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Tipping’s Greater Virtue

I have worked as a waiter and I am regularly featured these days in the role of patron. My ex-wife is from Japan, and in Japan there is no tipping. She liked the simplicity and fairness of this model, and I can respect that. But I like — no, I love tipping. Why? It is that subversive little corner of our capitalist system that runs as a “gift economy.”

The act of giving, and the act of depending on the generosity of another person-these are both important activities required to build healthy people. In our society we have successfully taken the “guesswork” out of a lot of the giving-receiving relationships: you work for a specific wage, you pay a specific rent, a specific tax rate, you pay for food at a certain price determined by supply and demand, matters of government, and personal style. You subject yourself to the rule of law which is in turn mediated by your participation in Democracy.

We don’t live with the uncertainty of Kings, we don’t farm with the uncertainty of the weather. For those of us in the comfortable end of the middle class, the stressful uncertainties that mean more to people of lesser means mean a lot less to us: the price of milk, the price of gas, whether we are at war in Iraq . . .

It doesn’t take a lot of faith in the goodness of human nature to successfully live a life like mine. I’m insulated from a lot of the vagaries of the human condition. I’m not alone in this. And some of us, well, we forget about all that hassle: we are free to press our energies in to work, family, community, creative pursuits. I like this freedom, but . . . sometimes I open my eyes and see that the things that are stressing me out and challenging me are pointless, petty, or mundane. Especially in technology, victory becomes software shipped and larger numbers in the bank and retirement accounts.

We never go to bed hungry.

We will not wear body armor, carry M-16s and ride in Humvees through the garbage-filled streets of Baghdad, scared that we may not make it home from the cradle of civilization quite right.

We will eat until we are content, push the plate away half full. We will leave our lights on and run our dishwashers and our washing machines and stare into computer screens, trying to increase the zeros in those bank accounts. We will be constantly on the go, from climate controlled office to comfortable car to ski vacation to flights across the planet where we may dine on new foods, until we are content, and push the plate away again.

There have been a few times when I have been at the supermarket with not enough money. That kind of stress is memorable.

That kind of stress will be a part of anyone’s life. Your parents and grandparents will age and become infirm. Their hospital bills will eat up your savings accounts. You may in time return the favor of those diapers that were changed before you were too young to remember. You will be walking to your home one day and you will fall down and the doctor will explain that you have MS. Your wife will come home one day and tell you she needs to take a break, to go live with her new boyfriend.

The things that you take for granted today could change in an instant.

When I go out to eat, when I take a cab home, I have to make room in my capitalist business transaction for the tip. There are “rules” but the only enforcement is in your own character. When you give service, if you are honest with yourself, you accept that you are in an act of giving. Yeah, its your day job, and yes, chances are that the quality of your diet is a reflection of the quality of the tips you receive.

But, unlike the wage-earner, you are reminded every day that there is no guarantee, no law, nothing that says that your giving must be rewarded with anything beyond the minimum wage. So what do you do? There are no guarantees in life, you will do your best, and you will likely find that, despite some bad tipping and the occasional stiff, depending on the voluntary generosity of others actually works out okay.

You earn your income not merely with your Diligence, but with Trust and with Faith.

In my life, I have found that there are times when you have to depend on the voluntary generosity of other folks. I like that tipping remains a part of our capitalist economy. It is a reminder to those of us who are “comfortable” that we too, are subjects of fate. It is a reminder that our modern enterprise still relies a great deal in faith that the great majority of people can be relied upon to give. Voluntarily.

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