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The Tipping System Is Immoral

Opinion|The Tipping System Is Immoral

David Brooks

Credit…Damon Winter/The New York Times

For most of my life I’ve been glad that America is a society that relies heavily on tipping. First, tipping allows us to reward excellent service. Second, in a world of rising economic inequality, a 30 to 50 percent tip is a small but direct way to redistribute money to those who are working hard to earn a living.

Moreover, tipping nurtures humane relationships. It encourages servers to try to establish social connection through direct eye contact and a display of warmth. Finally, most of the servers I’ve known like the tipping system. They’ve believed that by doing their job well they could earn far more than they could through a flat wage. That’s certainly what I thought as a bartender.

So over all, I’ve taken it as good news that tipping culture seems to be spreading to every cashier’s counter in the land.

But if you look at the research you find that a lot of it doesn’t buttress my priors. In the first place, the amount of a tip is rarely related to the quality of the service. Michael Lynn of Cornell, who is the leading scholar on the subject, finds that the quality of the service has a relatively small effect on tip size.

A Conflict of Visions” explores the virtues of working realistically within constraints, and the evils that ensue when people ignore or try to run roughshod over them. He would say the constrained vision is wiser whether the subject is tipping, expanding health insurance or choosing between capitalism and socialism.

In the unconstrained vision, you ask: What’s the solution? In a constrained vision you ask: What’s the best set of trade-offs and reforms we can actually achieve?

The constrained vision is wiser. So I’ll cheer on those who want to move America to a no-tip system. In the meantime, there are ways we can all make the best of a bad system:

  • Tip 20 percent when the meal is over $25 and 30 percent when it is under.

  • Always, always, always leave a tip in a hotel room.

  • To combat implicit bias when tipping drivers and others, commit to a percentage for all rides and stick to it.

  • Understand that the advantages you enjoy are products of both your individual effort and privileges you didn’t earn. Tip accordingly.

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