Political Animal


March 17, 2013 7:32 PM Why you should (still) tip generously: a response to Michael O’Hare

By Kathleen Geier

Over at The Same Facts, Michael O’Hare posted a response to my earlier post about restaurant employees. Michael takes issue with my suggestion to tip generously. Here’s his rationale:

[T]o think you can do people any good in the medium to long run by generally tipping more, you have to believe the labor market in this industry doesn’t work at all. It is hard to see the wheels turn because it’s not only wages but also menu prices that adjust together when the rules change. But suppose tipping were ended, either everywhere or in a single restaurant: employers would have to offer more salary to get people to work for them, and raise menu prices, to a first approximation, by 15% or whatever the typical tip is. Not much change in anyone’s income or costs, but everything would be in the open, and the wages would be reported and taxable (maybe still higher prices, if tipping is shielding a lot of the labor cost from tax, and a good thing), and it would be much harder for employers to rip off the help. Customers take Kathy’s advice and just tip more, conversely, nearly all will be competed away from the workers as employers (and customers) pay lower wages and customers pay less for their meals.

Yes, I agree that if tipping were suddenly banned, the likely result is that markets would adjust to some extent, via increases in restaurant wages and prices. Unlike Michael, though, I’m not so sanguine that labor market in the restaurant industry works well enough that workers would entirely make up in wages what they would lose in tips. In case you haven’t noticed, the magic of the market really is not working so well for most wage earners. Productivity continues to soar but nearly everyone’s wages are stagnating or declining, and low-wage earners like restaurant employees are doing worst of all. This economy is a catastrophe and workers, especially those at the lower end of wage spectrum, have precious little bargaining power.

If tips were banned, I have every expectation that employers would opportunistically enact the equivalent of wage cuts, by refusing to make up in wages what workers would lose in tips. After all, what would stop them? The all-powerful labor unions? The many strict, scrupulously enforced labor laws that workers in this country enjoy?

More to the point is Michael’s clearly stated prior, “suppose tipping were ended.” This analysis bears the classic hallmarks of “assume a can opener” economics. Restaurant tipping in this country is a deeply held socio—economic norm that shows no signs of going away, and Michael doesn’t have any plausible suggestions as to how to get of rid of it. Even if you buy into the (dubious) “the market will work its magic” story about wages being adequately increased in lieu of tips, wages won’t adjust until a critical mass of people stop tipping. You can’t individually decide you’re going to be the one who unleashes the magic of the market and ushers in the brave new world of no tipping (eventually leading to the nirvana of higher wages). By failing to tip, you’re not some visionary. You’re just one more jerk who stiffed some poor waitress out of her livelihood.

I’ve met Michael, and he is in fact a very nice man who I’m sure would never dream of doing such a thing. But it’s clear from his post that he hates tipping. I feel his pain; I, too, loathe the practice. I’m always immensely relieved when I travel to a foreign country that dispenses with tipping; it’s so much more relaxing.

I think that many Americans, and especially many liberals, are uncomfortable with tipping, because it forces them to confront their own privilege, if only briefly and transactionally. For that one meal, you are the boss, and you have the power to decide how much to pay your “employee” — or even whether you will pay her at all. The practice is a creepy feudal holdover, and I despise it. I don’t enjoy being lady of the freaking manor, having an economically dependent person dancing attendance on me all night. And hey, isn’t feudalism what our ancestors were trying to escape?

But unless you’re in a restaurant or a country where tipping is not practiced, tipping generously is the ethical thing to do. Restaurant employees are among the many screwed-over classes of workers in our economy who are not seeing their fare share of productivity gains reflected in their wages. Generous tips are one way you can help make up for that injustice. If your inner cheapskate rebels, think of it this way: these days, dining out tends to be significantly cheaper than in the past, because relative food prices are low. If you tip well, you’re still getting a pretty good bargain, relatively speaking.

Finally, one last follow-up to that restaurant post: as I should have mentioned in the first post, there a variety of policy solutions that could greatly improve the lot of restaurant workers. Union status would significantly improve wages, benefits, and working conditions, and I strongly support efforts that strengthen workers’ rights to organize, such as the Employee Free Choice Act and (perhaps more promising) making the right to organize a civil right. I also support increasing the minimum wage, instituting a living wage, and ditching the ridiculously low federal minimum wage for employees who earn tips (which is a pathetic $2.13 an hour). Mandatory paid sick leave, paid vacation, and paid parental leave would also be excellent policy interventions. And since wage theft is such a notorious problem in this sector, toughening up the wage theft laws that exist and vigorously prosecuting employers who violate them is vital. All of the policies I’ve just identified would be a boon not just for restaurant employees, but for many other low-wage workers as well.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee


  • kk on March 18, 2013 1:05 AM:

    Kathleen, it is a joy to have you posting. Thanks for calling out these idiots on their theoretical nonsense. And folks, don't forget to generously tip the housecleaning staff each night you stay in a hotel. Slinging hash is tough work, but those women (have you ever seen a man doing this backbreaking work?) clean your toilets, empty your garbage and never know what they'll have to take care of when they strip the sheets off your beds.

  • exlibra on March 18, 2013 1:53 AM:

    I have, actually, worked at different times (but all before I was 25) both: as a waitress (in US and UK; illegally in UK), and chambermaid (in the Netherlands and UK; illegally in both), so I'm very much aware how the "invisible staff" can get shafted by management. In one of my waitressing jobs, the owner paid me $1.60 per hour, but *reported* $4.25 (then the minimum wage), on the basis that I ought to have made the difference from tips. Yes, well... My boobs were OK, and my skirt "regulation mini", but my English sucked (and was of the upper class Brit Eng variety, anyway. Trucker's VA-English was barely comprehensible to me). Customers who are irritated by having to repeat their order three times do not leave tips. But that was not the owners problem, of course; it was mine.

    Needless to say my personal experience then has shaped my own behaviour ever since; I leave a tip always (unless I catch the server spitting into my soup, just before handing it to me). But, "minimum 20%", no matter what, as Kathleen suggested yesterday? No effing way.

    I grew up with 10% (Poland), adjusted to 15% here and, once in a while, will leave 15% + "round up". For 20%, I expect extra -- not just adequate service, but also a smile and a semblance of "I give a shit about you". If 20% is the *minimum* expected of me for anything less than that, I'll just stay home, as advised by Kathleen; you won't have to put up with the extra work generated by me, and I won't have to put up with your boss's cooking (which, in all likelihood, isn't half as good as mine)

  • Gretchen on March 18, 2013 2:27 AM:

    Kathleen, you can assure me that "Mikey" is a nice man, but somebody who starts out by dismissing someone who always calls herself "Kathleen" as "Kathy" is the disrespecful sort who will always, always stilff the waitress, and have some philosophical justification rather than admitting that he's just a cheap jerk.

  • low-tech cyclist on March 18, 2013 6:29 AM:

    1) Like Kathleen says, the magic of the market isn't going to work for waitpersons in general if tipping goes away, and if you individually don't tip, yes, you're a jerk.

    2) The difference between $2.13/hr and the minimum wage, let alone a living wage, has to come from somewhere. That's you.

    3) Anyplace you might come back to, tipping well is to your benefit. (Unless service was poor, of course, but if it was, you probably aren't coming back.) The difference between a 20% and a 25% tip is just a couple of bucks, and your server will notice a lot more than your wallet will.

  • anandine on March 18, 2013 7:36 AM:

    I worked my way through college as a bartender and my wife as a waitress. We tip as close as convenient to 20% and round up to the nearest dollar or five, depending on the size of the bill. My wife says one reason she likes eating out with me more than other people is that she never has to check to make sure I've left a big enough tip. When she has lunch with low-tipping friends, she compensates with a bigger tip.

  • c u n d gulag on March 18, 2013 7:39 AM:

    Up until recently, when I can't afford to go to restaurants anymore, since I'm not working, you had to do a pretty crappy job to get less than 20% from me.

    Usually, I tipped 25-30%, and frequently, more if the service was truly outstanding.

    But I worked for years, as a bartender, so I know what it's like when someone you served all night, stiffs you.

    I was a bartender in the East Village of NY back in the early 80's, and on Monday nights, the local poets would converge after their readings, for some drinks.
    And whenever he was in town, they had Allen Ginsberg in tow.
    The poets were bad tippers, but I didn't expect much from them, because, well, they were "artist's," and poetry ain't exactly a lucrative occupation.

    But I expected a bit more of Mr. Ginsberg.

    One time, he ordered a round of drinks for about 10 poets, and when he paid, the round was something like $10 back in the day, I saw some change on the bar.
    42 cents.
    That was cheap even by local nobody poet standards.

    So, I called Allen Ginsberg over, and asked what that was on the bar?
    He told me that was my tip.
    I looked at him, and said, "Why don't you keep it, Mr. Ginsberg. You must need it more than I do."

    He tipped generously afterwards.

    Jim Carrol, on the other hand, was always a terric tipper.
    And Joe Jackson always left me $20 bucks, even for just a couple of beers.

  • 14All on March 18, 2013 8:15 AM:

    One might reasonably question a proposal "for the good of many" which requires one to be an asshole in the short term. They are typically merely a justification for being an asshole.

    If we can't accomplish our goals while continuing to behave like decent human beings, we aren't being creative enough.

  • bluestatedon on March 18, 2013 8:30 AM:

    Michael O'Hare already has his Rand Paul 2016 bumper sticker.

  • tom rogers on March 18, 2013 8:32 AM:

    While I, too, worked as a busboy and later a front desk clerk/night auditor, and am happy to "over" tip when I can, I have to say that I've never felt as if I were the lord of the manor or the waitstaff's boss.

  • DJ on March 18, 2013 9:00 AM:

    Frank Sinatra was an extravagant tipper, routinely directing his assistants to "duke this guy a hundred," which got the honoree a tightly-folded hundred-dollar bill.

    One day in Las Vegas, Sinatra asked the bellboy, "what's the biggest tip you've ever gotten?"

    The bellboy responded "a hundred dollars, Mr. Sinatra." Sinatra unhesitatingly peeled off two hundred dollars.

    As the bellboy was leaving, Sinatra said "it's driving me nuts -- just who was it that gave you s hundred-dollar tip?"

    "You did, sir, last week!"

    Tip generously. It's the right thing to do, and it's more fun than you can imagine.

  • Michael Ryle on March 18, 2013 9:03 AM:

    It is a sad truth about humanity that in the vast majority of cases the more a person has the stingier he is likely to be. Some of the most generous people I have known in my life have also been the poorest.

  • Steve LaBonne on March 18, 2013 9:23 AM:

    O'Hare is just making excuses for being an asshole. It's what conservatarians do.

    As far as I'm concerned there's a special place in hell for people who stiff waitstaff.

  • paul on March 18, 2013 9:47 AM:

    This one is a no-brainer. If you're worried about the depressing effect of tips on wages, take it up with the manager or the owner of the establishment. Picket them if you feel strongly. Write and visit your local legislators.

    But undertipping your staff not only makes your server's life miserable in the short run, it put all the onus on them to agitate for higher wages or to finds jobs at restaurants where managers pay staff more equitably. While keeping money in your pocket.

    Decades ago, leftists like Che preached the idea that by blowing things up, inviting repression, and generally making life worse for the poor, they were raising consciousness and setting the process of revolution in train. Now, it seems, the idea is to do the same thing by joining ALEC and voting for lower taxes for the rich. Much less risky.

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on March 18, 2013 10:39 AM:

    I was just thinking recently of how miserable it would be to work in the food and retail industry nowadays. Low pay. Horrible hours. No stability.

    Anywho, my very first job was as a waitress in a burger joint in NC, so I tend to be very forgiving of waitstaff, especially since I know how meager their pay is. (The paychecks that I used to receive were barely even worth the paper they were printed on.) I've seen friends and family get bent out shape about their food not being hot or not to their liking and then try to stiff the waitress on her tip, and I always have to remind them that the waitress is at the mercy of the cooks on those issues. (I once got a tip of various nickels and pennies because the cook didn't prepare a customer's sandwich in a timely fashion. Not cool.)

    Generally speaking, I leave tips in $5 increments only because I'm too lazy to do the math. So for my little meals I tend to over tip. And even if I find that the waiter is somehow lacking, I find it's more diplomatic to discreetly ask management for a different waiter (or just order carryout or, better yet, just leave if your concerned that any secret sauces might be added to your food in retaliation).

    The only way I wouldn't give a tip is if the waiter pulls a Houdini during my meal and I can't get a replacement waiter or even a feigned apology from waitstaff. A couple of years ago, a dinner of a grilled cheese sandwich and a glass of water turned into a nearly 2-hour ordeal because my waitress couldn't bother to check on me in intervals shorter than 30 minutes. (While it was crowded, it wasn't exactly busy). I'm a low-maintenance diner but I couldn't even get a quick walk-by of "How ya doing over here?" from this lady. I was trying to catch her when she went to neighboring tables but she wasn't bothering to check on those tables either. Very weird. But knowing me, I probably tipped her anyway...

  • LAC on March 18, 2013 11:30 AM:

    God bless you for taking the time to respond to this asshole. Because, ultimately, that is what he is and I feel sorry for any service person in his path.

  • wasabi on March 18, 2013 12:35 PM:

    Here in Central Texas it is common for restaurant employers to pay $2.13 an deduct that from their paycheck. Waiters and waitresses get a big fat check for $0.00 after working all week. They live off the tips and often don't even make enought to get up to minimum wage. It didn't used to be that way..

  • Foster Boondoggle on March 18, 2013 12:47 PM:

    Jeez louise. All you commenters calling O'Hare unpleasant names have obviously not read what he wrote, which I would think is a minimum requirement of passing judgment on his character. HE DOESN'T SAY THAT HE DOESN'T TIP. He just says that he despises the system, as do many others, most of whom are quite generous in spite of that. I just left 5/day tip to the maid who cleaned my room at the hotel I was at. I didn't like having to do that, but I've read "Nickeled and Dimed" so I know what crappy pay they get.

    Also, @Gretchen, he starts out his post by calling the writer of this one "Kathleen". Yes, he says "Kathy" further down. She says they've met, so maybe that's how she calls herself to friends.

    If you hope for a better world, it's not helpful to assume the worst motives for anyone you disagree with (or think you do), and even more so if you do that before even bothering to take in their actual views. That doesn't promote progress.

  • PTate in MN on March 18, 2013 12:47 PM:

    "I think that many Americans, and especially many liberals, are uncomfortable with tipping, because it forces them to confront their own privilege, if only briefly and transactionally."

    I have really appreciated this post and the commentary! It's provoked a lot of conversation in my household. I'm a generous tipper, but I hate tipping, not because it forces me to confront my privilege but because I feel exploited. I'm never sure I've done the right thing. I don't want to be a sucker. And an economy that allows one waitress to earn more than another--not because she has done anything special but because she happened to serve the table with more generous tippers--is fundamentally unfair. Also disturbing is that I choose to tip and others don't. Is that just?

    Conservatives continue to do a great deal to damage our economy, and tipping is a perfect example of how a conservative con job works, how they can structure the economy to allow the powerful to exploit the weak while pretending that they are "motivating individual initiative and accountability." What's really perfect from a Republican POV is that relying on tips not only allows employers to screw their waitstaff by paying them less per hour BUT conservatives are free to refuse to tip because they are mean-spirited cheapskates (and they can enjoy the smug chuckle when other suckers fork over tips.) The system is capricious, opaque, and permits hypocrisy and exploitation of the vulnerable by the powerful. In other words, it is the perfect conservative economic model!

  • smartalek on March 18, 2013 12:56 PM:

    Gulag, by telling me that Jim Carroll was a good tipper, you made my day -- or at least didn't ruin it.
    I hate finding out that artists whose work I love are all too human in certain respects.

  • smartalek on March 18, 2013 1:04 PM:

    Anyone know whether Jerry Garcia was a good tipper?
    Please tell me only if you know he was...

  • WM on March 18, 2013 2:54 PM:

    Haven't read all the comments so someone might have already brought this up: There's another reason to tip that I would think should encourage even those who think the minimum wage is too generous. You might get better service. That's not the only reason I tip -- any reasonable person knows these folks aren't paid enough, and certainly I'd like to see that change -- but if you know a diner or drinker who's only motivated by self-interest, try running that point by them.

  • Dennis on March 18, 2013 4:31 PM:

    I tip generously for table service, but resent tipping when I'm the one doing the work (standing in line to place the order, transporting my own food or beverage, and usually bussing my own table.)

    Why should some snotty kid at Starbuck's get a tip when the counter person at Burger King (which does not permit tipping) works harder and is more pleasant?

    And, attempts to shame me by labeling the tip jar "Karma" infuriate me.

  • Daniel Kim on March 18, 2013 6:03 PM:

    I especially like his thing about how, after tipping is eliminated, wages would be reportable and taxable in full. I believe that tipping is assumed to occur for people who work in tipped-service industries, and they must pay taxes based on those assumed earnings. (If anyone has the real info on this, please give us the straight dope.)

    “the market will work its magic”

    Aah! The Invisible Hand! When I read about how a company sells unsafe products or steals from its workers, etc., I dream of a terrorist group called The Invisible Hand. They would punish captains of industry who perpetrate these crimes against society, absent the enforcement of laws or the regulation of heinous behavior by corporations. They would leave a calling card with Adam Smith's picture on it and the message "You are punished by The Invisible Hand"