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Sunday, December 4, 2016

By now, you’ve surely heard of the Texas drunken-driving case that has sparked national outrage — angering victims, upsetting psychologists and sending Twitter into overdrive. A 16-year-old who killed four people while intoxicated was sentenced to 10 years’ probation and treatment in a tony rehab facility.

As unusual as that example of mercy may be, it was the rationale offered by a defense expert that drove observers into a frenzy. A psychologist hired by defense attorneys told the court that the young man’s tragically irresponsible actions were the fault of his rich parents, who didn’t rear him with sufficient discipline. As a consequence, G. Dick Miller said, the teenager suffered from “affluenza” and didn’t know right from wrong. (Many other psychologists have disagreed vociferously, saying there is no such diagnosis.)

It’s hard to stomach that notion, especially since Judge Jean Boyd of the Fort Worth Juvenile Court seems to have swallowed it whole. I can’t imagine how bitter and resentful — not to mention mystified — the victims’ families must be.

But Boyd might have unintentionally done us a favor by opening the door to a dank, dark room that we have worked too hard to keep closed. She has let out the putrid aromas of economic inequality, which we have long ignored. Wealthy people, the judge’s sentence reminds us, have huge advantages over ordinary folk, despite an American mythology about equal opportunity. And the opportunity gap is growing as inequality cleaves the country into haves and have-nots.

The very terms “wage gap” and “disappearing middle class” have become clichés in Washington, often muttered by pandering politicians and comfortable journalists who have little real understanding of the effect that income inequality has had on the lives of ordinary Americans. But the fallout is real enough.

Since the 1970s, the wages of working-class Americans — those without college degrees — have stagnated and fallen further and further behind. Meanwhile, the wealthy have only become more prosperous.