Freakonomics refers to tipping as “voluntary” in a tweet.

Tom Sietsema of the Washington Post seems to think that tipping 18% or even 20% is the new norm.

They can’t both be right. Admittedly, this is an apples-to-oranges comparison. The Freakonomics podcast is at least partly about tipping for non-food-service situations, such as tipping a bellman.

I recently saw a movie character (I think; I can’t remember the exact situation) question why the server in a high-end restaurant should be tipped so much more than the server in a casual dining restaurant just because the food costs that much more. If the tip at Ruth’s Chris works out to be $10 a diner, why not tip a server at Chili’s the same for good service?

There’s Amy’s Baking Company, of Kitchen Nightmares fame, whose manager thought tips belonged to him, not his servers.

Finally, there’s Federal law that refers to tipping. The Fair Minimum Wages Act of 2007 allows employers to count tips towards the hourly minimum wage. (Earlier minimum wage laws had similar provisions, of course.)

I remain a 15% (of post-tax total) tipper for table service restaurants. For buffets, such as brunches, I tip 5% if the servers are only minimally involved. I resented it years ago when Disneyworld included a 15% (18%?) tip on a large party at a buffet. Yes, the servers work for a large party, but it everyone is getting their own food, a 15% minimum tip seems excessive; it implies the servers are working as hard for the party as they would for the conventional restaurant next door.

I don’t know how restaurants compute the amount of tips when paying their servers. Do they assume 15% of pre-tax tabs? Do they make that computation only for tabs paid in cash and record actual values for tips paid by credit card? If I leave a small, mean tip as a message to a server that should leave this line of work, do they suffer economically, or does the restaurant have to cover the difference to maintain the minimum wage? And cover the difference from what? If they’re assuming 18% of the post-tax total, then I’m almost always low. If they assume 15% of the pre-tax total, I’m usually generous. I don’t consider such tipping voluntary, but apparently I quibble about the amount.

I doubt Freakonomics had it right when they compared the size of the tipping economy to NASA’s budget. The Feds think tipping is compulsory when they judge minimum wage compliance. If restaurants banned tipping and added 15% to the base prices, the staff should break even or suffer slightly (would cash tips still be left for exceptional service?), and NASA would be none the better off.

Besides, good luck getting that amount of money to NASA; the Tea Party twits would expect their tax bill to be lowered by that much, anyway. But that’s another rant.


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