Thursday, August 12, 2010

Tipping the Proletariat

Memo to Greg Beato: go pick on someone in your own tax bracket.
But if tipping isn’t exactly a rational exercise, it is an ingenious and metaphorically valuable contrivance. It gives plate-schleppers a chance to act like entrepreneurs. It gave men who can’t afford dessert a chance to act like philanthropists. It imbues the players on both sides of a transaction with a greater sense of autonomy. A waiter isn’t locked into whatever limits his boss might set for him — he can partially determine his own fate. A customer can exert some power in determining the ultimate value of his dining experience.
Greg, forgive me, but you've tipped your hand there.  "It imbues the players with a greater sense of autonomy."  Not the real thing. The reality of tipping is that it places the livelihoods of the lowest wage earners at the mercy of the whims of the self-righteous.

Ask yourself; how many waiters do you know who have health insurance?  Bartenders?  Baristas?  Estheticians?  Hairdressers?  Have you ever taken a moment to consider the economic realities of life in the service industries?

Let me clue you in.  A massage therapist who works at an average spa (as a not-so-random example) is a contract employee.  That means they receive a flat rate per service provided, which averages between 20-35% of the retail price of the service.  If there are no clients, they do not get paid.  They receive no guaranteed minimum salary, no sick leave, vacation, workers compensation, health insurance or overtime.  When they blow their backs out working on an overweight client or catch the flu from a sick one, they're two weeks away from indigence.

Your average waiter or barista has it even worse, because employers use tipping as an excuse to pay less than minimum wage.  It is perfectly possible to work a 9-hour shift without even a bathroom break, and net less in wages than your average customer just spent on dinner.

Under these circumstances, tipping is not just a 'metaphorically valuable contrivance.'  It's bus fare, groceries, diapers and the gas bill.  When a client exercises her option not to tip, she is making a unilateral, uninformed decision to deny basic sustenance to the person who has just fed her, cared for her, and relieved her pain.  Is this liberty, or is it exploitation?

As one Facebook friend put it: "The way service providers are treated certainly reflects how people feel about service--as though it were a terrible fate, but one that was deserved, thereby justifying the Darwinian bully attacks."  It rarely occurs to the American consumer that service might be an honorable vocation, not a desperate option for the ignorant and the feckless.
Greg Beato rails against making tipping automatic; in this way, he declares, we lose our option to 'starve the beast' of taxes, Big Government, and all the ills thereof.  So why is it, Greg, that 'starving the beast' all too often requires starving the ones who barely glean a living from the crumbs it drops, rather than those who gain the most from its excesses?