16.10.12

Trying an extreme form of an argument about tipping to see if it works:

Generally speaking, I don't consider myself to have an obligation to undo structural injustices. I have a responsibility to act ethically in my own interactions with others, and I have a responsibility to work through representative and democratic means to change unjust situations (and, let's be honest: I will choose some subset of unjust situations to devote the most time and energy to, no offense to the rest). But, barring a severe injustice whose very existence threatens the legitimacy of a society, I have no particular obligation to do more than this.

In the United States, we have a set of laws and norms in which we have chosen to a. allow some workers in the food service industry to receive less than minimum wage and b. accepted that a tip is to some extent a reflection of the quality of service received. It appears relevant that for a. not every food service worker receives less than minimum wage, and a customer has no way of knowing this, nor exactly how much less, nor the pattern of accumulation of tips on a given evening, nor how the tips are distributed among the waitstaff (and possibly others).

Given the difficult of changing a., the emphasis is now being put on b., but in a form that is a nonsensical mixing of individual and collective social responsibilities: i.e. each person should act as though their tipping would constitute the norm, but should also tip as though other people will neglect the norm, and the responsibility of making up for a shortcoming in income falls solely on the tipper. But, to highlight one instance of this, neither unthinkable nor unobserved back when I lived in the wilds of Michigan, one can imagine an evening where one comes to a restaurant, but one's server will have only five or six customers--i.e. almost certainly lose money on the evening. Given the structural realities of the sub-minimum wage and the necessity of splitting whatever tips there might be, it seems the general logic of the changing tipping norm would dictate that the customer should tip more in that scenario, even with all other things being constant. Except that this is an absurd result.

(An aside, relevant for the morality and etiquette questions involved: a number of articles that emphasize the importance of tipping generously emphasize that the tip should be in cash whenever possible. It's hard to think of a justification for this that is not an attempt to provide cover for unjust or unfair action farther down the line: lying about tips, withholding from the common share of money, etc. The structural injustices of the wage system cannot possibly justify both increased ethical concern on the part of the customer and decreased ethical concern on the part of the waitstaff.)

Part of attempting to work this out requires realizing that waitstaff constitute a group with interests that may be orthogonal to justice, fairness, or common sense, no less than restaurant owners who see the logic in paying as little as possible to their employees. They're free to make whatever demands they want (everybody needs to tip 50% all the time!), and we're free to ignore them. It can't be the average person's job to remedy a structural injustice every time they want lunch, because 1. once you start playing the 'remedy a social injustice' game, it's hard to do anything else and 2. waitstaff should, on that logic, lose out on those marginal dollars in favor of people who are more deserving, of which there is (probably) no shortage. And, it has to be said, though it's often ignored in threads about tipping, a generally-enacted policy of "well then, don't go to a restaurant where you'll have to tip" is the worst possible outcome for the people involved.

None of this allows the individual customer to simply neglect their responsibilities under b. to provide a tip that reflects the quality of service received, but it also means that the inexorable march to higher tip percentages need not be accepted.

1 comment:

Phoebe said...

Glad there's someone else covering this from a different angle! It always devolves into YPIS accusations, that anyone who doesn't think 30% is a sensible tip clearly never worked in food service. No doubt written by people currently working for tips, who will repeat this until it's true. (And it works - witness the ubiquity of dollar tips in coffee shops, up from just change, up from no tip jars at all.)

But is there a presumption that tip amount relates to quality of service? I'm thinking of times I'm out in groups, with one other person, or alone, and I can't think of when this has factored into it. Typically in NYC, the norm is to double the tax. In places where that's not the case, I generally find that calculating 18% or so (15% seeming too low, 20% too high) is just done b/c that's how one completes the payment - one hasn't paid until this extra math is thrown in. It has nothing to do with anything, both because one doesn't wish to leave without paying, and because who knows what was the server's fault and what wasn't.

In other words, it could be the kind of places I go to, or the demands I don't even know to make, but I wouldn't even know what might happen in a restaurant to merit a tip over 20%.

Meanwhile, I'm not aware of anyone treating the fact that (some) waitstaff get below minimum wage as a way of keeping the profession competitive - of indicating to certain servers that they haven't got what it takes, and putting not-so-subtle economic pressure on them to find another line of work. In principle, it might work like that, although it's for the best that it does not. But because it doesn't, what would be the harm in raising prices by 15%? Is the issue perhaps that many servers in certain locales earn more than they would if service were included?