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?


Chris Rywalt said...

To take the other side, not for any really good reason: Some of the people I've known who work in tipping industries make much, much better money through tips than they could ever hope to make if they were paid an hourly wage. One friend waiting tables in an admittedly high-end restaurant was bringing home over $200 per night. Now, the work for that pay was serious work -- memorizing the menu and wine lists, being capable of making wine recommendations, knowing the ingredients of every dish -- but it was well-paid.

Pretty Lady said...

Why does it have to be either an hourly wage, or a completely random income which fluctuates according to the generous impulses of strangers? Aren't there any other paradigms to choose from--for example, profit sharing among salaried employees?

Our economy is structured on the basis of the idea that the hope of winning the lottery trumps the right to respect, dignity and a living wage. Sure, you can make beaucoups bucks working at a high-end restaurant; you can also work your ass off at a diner for 40 years and drop dead in the walk-in freezer at 70 because you can't afford to retire.

In my book, a chance at the brass ring should not have to come at the cost of irremediable poverty for the majority.

Chris Rywalt said...

Despite the fact that something like 60 percent of the Forbes 400 were born wealthy -- or at least were able to borrow enough money from family to start a successful business -- we persist in believing in the American Dream. As George Carlin says, it's called a dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.

However, when you say "random income which fluctuates according to the generous impulses of strangers", I could say "income based largely upon one's competence and effort". It's accountability, pure and simple. If the waiter doesn't perform well, he doesn't get paid well. Sounds better than a lot of jobs I've worked at, where lousy workers got paid the same as good ones. (You can guess which one I was.)

What I'd like to see -- and you probably would, also -- is a world where people are guaranteed a certain minimum -- perhaps something like a "minimum wage", and "universal health care", just throwing out some ideas -- and then if they can and will work beyond that, then good for them. Unfortunately we don't have a meaningful minimum wage and as for the other thing, well, you know.

People would argue that this is what they have in Europe, and that Europe proves this is unsustainable -- that you simply cannot spread money around that way. There's not enough to go around, they say, and so we need to reward only those who deserve it.

I happen to think this is arrant nonsense. The fact that Europe has been mismanaged -- and I'm not entirely sure it has, and that the stories of European insolvency aren't myths -- doesn't mean this can't be done. Only that, perhaps, it hasn't been done.

If we had enough money to blow up Afghanistan and Iraq the way we did, it seems to me we had enough money to put them together properly. What we lack is the will. Or anyway the people with the money lack the will. They'd rather run off with ill-gotten gains.

Pretty Lady said...

If the waiter doesn't perform well, he doesn't get paid well.

Except that it's been proven that there is a weak link between competent performance and the size of tips--see the Beato article for the citation. My personal experience bears this out. I am regularly stiffed by people who proceed to re-book, asking for me by name, the next time they come in. That's not 'accountability,' that's 'taking advantage.'

I'm with you on the rest of it.

Chris Rywalt said...

The argument would probably be that first, on average people tip properly; and second, you'd start treating poor tippers worse as time went on, until they got the idea or stopped patronizing you.

That's the argument I'm guessing. Personally I think tipping is bothersome all around; I don't like having to do it because I always feel uncomfortable. Should I tip this person? How much? I have to balance my own financial situation -- never good -- with that of someone who has worked for me. Personally I'm a fan of price stickers: You pay this much. The end. No haggling, no tipping, no messing around. But we're stuck with it, I suppose.

At least I'm not living in an Arab country where I'd have to haggle over everything after pushing to the front of the market mob.

Chris Rywalt said...

Also, you could always hope for a customer like my father, who's been known to tip a hundred percent.

mannypanta said...

I used to work on a cruise-ship (in a non-tipping position, thank God). Some cruise lines have a system where a room steward who cleans up the cabin, washes and scrubs the bathroom, cater to every need of the cruisesr etc for the duration of the cruise is automatically alloted a certain amount of tip per day. You have to remember that these stewards have no salary, just tips. But get this: even if the steward has slaved for him the entire trip, the passenger can refuse to have the tips deducted from his bill, no questions asked, leaving the steward nothing for his efforts. And this has happened over and over again.

Desert Cat said...

I am regularly stiffed by people who proceed to re-book, asking for me by name, the next time they come in.

That is about the time you remind them that you are paid largely by tips and that their continued lack of proper compensation will likely result in crappy service going forward.

I don't know if you can really afford to do that, but I think non-tippers (except for those ignorant that a tip is appropriate) are despicable. I always "round up" on the tip when dining out, and it would take notable inattention for me to even cut back the customary tip percentage.

The Aardvark said...

This has some cogent non-political tipping thoughts. I was a waiter several times in the past, and have my own horror stories!