Americans desperately need to find a cure for “affluenza” in 2014. While there are many other afflictions that also, of course, need remedies, affluenza is spreading at an alarming rate and threatens to destroy our society.
The psychological definition of affluenza is “a dysfunctional relationship with money/wealth, or the pursuit of it” that has serious social, even global effects, “resulting in a polarization of classes and loss of economic and emotional balance.”
The problem is, this kind of definition is a symptom of the disease itself and will not lead to a cure. Affluenza is not about the interior psychological lives of the wealthy. It is an economic and social pattern of systematically creating extremes of wealth and lack of economic opportunity.
It is crucial to accurately define the cause of the affluenza syndrome, of course, otherwise you can’t find a cure.
Recently, affluenza was famously used as part of a successful defense in the case of a North Texas teen from a wealthy family. Despite killing four pedestrians when he lost control of his speeding pickup truck while driving drunk, the teen received probation rather than jail time. A psychologist for the defense said the boy suffered from affluenza due to his uncaring father and permissive mother. Hence, he did not know the possible consequences of his actions.
Psychologists have critiqued this perspective as having little or no clinical basis.
I am not a psychologist; I am a pastor and theologian, and while I agree that the lack of a clinical basis is a crucial critique, I think the idea of affluenza actually names a growing moral problem that needs examination.
Biblical and theological themes can help us find a more accurate diagnosis. Jesus, for example, did not travel around ancient Israel asking people how they felt about the economic inequality created by the Roman occupation. He said: “Feed people, house people, heal people and change the social conditions that are keeping them poor [oppressing them].” (Luke 4: 14-21)
In other words, an accurate diagnosis is the pattern of social and economic oppression, not a “dysfunctional relationship with wealth.”
The policies that create gross inequality of wealth and poverty are the cause of affluenza, and, as in the time of Jesus and the vicious Roman military occupation, it is an economic pattern often produced by social upheavals of terrorism, war and, today, the increasingly disruptive effects of violent climate change.
This is well described by Naomi Klein as “disaster capitalism” in her book “The Shock Doctrine.” As Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz summarizes the book, “Countries are shocked — by wars, terror attacks, coups d’etat and natural disasters.”
Then “they are shocked again — by corporations and politicians who exploit the fear and disorientation of this first shock to push through economic shock therapy.”
This is both what the United States has exported around the world, especially since 9/11, and what has produced our current U.S. economic disparities.
In other words, the U.S., and parts of the world, are in shock. What’s the treatment?
“The best cure for affluenza is to take the money away,” was a top comment in an article critiquing the Texas teenager’s defense.
Now that’s getting to a cure. Jason Sattler, in the National Memo, suggests “Five Easy and Effective Ways to Rebuild the Middle Class.” All five involve putting our money into our rhetoric of equality and opportunity, like “a living wage,” “universal pre-K,” “expand Medicaid,” “student loan forgiveness,” and find “new ways to tax millionaires.”
Ironically enough, this kind of economic cure for affluenza will actually improve the health of both the poor and the wealthy, research at the University of London has shown.
“Inequality between the rich and the poor causes stress and harms the health of both,” the study found. The “poor are angry about what they don’t have, while the rich are frightened of losing their wealth,” whereas, “a more egalitarian society leads to longer life for everyone.”
Good heavens. We really are our “brother’s (and sister’s) keeper.” (Gen. 4:9)
This is great news. If we change our social and economic policies to be more fair, we can cure affluenza in 2014.
The Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, professor of theology and former president of Chicago Theological Seminary, is the author of numerous books.