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The Tip Jar Shall be the Downfall of this Great Republic, Evidence from 2012 and 1916

• August 17, 2012 • 12:25 PM

Tipping is an aristocratic conceit — “There you go, my good man, buy your starving family a loaf” — best left to an aristocratic age. The practicing democrat would rather be told what he owes right up front. Offensively rich people may delight in peeling off hundred-dollar bills and tossing them out to groveling servants. But no sane, well-adjusted human being cares to sit around and evaluate the performance of some beleaguered coffee vendor.

The above happens to have been written by Michael Lewis in 1997. But in its argument and diction, it could pretty well pass for an excerpt from the original anti-tipping manifesto, “The Itching Palm: A Study of the Habit of Tipping in America,” a 1916 book written by fellow named William R. Scott. Both are part of a long, proud, exasperated tradition. Americans of strong democratic fiber have been railing against tipping ever since the late 19th Century, when the practice drifted over from Europe, borne by wealthy Americans who had traveled to the continent after the Civil War and hung out at Downton Abbey came back eager to share their new civilized manners with the poor relations at home.

As the decades have passed, tipping has only become more ingrained in American habits and business models, which makes it precisely the sort of thing that is most difficult to change. But that doesn’t keep the democratic gag reflex from kicking in on occasion. (Interestingly, now that tipping is everywhere, it is one of our most aristocratic publications — the New York Times – that seems most interested in leading the discussion about the practice’s ill effects.)

In any event, this month, a new study describes another dimension of the problem with tipping: according to a paper in Social Psychology and Personality Science, societies in which you see lots of tipping are also societies where you see lots of … corruption and bribery.

We investigated the link between tipping, an altruistic act, and bribery, an immoral act. We found a positive relationship between these two seemingly unrelated behaviors, using archival cross-national data for 32 countries, and controlling for per capita gross domestic product, income inequality, and other factors. Countries that had higher rates of tipping behavior tended to have higher rates of corruption.

The data here is new. But the thesis that there is a relationship between gratuities and graft is not as counter-intuitive, or at least as novel, as the researchers let on. This morning, I consulted my trusty William R. Scott, and here’s what I found:

The itching palm is not limited to the serving classes. It is found among public officials, where it is particularized as grafting, and it is found among store buyers, purchasing agents, traveling salesmen and the like, and takes the form of splitting commissions. There are varied manifestations of the disease, but whether the amount of the gratuity is ten cents to a waiter or $10,000 to a captain of police, the practice is the same.

BONUS: For a less, um, civic-minded case against tipping, here’s Mr. Pink from Reservoir Dogs. Warning: Tarantino-esque language ahead:

John Gravois
John Gravois is Pacific Standard's deputy editor.

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