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Does Tipping Need to Die?

From Kelly Senyei, Gourmet Live: “Alright, everybody cough up some green.”

It’s the opening scene of Quentin Tarantino’s contemporary classic, 1994′s über-violent heist flick Reservoir Dogs. The late Chris Penn as Nice Guy Eddie – the son of the man coordinating the suited bank-robbers-to-be at the table – is calculating the tip after their pre-diamond-robbery coffee shop breakfast. He realizes that Steve Buscemi’s character, a robber we only know by his code name, Mr. Pink, hasn’t tipped. “Come on, throw in a buck,” says Nice Guy Eddie. Mr. Pink leans back, looks at Penn, and delivers the now-classic line:

“Uh-uh. I don’t tip.”

Eddie, stunned: “You don’t tip?”

“Nah, I don’t believe in it.”

“You don’t believe in tipping?”

What follows is a fairly off-color conversation it would be better not to rehash – though it graphically notes what the waitress could do to earn “over twelve

percent” – but the basic tenet of Mr. Pink’s philosophy-cum-tirade can be found in one of the only non-expletive-laced lines in it:

“This tipping automatically, that’s for the birds. As far as I’m concerned, they’re just doing their job.”

Mr. Pink’s in the minority at the table. He’s shouted down and eventually throws down his dollar. Yet over a decade and a half later, he’s as not-wrong as he was then. In fact, less so: the problems with this unspoken yet seemingly obligatory social norm have only grown since.

How so? Tipping in its current form is an assault on fairness for employers and employees as well as consumers’ rights. It reinforces an economically and socially dangerous status quo, while buttressing a functional aristocracy. Oh, yeah: it’s also often a racist, superficial practice and yet, like capital punishment and gun ownership, America is one of the last industrialized nations in the world still desperately holding on to it.

How did we get to the point where anything less than the standard for gratuity – 15% — is widely considered déclassé, and anything less than 10% — no matter how abominable the service – might get you chased down the street by a waiter long after you’ve walked away from your table? Why are consumers categorically obligated – though not technically forced — to compensate for the failure of employers and our government at-large to ensure fair compensation? Does it really take more skill to serve a $100 dish than a $20 dish, and should it really fall on the customer to pay no matter how poorly that dish gets served?

Tipping needs to die. But like, say, gun ownership, capital punishment, and the abolition of slavery, it’s a taboo topic reserved for mostly quiet, closeted, theoretical discussions nobody’s willing to take seriously. It’s difficult to take a position against tipping without being labeled a fascist hate monger. Its historical advocates have been few and far between (though, for whatever it’s worth, U.S. President William Howard Taft and Ralph Waldo Emerson were also vehemently anti-tipping, so Mr. Pink and I aren’t completely alone).

Sitting at the bar of a neighborhood bistro one night in Brooklyn, I pitched this piece on Jeff, a friend, and the chef-owner of the restaurant: “Ending tipping? Man. I don’t know.” Jeff slowly backed away. “Just talking about it makes me feel weird,” he mumbled, shortly before disappearing into the kitchen. I didn’t see him for the rest of the night. And of course, I left 20%.

Not that it wasn’t deserved, but: the exchange wasn’t fair for either of us. That’s the point.

To understand how tipping got here, a little bit of history might be on the menu. The etymology of tipping is just as widely misunderstood as the practice itself. It’s commonly accepted that the origin of “tipping” or “tip” comes from the British (who eschew tipping more than we do) in the early 19th century, who used to hang signs in pubs with the word “TIP” as an acronym of “To Insure Promptitude,” when in fact, it actually first appeared as a verb in George Farquhar’s 1707 The Beaux’ Stratagem after being used in criminal circles as a word meant to imply the unnecessary and gratuitous gifting of something somewhat taboo, like a joke, or a sure bet, or illicit money exchanges. That feeling of being robbed by having to tip for bad service? Now you know: the word tipping came from criminals.

Tipping started to mature in the 16th century, when currency was given out of gratitude or compassion outside of religious establishments. But now it’s less compassion and gratitude than fear of embarrassment or social shame, driven by what publisher William Rufus Scott called a capital-S “Social Convention” in 1916. Scott wrote an infamous polemic against the contemporary practice of tipping entitled The Itching Palm, in which he described tipping as “the price of pride…what one American is willing to pay to induce another American to acknowledge inferiority.” Scott stuck at the heart of the issue: “The ‘what will people say’ mania holds the average person in an iron obedience to a custom which is innately loathesome. It makes you conspicuous to be a dissenter. The serving persons understand this psychology perfectly.”

The absurd sociological pressures of tipping have only gotten worse. Have you ever heard a horror story of terrible service? The second question after one of these stories should be: “Well, what’d you tip?” It isn’t, because who stiffs their waiters? Nobody. And yet, the responsibility to compensate for low wages falls on the patron – and not the establishment – for poor service. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

Around the time, Scott was actually tapping into a zeitgeisty movement. In 1909, Washington became the first American state to pass anti-tipping legislation, and over the next ten years, Mississippi, Iowa, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Arkansas passed anti-tipping laws as well, making both givers and receipts of tips misdemeanor criminals. Most of these laws were repealed because they were found to be generally impossible to enforce, but the motivation for them wasn’t just an issue of social graces (note the primarily southern states they were in). The respective governments also wanted to pick up the lost tax revenue pocketed by anybody who was tipped, specifically, the service industry.

In 2008, the IRS found — found — $65 Billion in unreported income. Service industry tips were estimated to be at $26 Billion that same year. If — to be kind — one in every twenty waiters under-reported their tips in 2008, $1.6 Billion in tax revenue would be lost to Americans. And that’s an optimistic scenario.

And there are straightforward issues of fairness, Why, for example, should one tip a waiter who works harder – say, a single-staffed graveyard shift worker at a packed diner – substantially less than the waiter who doesn’t break a sweat but makes five times that amount from one table? This only encourages the upsell of high-dollar items. Quiet, hard work goes unrewarded while the waiter who smiles as they foist a $200 bottle of wine upon you is obligated to a $40 reward from you just for selling it to you.

What about the common complaint in major American cities of European tourists who don’t tip because they’re not accustomed to it? Those Europeans don’t necessarily deserve to be chased down the street and humiliated, yet, management isn’t always going to compensate waitstaff for the unrewarded work put into serving that table.

Finally, the “tip pool” – where waiters tips are pooled together and then doled out via percentage points – means that someone’s excellent service may be unfairly punished because (if they’re daring enough to do so) another customer received poor service and left less money as a result. In the supposed meritocracy of America, this should be problematic.

But speaking of the supposed meritocracy: there isn’t one. Dare to learn what might be the dirtiest secret of American tipping? In a totally random sample, it’s racist.

Here’s a dinner conversation you’ll never have: in 2008 Ian Ayers published a study in the Yale Law Review collecting data from taxicab rides in New Haven. Ayers found that black cab drivers were tipped one-third less than white ones, and that black passengers tipped one-half less than white passengers, noting that if tipping were mandated, it’d reduce both the tendency of black drivers to receive less than their white counterparts, and the tendency of white drivers to eschew picking up black passengers for fear of bad tips.

Why should tipped professionals be discriminated against by race, or beauty? Endless studies note time and time again that attractive Americans tend to make more money than unattractive Americans in the same fields. Just last June, Newsweek reported that attractive women and men earn four and five percent more than their less-attractive counterparts, respectively. In the world of tipped economies, equal opportunity loses to the reinforcement of prejudices dangerous to society. Even the Supreme Court thinks so: in 1971’s Griggs v. Duke Power, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was ruled to prohibit businesses with discriminatory practices against those protected under it, even if that effect is unintended. Tipping, which has been proven to be discriminatory, could be downright unconstitutional.

So, now that you know that tipping is racist, enforces anything but fairness and a meritocracy, preys on your guiltiest impulses, started as a criminal practice, continues as a criminal practice, and exploits people on every side of it, what’s to be done? Can anything be done?

Surely it can. The majority of industrialized nations make a service charge obligatory in restaurants, with an option to tip after it. That’d be a start. Critics of argue that it kills the incentive for quality hospitality, many of whom look to England and France’s often awful – if not downright hostile — service as an example.

Let’s assume for a moment that this is true, disregarding the fact that the highest concentration of highly-regarded fine dining restaurants in the world are in Europe and known for incredibly good service. Let’s go with the stereotype and say that the French are notoriously assholes, and the English are notoriously stuffy. What’s the misanthrope’s American stereotype? Folksy. Disconcertingly kind. Go-getters. (When we’re not being rude and uncongenial on our Paris vacations.) There real bottom line is that jerks are jerks no matter where in the world they are, or what they’re being paid. A smart restaurateur will just hire better employees. Some restaurateurs have already taken these steps.

Thomas Keller – the chef/owner of two of America’s most famous restaurants, Napa Valley’s The French Laundry and New York City’s Per Se – made gratuity at Per Se a mandatory service charge in 2005. Per Se is still commonly known as one of the best meals – and service experiences — in the history of New York City. What many waiters (especially in New York) don’t like about this system is that it forces institutional devotion, especially in the case of people like casino magnate Steve Wynn and Mario Batali. Wynn is accused of taking tips from his dealers for management; the case is currently in its third appeal, and looks to be headed for the Supreme Court [full disclosure: my father’s a lawyer on the case, and naturally, like everyone else, wouldn’t talk to me about tipping]. Batali’s currently being sued for much the same thing, in addition to paying below-minimum wage and no overtime where it was due.

The Batali case encapsulates every angle of the problem: an employer who may or may not being exploiting his employees thanks to dependence on an awkward, unfair system, with the intent of engendering institutional loyalty (and the long-term success of said institution). But what if everyone stepped back and sacrificed convention for the long-term benefits of doing away with tipping? The extremists’ solution would be to put the cost of the food on the menu and for employers to pay fair wages regardless, but a compromise would be an across-the-board service charge. Cases like Wynn’s and Batali’s would be fairly straightforward. Americans at-large wouldn’t get cheated out of due tax revenue. Discriminatory habits would be curbed, and the standard for good service would be equalized. The awkwardness of paying the check would go away, as would some of the obnoxious externalities that come with tipping (like the omnipresent upsell). And the gratuity really would become, in essence, a reward, not an obligatory charge we have to pay regardless of what we experience.

But old habits die hard. After he’d disappeared, I tried my proposition on some of the servers at Jeff’s place. They were all aligned against me, even after with being presented with the potential for a higher, fairer income. “I just like the feeling of being tipped out at the end of the night,” Kay, a young twenty-something server noted. “It’s a great feeling. It’s the feeling of being rewarded.”

As good as her service always is, that’s always going to be the fundamental problem with tipping: we’re paying for emotional reciprocity, out of obligation, and nothing more. Really, though: Who’s that good for?

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