Let’s talk golden handcuffs.

I heard about the concept on the Advisory Opinions legal podcast to describe the dilemna that faces Harvard educated lawyers who accept jobs at major law firms in New York City. These young, entry-level lawyers are paid ridiculous salaries, even within law, and then are given workloads that are impossible to handle without working 100 hour weeks.

They are, almost to a man, utterly miserable, but they cannot quit, because they become accustomed to a $300k lifestyle. To take a reasonable job means to accept a paycut to down to a “measely” $80-100k and to move out of NYC. And so they continue, trapped by affluence. They are wearing “golden handcuffs.”

This happens at every stage of middle class life in America in a less extreme form. We buy houses we can barely afford, and drive cars we usually cannot afford at all, and then discover that we feel trapped. Our peers and advertisers are really, really good at convincing us that the minimum is about 20% more than we can actually afford, and banks are happy to loan us the difference.

To clarify, I’m not really talking about the actual poor in America. I’m talking about middle class people with stable careers earning something in the ballpark of the median income or more in the area where they live.

We aren’t necessarily miserable, and our employers can’t exploit it quite the way big law firms can in NYC, but the phenomenon is real.

I’ve been thinking about it recently at work. Our boss has decided we should read and discuss and agree with the Ibram X Kendi book on Antiracism. The book alternates between anecdotes from his life and an ideolology he identifies with them. The anecdotes are powerful and thought-provoking and if your worldview can’t make sense of how these things happen, your worldview needs some nuance. But the ideology, on the other hand, is bonkers-on-bananas, explicitly illiberal, and implicitly totalitarian.

The count is up to a dozen people in a group of around forty who will say to me, in private, “This is insane.” But so far there are only two people, total, who will say, out loud and in public “There is no such category as ‘not racist policy’? Every decision is racist or antiracist? Really?!? We have to pick between tabs and spaces based on a Critical Race Theory analysis?”

The other ten are afraid and hope that it will all just go away if they stay silent. I don’t know what gives the other guy the guts. I know what gives me the guts is….I’m not in golden handcuffs. I live in a cheap house in a cheap neighborhood. I drive a paid-for used car. I save every penny in my Roth 401k that the law will allow, and then my wife saves every penny in her Roth 401k that the law will allow, and then we save another 30% of our take home pay after that.

As the fear starts up, and the threats about consequences for dissent become less and less veiled, I can look at my situation and say “I’m not going to be bullied into pretending to agree that liberalism and capitalism and Christianity and unix and math are crypto-racist. That’s insane. I don’t need the money enough. I’ve spent the last five years of my life living within my means, and a consequence of that is that if you fire me, I have almost a decade before the money runs out. Not that I want that outcome. I like my job, or did until they started trying to bully me into saying that liberal democracy is inherently racist. I’d just as soon keep it, but not if that’s the price.”

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