Tipping Point

As we increasingly debate the value of the lowest-paid workers in America’s service industries—and, specifically, whether to raise the minimum wage—can we all get together and agree, once and for all, that the concept of tipping is a profoundly stupid idea?

It has been nearly 23 years since Steve Buscemi so memorably railed against this odd social custom in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, and no one has yet made a convincing case to the contrary.

“I don’t tip because society says I have to,” says Buscemi’s Mr. Pink around a coffee house table as everybody else throws in a dollar or two.  “I’ll tip if somebody really deserves it.  If they really put forth the effort, I’ll give them something extra.  But this tipping automatically, it’s for the birds.  As far as I’m concerned, they’re just doing their jobs.”

There’s more truth to that than even Mr. Pink realizes, and it demonstrates how we’d be much better off as a society if we nixed the whole practice.  It’s long past time that we did.

Watching the whole scene, it becomes clear that Mr. Pink, in his principled refusal to follow societal norms, is operating from a mistaken premise:  Namely, that the wait staff at this (or any) eating establishment could still get by in the absence of any tips.

In point of fact, they can’t.  For food service employees, minimum wage is not minimum wage.  At the federal level, non-tipped workers earn $7.25 an hour.  Tipped workers, however, earn a measly $2.13, with gratuities accounting for the rest.

Yes, it’s true that should a tipped employee’s combined earnings fall below $7.25 per hour, the employer must make up the difference.  However, history has shown this stipulation to be vulnerable to abuse by greedy restaurant owners who manipulate their underlings’ totals at will, which workers are understandably hesitant to challenge.

But even without such brazen corruption, this system means that lower-tipped waiters and waitresses will, by definition, earn the lowest amount of money possible, even as their fellow employees—working the same jobs, and not necessarily with any greater effort or skill—are raking in the dough (comparatively speaking).

The real problem, you see, is neither the wait staff nor their superiors.  The problem is us, the customers.

Mr. Pink, for all his ideological bluster, is really just being a cheap, selfish jerk.  That’s what gives the movie its edge, and it’s why our system needs to change:  Because there are a whole bunch of other cheap, selfish jerks out there, and it is unfair for their bad attitudes to so directly and adversely affect the well-being of the folks who serve them food.

The trouble with tipping is that it is arbitrary.

The theory is that superior servers will reap superior gratuities and that mediocre servers will be incentivized to perform better, or be sacked.  Old-fashioned meritocracy in action.

It’s a nice thought, and I’m sure it works that way from time to time.  Mostly, though, the art of tipping is a function of whatever mood the tipper happens to be in at the moment of payment.  Nothing more.

Some tip meagerly because they’ve had a long day.  Others tip generously because they’ve had a great day.  Certain rich folks invariably tip well (or not), while less-rich people don’t have that luxury.  There are plenty of us who simply tip the same every time, regardless of the service.  Meanwhile, many do tip to reflect their dining experience, but base it on metrics the server cannot possibly control, such as the quality of the food or the speed at which it was cooked.

During college, my group of friends would often depart a meal having no earthy idea how much gratuity we left—either because we paid with seven different credit cards, or because none of us was in a state of mind to perform basic arithmetic.

My question:  Even in the best of times, why should any of us shoulder this responsibility?  Why should you and I have veto power over whether a waiter or waitress can afford a decent living?  Why can’t they just be able to do their jobs with the dignity of knowing how much their paycheck will be at the end of each week, not being at the mercy of their rudest, meanest customers?

Just because they’re “servers” who take our “orders,” it doesn’t mean we should treat them like slaves.

Yet that’s exactly what we do, and it’s nearly as bad for us as it is for them.

Case in point:  The Boston Globe recently outlined the newish cultural innovation whereby even casual coffee shops and the like now allow you to tack a gratuity onto your bill.  To be precise, the cashier will hand you a tablet to confirm your order (cash registers are so last century) and you will be prompted to add a tip of any amount, or none at all.  While you have every right to decline, you must now make the active decision to do so.

In other words, we are now being guilted into paying a surcharge for coffee and a donut that never existed before.  And all because a few cheapskate owners can’t be bothered to give their employees a living wage.

We might agree that baristas are criminally underpaid, but why should the remedy for this depend upon making customers feel awkward at the end of every order?

Few of us are as callous and cheap as Mr. Pink, and we are willing to dig an extra few quarters from our wallet if it buys us peace of mind on the way to our next appointment.  The question is why the supervisors of these wage slaves are, themselves, so callous and cheap that they have outsourced those wages as thoroughly as they possibly can, enabling the Mr. Pinks of the world to feel ripped off and bitter.  That is, when they’re not feeling all haughty and superior.  Neither of these is desirable or attractive, and yet our system makes them inevitable.

It is not good for society to subject the welfare of an entire class of workers to the idle whims of another.

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