The Affluenza Defense

Ethan Couch

Ethan Couch, a Houston 16-year-old, was given probation after having killed four people and grievously injured another in a drunken driving crash. (NYT account here.) At trial, a psychologist offered what’s subsequently been called the “affluenza defense,” suggesting that Couch should not be held fully accountable, since his upbringing in an extremely affluent family had made it difficult for him to develop the normal sense of responsibility for his actions.  The judge in the case rejected the prosecution’s call for a 20-year sentence in favor of probation and a stint at an expensive California rehab facility. Although teenagers responsible for vehicular deaths often escape prison terms, the decision provoked widespread outrage about how the legal system unjustly favors the wealthy.

The outrage provoked by the judges’s decision was totally justified, but the psychologist’s testimony about the effects of growing up in affluent circumstances was also essentially correct. That last fact should not have played any significant role in the sentencing process, but it’s highly relevant for broader questions of social and economic policy.

An emerging body of psychological research shows that people in relatively advantaged positions do indeed feel entitled to behave in many ways that would be considered off limits for ordinary people.  If you have a few minutes, watch this clip of Paul Solman’s interviews with some of the psychologists who’ve done this troubling work. There’s a reasonably solid foundation, then, for believing that someone who grew up in Ethan Couch’s circumstances would tend to have a diminished sense of responsibility for his actions.

But it would be a mistake, I believe, for the justice system to treat him differently for that reason. The longstanding debate on free-will offers hints about how we might think about this issue.  Children at birth differ enormously in ways that affect their adult behavior, often dramatically. Those who exhibit diminished capacity for self-control as small children, for example, are substantially more likely than others to commit crimes as adults. So in some meaningful sense, people born with such deficiencies are less responsible for their crimes.  The same reasoning would logically apply to psychological tendencies shaped by environmental factors.  People who were poorly brought up and misbehave as adults really are less culpable than people who were raised well yet misbehave in similar ways.

But except in extreme cases, society has wisely decided that our justice system should largely ignore such differences.  The logic is that without a reasonable prospect of being punished for crimes, many more people would commit them. Even though some people are clearly more tempted than others by criminal opportunities, diminished moral inhibition is accepted as a mitigating factor only in the case of extremely mentally ill or handicapped individuals.

It’s an imperfect solution, to be sure.  But the alternative would be social chaos.  Ethan Couch’s upbringing may well have made him less able to embrace the idea that bad conduct could produce bad consequences.  But few of us would want to live in a society in which that fact exempted him from responsibility for harming others, because a society like that would have so much more crime and disorder. Warren Buffett and countless other rich people have demonstrated that it is possible to raise morally responsible children even in families with almost limitless wealth.  Society has no interest in sending a message that wealthy parents no longer need take that obligation seriously.

But rejecting the notion that affluenza exempts people from their responsibility to obey the law does not require us to reject evidence that extreme income inequality often promotes socially harmful behavior. That’s not a reason for lenient sentences, but it’s yet another reason to favor policies that would slow the current rapid growth in income inequality.

Food stamps

This is vile, it stinks to heaven.  I used to be pretty good at teaching public policy in a non-partisan manner (we have some of my former students reading this blog and if I’m wrong, don’t hold back) but the last decade or so has really cramped my style, hooboy.  The insouciant cruelty of fat and happy Republicans simpering about making hungry children dependent (are there no poorhouses?  do the mills not offer employment to a deft eight-year old?) after they engineered the budget deficits they have now decided to rail about, and carried water for the “job-creators” who feathered their nests giving us the recession that’s put so many people on the street and on food stamps, is simply Dickensian.  Eric Cantor is a horrible person, whipping a gang of racists and ignorant, fearful, haters into increasingly unspeakable behavior with fake moralizing and outright lies.

And the horse’s asses he rode in on.

Medicaid expansion, too.  Mississippi, our own Haiti, land of poverty, despair, and early death, turns down free federal money in order that its poorest don’t get medical care?  It can’t even be selfishness among the plutocrats: how is it good for business that its workforce is sicker?  It’s simply cruelty, far beyond the possible bounds of policy debate or the scope of ideology, an abomination no religion can countenance. What did these people’s parents raise them to be? What were they told in Sunday School?

I give up, I’m not up to this.  But luckily, there is Käthe Kollwitz.

kollwitz 1 kollwitz 2 kollwitz 3

and George Grosz.Untitled 4Swim if you can, and if you are too fat, go under (Schwimme, wer schwimmen kann, und wer zu plump ist, geh unter!)

May your dreams be haunted with sick, starving children, you swine.




Charitable giving, radical utilitarianism and democracy

Over on The Nonprofiteer, I grapple with the justification for philanthropy which fails (as mine does) to increase Disability-Adjusted Life Years in the developing world. Not entirely satisfied with my arguments and would welcome any and all assistance.

…from the folks who gave us W

Two long articles in the NYT about the Harvard Business School’s attempt to be less of a misogynistic hell for women , and the curdled elitism that seems to have enveloped the place recently , seriously tickled not only my social justice gland but also my barf reflex.  If the reporting is anything close to fair, it presents a culture so deeply sick, self-absorbed, and malign that the place’s non-profit status needs to be reviewed.  Do we really want federal tax dollars channelled to actively destroying social capital?
What a uniformly awful bunch of people these students are, and proudly see each other as!  What does the admissions committee think it’s doing, admitting the, idle, wastrel scions of the richest people in the most unequal societies of the world so they can pile up even bigger fortunes - is HBS now teaching that the purpose of enterprise is to make Gini coefficients bigger?  Are they trying to beat the alumni fail record set by George W. Bush - is there an even worse president partying there as we speak, slouching towards someone’s plutocrat yacht party to be unleashed on us?
Part of the problem, I think, is that their business model is a dysfunctional (for everyone but them) treadmill.  As all schools try to do, they convince their students to believe, as alums, that  their positional $ucce$$, the fundamental indicator of m€rit, is due to HBS, and the alums both accumulate a lot of wealth (distinctively compared to other professional schools, even law schools) and like to give some back.  At the same time, their production process is very cheap (no wet labs! big classes!) despite the expensive profs, and a very large fraction of students (those spoiled rich scions) don’t care how much tuition they pay. As a result  they accumulate money they simply have no idea what to do with, leading to truly wretched excesses: faculty offices that are suites with real wood paneling, a faculty dining room with a buffet an upscale restaurant would be proud to lay out, subsidized to McDonald prices, and a private gymnasium, for Pete’s sake. I suppose the latter provides those specialized exercises appropriate to the very rich (cranking yacht winches, maybe, or riding a mechanical dressage horse - who knows?), suitably obsequious trainers and towel-bearers, and secure isolation from the kind of coarse hoi polloi you have to encounter in all the rest of Harvard’s athletic facilities.
The HBS endowment is about $2 billion: how much would be enough so they can start using it for something besides transferring everyone’s wealth into a financial sector populated with unspeakably selfish, shallow, jerks?

Jim Messina should resign from OFA

In mentioning a possible policy-based defense for Jim Messina’s consulting for the Tories, I forgot that he headed Organizing for Action. He should no longer be allowed to do so.

I would like to revise and extend my post from yesterday on Jim Messina.

In that post I argued that Messina’s working for the Obama campaign and then Britain’s Tories was understandable if one were looking simply at the policy space, but unforgivable if one sees partisan struggle as a fight between the wealthy and powerful and everyone else, or the Democratic Party as a vehicle for espousing moderation now and greater egalitarianism in the future. I still believe that.

But, ridiculous as it may sound and as a self-styled political junkie I take full blame I forgot one thing: Messina is not only the past manager of Obama’s campaign but the current chair of Organizing for Action. (Many of the other posts on Messina also omitted this, possibly because an outfit as ineffectual and unrelated to real organizing as OFA is easy to forget, but Hunter Walker’s piece reminded me.) This, in my view, cannot continue.

It’s fine, in fact laudable, for a policy expert in government to be “nonpartisan” meaning not free of ideology, which nobody is, but determined to work for the public interest rather than the narrow interest of one party vis-a-vis another. It’s fine, though rarer and not mandatory, for a policy expert outside of government to be the same way. It’s thirdly fine for a political commentator or blogger who never claimed to be easily classified in Left-Right terms -Keith, or Andrew Sullivan- to support Obama in the U.S. but Cameron in Britain. Finally, while I haven’t thought this through, it seems to me defensible for the manager of a center-left campaign in one country to advise a center-right party in another country if that’s where his or her policy commitments lead. This seems to me very different from the Dick Morris case of someone who indifferently advises the two opposing parties in the same country.

But someone who purports to be the leader of a party’s grassroots had better understand, and be prepared to practice, the thing that Max Weber said the leaders and followers of mass political parties “always and necessarily” must do: a fight. And the mass membership of a modern party will never fight for the sake of a specified level of public debt, but only for the less compromising reasons: loyalty to a side, and/or devotion to a larger and longer cause whose importance Messina demonstrably does not begin to grasp.

Messina can, barely, remain a political consultant to both our Democrats and Britain’s Conservatives. But grassroots Democrats will not, and should not, follow a supporter of the Tories into political battle. If Messina thinks we should, that’s all the more evidence that he’s unfit for his current job.

To campaign is to choose. Having taken the Tories’ shilling, Messina should resign from OFA. He will not lack for other work.

Partisan attachment and the Messina Question

One’s judgment about Messina depends on one’s reasons for being a partisan.

Keith’s post, and others’, on Jim Messina’s decision to work for the Tories, have led me to think about the different reasons for being attached to a political party. Those who differ in their reasons for being partisans in the first place will assess concrete questions of loyalty and disloyalty in very different ways.

Leaving aside mere habit and a tendency to passively adopt the affiliations of those like oneself (no doubt the most common reasons for partisanship but no fun to argue about), I see three possible reasons for attaching oneself for a party and working for its success: (1) belief in that party’s specific policy positions; (2) primal loyalty to a group or a “side”; or (3) pragmatic acquiescence in a party whose positions are more moderate than one’s own, in the hope of moving politics in a more uncompromising direction over time.
If (1) you are a Democrat because of specific policies, Messina’s decision is not that hard to justify. Continue reading “Partisan attachment and the Messina Question”

Hume on perfidy

David Hume on Wat Tyler’s rebellion.

Inspired by Andy’s book, I’ve been re-reading Hume’s history, and I’ve just read the section on Wat Tyler’s rebellion, in which the teenaged Richard II defused a very dangerous (for the ruling class) situation by promising the rebels to support their demands - already granted by royal charter - and then, after they had dispersed, stood aside as the nobility crushed them and revoked the promises he had made.

Hume acknowledges that the rebels’ demands - including the abolition of personal slavery - were “extremely reasonable in themselves” but says they were “such as the nation was not sufficiently prepared to receive” (“the nation” presumably meaning the landowners) and that it was “dangerous” for such demands “to be extorted by violence.”

Hume then goes on to report on the deal and the double-cross, concluding with a sad reflection that Richard, having shown such “courage, presence of mind, and address” in his youth, proved an unsuccessful king.

What strikes me about the passage is that Hume does not at all consider the long-term costs of such perfidy: the sort of question he never neglects in considering interactions among the nobility and gentry. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that Richard might have even considered keeping his pledged word, since he hadn’t pledged it to gentlemen.

[Full text after the jump.]
Continue reading “Hume on perfidy”

Ethics Question

I am facing a serious ethical dilemma upon which I would like some input:

If you are a blogger on a website that is achingly short of hitting a monthly visit milestone it has never reached before (For the sake of argument, let’s say it’s 150,000 visits) and the month is almost over (for the sake of example, let’s say there are only 5 hours and 51 minutes left in the month in question), is it morally wrong to post an phony ethical dilemma for the sole purpose of attracting the additional few visits you need to reach the milestone?

Deeply interested in your thoughts if you are one of the first 14 people to read this post. Else, never mind.

How to Think on Rosh Hashanah

Shimon Apisdorf is an Orthodox Rabbi based in Baltimore.  While I don’t always agree with him on theological or political matters, he really, really, really gets the High Holy Days.  His wonderful book, The Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur Survival Kit, should be on every Jew’s bookshelf — and in a lot of ways, it should be on the bookshelf of anyone, Jew or not, who cares about having a rewarding spiritual life.  As we move into the Yamim Noraim, I thought I would post his very insightful “Questions for a Meaningful Life,” written to be pondered on Rosh Hashanah — and really, all year.

We wish everyone a Shana Tovah U’metuka.

Questions for a Meaningful Life

1.  When do I feel that my life is most meaningful?

2.  Those who mean the most to me — have I ever told them how I feel?

3.  Are there any ideasl I would be willing to die for?

4.  If I could live my life over, would I change anything?

5.  What would bring me more happiness than anything in the world?

6.  What are my three most significant achievements since last Rosh Hashanah?

7.  What are my three biggest mistakes since last Rosh Hashanah?

8.  What project or goal, if left undone, will I most regret next Rosh Hashanah?

9.  If I knew I couldn’t fail, what would I undertake to accomplish in life?

10.  What are my three major goals in life?  What am I doing to achieve them?  What practical steps can I take in the next two months towards these goals?

11.  If I could only give my children three pieces of advice, what would they be?