Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Tipping and Economic Justice

[My comments from a "Wikifray Symposium" You can find out what others think about it over there.]

There's little, if anything, we consumers can do with most businesses to influence justice in payment. My personal boycott of Wal-Mart is too small to influence their employment practices. The managers and CEOs of any large organization whose goods or services I use will still be compensated beyond their worth, and will like as not peddle inferior products made in some third-world sweatshop, choke the air with carcinogens, and deforest the Amazon. For most of the stuff I buy, I'm well removed from the immediate effects of our decision, and even to the extent we're aware, there's not a whole hell of a lot we can do change them anyway. (I'm sure it makes me a bad person, but I haven't been willing to descend into pure aescticism to make a point.)

This is one reason to patronize local businesses. You can't do much about the supply chain, but since you're one of a small pool paying the people at the front end, and you have an idea of the sorts of business practices they utilize, you do influence some measure of equity. In the case of waiting tables, the difference between good tippers and bad seems to be an aware of the social contract. Maybe it's good that we know that one person. Restaurants are some of the most localized, and maybe the only one where we're expected to contribute voluntarily to the fair compensation of its employees. Even if we need to drop the charade of "performance," maybe we shouldn't let that handle go.

How does that social contract end up being enforced? Restaurants attract customers largely based on their menus, and there is an incentive to discount service from teh cost of the food. If Bob's Bistro is able to list $18 filets on the menu while discounting the waiter's pay, then Steve's Slop-chute can't afford to include that cost in the advertisement. No one will come, even if Steve double-deep-fries his steaks to colon-clogging perfection (yuck). Just costs too damn much.

[This is kind of funny, actually, because most restaurants don't make their off of food, but rather booze, which is also not included in the menu price.]

The other thing that keeps tipping alive is the (fucking) IRS. Restaurant employers can legally underpay wait staff at some low fraction of the legal minimum wage. (In MA, the base waiter pay is two-something an hour.) Employees need the tips to get paid anything approaching working wages. Depends on where you work, but a fraction of the tips usually go to the other underpaid restaurant schlubs: the busboys and dishwashers, and the person who cooks your food. Waiters also get screwed at tax time, as the two dollars and change is often insufficient to get properly FICAed. It's always fun to come up with a couple grand of lump sum in April.

The justice of tipping depends on where you work. There are advanced skills working at a quality restaurant (you need to know about the food, and how to satisfy the expectations of moneyed assholes), but as John notes, the skill level doesn't exactly rise as fast as teh food costs do. If you're in fine dining, waiting tables is surprisingly lucrative. If my wife did it full-time, she'd be coming close to her old engineer's salary. (See kids, college is for suckers.) The pay scales in fine restaurants seem a little absurd when you start comparing waiter take home pay to that of the skill players (the chefs).

On the other hand, old Mabel slinging breakfast hash is on her feet just as long (dealing with teh expectations of unmonied assholes), and earning a quarter for every plate to supplement her salary. You'd be nuts to serve breakfast, and I try to give these people a break. I think the pizza deliverer has the worst lot of the bunch, and not just for the humiliating uniform and drunk customers. Do you think Papa John's D.P. Dough is paying anyone's car insurance? I tip the pizza guy best of all.

I don't tip people in fast food: these poor sots earn a normal wage, expect me to bus my own table, and don't bring my sack o' crap past teh counter. Not part of the contract. I tip bartenders less because I think they deserve it, and more because I want the drinks to keep coming when it gets crowded. Is it happy hour yet, or what?



twiffer said...

having waited tables and delivered food (dp dough!) i can honestly say the tipping is far worse for a driver. specially since the fucking calzones were $4.50, and i was delivering to college students. you'd get a fin and they'd consider you tipped. except for the pricks who actually asked for the 50 cents back. granted, the shitty pay and tips were offset by the fact that you could smoke a joint while you were driving around and you could steal coupons and skim a bit off the top.

not a fun job though. did it for a semester and wound up having to get new struts for my car.

Keifus said...


I had a friend in high school (still my friend, one of the official three) who delivered pizzas. Once or twice I was bored enough to join him. Felt bad for the poor bastard.

hipparchia said...

i made halfway-decent money delivering pizzas. college students -- and their professors -- are horrible tippers, but i averaged in tips alone about what i make now as an under-appreciated and salaried computer geek.

being a computer geek is easier on the car though, i have to admit, and people are probably less likely to shoot computer geeks....

Keifus said...

I find that blogging is a fine and pointless gesture toward underappreciative employers.

I'm thinking that the hidden machinations of computer geeks have made me a lot angrier over the years than pizza deliverers (what, crashed again?!), but only one completes the transaction face to bespectacled face.


Grace Nearing said...

I tip the pizza guy best of all.

I do too. I'm just thrilled that someone actually brings food to the door. My goal in life is to live in a hotel with 24-hour room service.

Keifus said...

Oh I dunno, hotels are kind of impersonal. But yes, there's something pleasing about being waited on in my own nest, that's for sure.

Thanks for stopping in.