While the super rich often draw our ire, they attract equally as much fascination. As evidenced by numerous television reality shows, including the recent and particularly controversial #RichKids of Beverly Hills, Americans still have an interest for learning how the other half lives, or, in this case, the other 1%.

The case of Ethan Couch has ignited a renewed debate regarding the supposed disparity between the treatment of socioeconomic classes in our society, and more specifically, the American justice system. On June 15, 2013, then 16-year-old Couch killed four pedestrians and seriously injured two passengers while driving drunk near Fort Worth, Texas. During the trial, the defense argued that Couch was a victim of affluenza, the anti-consumerist notion that a child raised in affluence will grow up with no sense of consequence, leading him to act recklessly and without repercussions in mind. This argument proved to be successful, and Couch was sentenced to ten years of probation and ordered to go to rehab.

The verdict led many people to question whether the family’s affluence played a part in the light sentence. Dr. Suniya Luthar, a psychologist who specializes in the costs of affluence in suburban communities, questioned whether “an African-American, inner-city kid that grew up in a violent neighborhood to a single mother who is addicted to crack and…was caught two or three times” would have received as light a sentence as Couch.

Others saw the outrage at the sentence as a knee-jerk reaction to the American publics inflamed views on the wealthy. Criminal defense lawyers said that it was not uncommon to see a juvenile involved in a serious drunk-driving incident to receive probation instead of prison time. Others saw the decision as a part of a growing movement toward rehabilitation over punishment in the youth justice system. Whatever the case may be, the case of Ethan Couch highlights the American public’s simultaneous fascination with and indignation toward the lives of the rich and famous.