Thursday, April 10, 2008

On Tipping

Living in a big city, one is confronted daily with decisions on what is, in theory, a type of discretionary spending otherwise known as tipping. However, few people ever delve deeper into the reasons for, significance or outcomes of tipping. I believe that the phenomenon deserves very serious attention for a multitude of reasons.

Usually, a consensus on who to tip and at what rate is made within a specified geographical area. Tipping becomes a part of the local culture, and is often seen as a necessary hassle for tippers and a natural part of the job for receivers of tips. So, what do a few dollars here and there mean for one’s everyday life if it can make someone happy? I argue that the culture of tipping has vast implications on both receivers and givers of tips, as well as on society as whole. I argue that intrinsic in the tipping culture are strong values which carry a large amount of symbolic significance, which is why the topic is important to discuss, and put into a modern perspective.

We can start by attempting to establish the true reasons for tipping. Is it something people do out of the goodness of their hearts, do they do it because they feel absolutely obligated to, or might they do it for other reasons?

Turning to the first alternative; there is obviously a great need for additional income for people in the United States who earn the minimum wage or a little more. For all intents and purposes, the United States as a society is not a first-world country in terms of the standard of living it guarantees its citizens. In other words, in contrast to other first-world countries, the low-wage earner in the United States is on his or her own. Surely, many people recognize this situation as a problem and take pity on the low-wage earners, and hence tip them (out of the “goodness” of their hearts). In a given service industry, a deficiency of income among service providers is hence recognized, and compensated for by customers voluntarily. A tipping culture is created as a result of a perceived discrepancy between the value of the labor, and the actual compensation from the employer, while also taking the local cost structure into account. This could be described as a type of solidarity, similar to the solidarity of welfare societies where a larger amount of the national income is distributed to the lower echelons of society.

By raising wages for low-wage earners, the need for tips in many countries in Europe was eliminated. Of course, the tipping culture process is also different because it requires that the receiver of tips interacts with customers so that the customer is able to recognize the need for a tip, and is able to deliver the tip at all. No one would think of seeking out low-wage earners who provide services for them, but with whom they have no contact, in order to give them tips. Does anyone tip the guy or girl who mows the lawn in the local park, or sweeps the streets outside your house or apartment building? So, the voluntary compensation that is done for solidarity reasons by individual customers only reaches small parts of the low-wage earners, the vast majority of which never receive any tips at all.

Once a culture of tipping has been established in a given service industry, it is difficult for someone to deny it, and an obligation to participate in it is created. I once saw an episode of “Candid Camera” where the joke was a mailman ringing the doorbell of a house on his route, telling the inhabitant that, from now on, one is expected to tip one’s mailman. The inhabitants looked confused, wondering how much was expected, and started ruffling through their bags for cash, while the audience laughed. With this moderately funny episode in mind I was very surprised to learn, when I moved to New York City, that one is indeed expected to tip one’s mailman in this city.

So what happens if you don’t? Naturally, as soon as the tipping culture is established, the receivers of tips will participate in it and try to perpetuate it (for better or worse for themselves). An obvious risk is created where a service provider might in some way or another refuse to work if not paid tips, just like he or she would most likely refuse to work if the employer did not pay any wages. In a normal employer-employee relationship, the employer is obligated to pay the employee, while the employee is obligated to work. End of story. Via the establishment of a tipping culture, a second employer is, in essence, created. This involuntary employer in turn has little control over the behavior of the employee, and the employee has no guarantee of being paid.

A common misconception is that the word “tip” is in fact an acronym, meaning “To Insure Promptness” (please give money to your waiter). This would have been written on signs in British pubs. In actual fact, the meaning of this originally Germanic word has not changed much since it was incorporated into English. However, the story serves as a cautionary urban legend, stressing the importance of tipping.

Another way in which the tipping culture is perpetuated is through peer pressure. There are less tangible forms of peer pressure, like “tradition”, and then there are very tangible forms of peer pressure, like when a group of people are splitting a bill in a restaurant. All the members of the group may not agree on the appropriate rate of tips, or if any tips should be given at all. However, since all the payers of the bill, and their level of appropriateness within the tipping culture, will be judged collectively, strong reasons for disagreement and pressure exist. Someone who may not want to tip can be pressured to do so. If one member of the group refuses to tip, and another feels obligated to tip, a free-rider situation will occur.

There is at least one more aspect of the reasons for tipping that needs to be examined: the feeling of empowerment. Having the ability to pay for a given service, as opposed to taking care of something yourself, naturally gives one a sense of satisfaction. In a competitive society, the goal is to rise above the rest in as many ways as possible. In addition to accumulating the most resources, the prudent spending of those resources may better your standing and prestige in society in additional ways. By paying extra money to a service providing representative of a lower echelon of society, one is simultaneously reinforcing one’s image of belonging to the higher echelon, and insuring that the service provided is better than the service provided to others who paid less or no tips.

The significance of a tipping culture is great because it cements the workings of a given service industry, and has an impact on society as a whole. It allows employers to hire people essentially as outside contractors, it moves the wage increase pressure from employers and politicians to individual customers (involuntary employers) and it creates an essentially hidden, under-the-table, layer of tax in society. This creates a lower level of job security, takes away political power from the lower echelons of society, decreases the ability for politicians to put tax money to work and increases tax fraud. The tipping culture is hence a significant part of a system of voluntary payments that serve as life-support systems for problem areas of society that the state is unable or unwilling to ameliorate. Of course, the related system of charitable contributions quickly comes to mind. The United States relies heavily on charitable contributions from individual citizens in order to better the situation for millions of its citizens, much like most parts of Europe in the 1800:s. The obvious problem with such voluntary systems comes when certain fluctuations occur that affect the voluntary giving both in tips and charitable contributions.

At the present time (April 2008), the United States is in the early stages of a recession, and the financial troubles have hit would-be givers of charitable gifts especially hard. In short, certain groups who until recently perceived themselves to have a great surplus of resources, no longer consider that to be true. As a result, there is no surplus to give away, and donations dry up. In New York City, food banks are empty, and many charitable organizations are struggling. In the “financial capital of the world”, children in The Bronx are actually walking around hungry.

The larger issue is, in fact, how a society puts a floor on the living standard of its citizens. If you leave this up to tipping and charitable gifts, which is included in the category of “discretionary spending” the consequences can most certainly be dire.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Darwin, the creator

I do not wish to grant the “theory” of creationism any serious attention, for it deserves none. A theory that simply points out the problems of another theory is not a theory, it’s a critique. A critique that does not explain, in detail, why the criticized theory is erroneous, does not have much merit. If simply saying: “No, I don’t think that’s how it happened’, should be considered serious scientific work, then we would have a lot more scientists in this world. Creationism does, however, function as a pretty good conversation starter. It points out the fact that classical Darwinism seems to be a rather unlikely scenario, given the amount of time and complexity involved. In my view, evolution cannot occur (and of course it is occurring as we speak) at the rate it has simply because of random fortuitous mutation, which is the main maxim of classical Darwinism. I would like to propose a few amendments to the classical theory of evolution. These amendments take into account the behaviors and experiences of an organism during its lifetime, as being critical to evolution.

What I am proposing is the following:

- behavior, experiences and actions taken during the lifetime of an organism influences the genes (and other hereditary components) of the offspring of the organism.

I must immediately point out that what I mean by “other hereditary components” is very important. Genes do not live in a vacuum, and I believe there are thousands of things other than a straight mutation of a specific gene that can cause changes in an organism that would amount an effect that is on par or greater for the organism than a mutation of a specific gene. This could include changes in interaction between genes, gene lifespan activity and many other things.

I believe the theory of Darwinism must be the starting point of the subject and that it is one of the most important discoveries ever made, but it must be built upon with modern ideas to make sense. Frankly, I think it is ridiculous to believe that millions of fortuitous one-in-a-million mutations (preceded by millions of unfortunate mutations) would have produced the highly adapted multitude of organisms that we have today.

It is certainly possible that there have been many fortuitous one-in-a-million mutations, but it does not make sense for that to be the driving force behind evolution. That would in my mind be like having an entire society depending on lottery winnings for their income. There must be a mechanism behind most mutations. I believe that bio-chemistry will be able to support this to a large degree in the future, but for now I would only like for you to consider two examples.

One of the most obvious examples of how a specific behavior can be inherited is what some scientists refer to as "hard-wiring". Usually they are talking about animals that know how to do something without ever having been trained to do it. Consider an eagle: the young bird
leaves the nest and starts a life of its own. In a couple of years it is time for the eagle to build its own nest and attempt to start a family of its own. It picks a tree or rock on which to build the nest, gathers material that is appropriate for the construction and builds the nest in a certain shape and with a certain technique. How does it do that? It has most likely never seen a nest being built or been instructed in any other way as to how to do it. To my knowledge, eagles do not have schools. It is hence "hard-wired" to do it. What scientists seem to neglect to discuss is how this "hard-wiring" came about. In my mind there is no other logical explanation than the occurrence of a trans-generational memory. Indeed, eagles must have used a lot of trial and error in learning how to build a good nest, and learning can change the biological make-up of the brain. Hence, at some point in the evolution of eagles, an eagle learned how to build a nest, and this changed the structure of the eagle’s brain slightly. This change must then have been recorded in its genes, in one way or another, and transferred to its offspring.

Another example comes from Scandinavia, and deals with another type of mutation. There are about five groups of people in the world who have developed a tolerance to lactose (meaning nearly all adults can drink a full glass of milk without ever getting a stomach ache as a result. All children in the world can tolerate it, but lose that ability before adolescence). All of those groups except for the Scandinavians have simply a tolerance to the substance, they cannot benefit from the nutrients.

However, the peoples of Scandinavia have stomachs that can fully benefit from tolerance to dairy products, due to a mutation that most likely took place around 5,000 years ago. People in Scandinavia were very dependant on cows, which they probably bred with local wild animals to make them more resilient to the climate. They probably became dependant on milk for their children due to the lack of sun (lack of vitamin D). Most likely, what started as giving children extra milk from cows, had the effect that a mutation occurred which made it so that children never lost the ability to process milk to begin with. Also, all the other peoples of the world who can tolerate milk as adults are herder peoples, such as the Massai and peoples in central Asia. So, these groups of people have one thing in common: the dependency on milk-producing animals, and, most likely, repeated attempts to benefit from that milk.

In other words, repeatedly drinking milk, out of necessity, created a need for milk tolerance. The body responded by creating more lactase (which can break down lactose in milk) due to a changed chemical environment for the body. Again, this change in production of lactase must have been recorded in the genes or elsewhere, so that a trans-generational milk tolerance occurred.

It seems almost obvious to the scientific community today that harmful behavior, experiences and environments can negatively affect one’s offspring. For instance, we know that a bad chemical environment can cause trans-generational damage to a baby (I’m not talking about what happens during the pregnancy, but before the pregnancy). Why should it then be that “positive” (whatever that is) behaviors, experiences and environments could not have a positive effect on one’s offspring? Or conversely, why could not negative experiences produce a positive result in the form of, for instance, tolerance to a harmful chemical environment?

It is my hope that the scientific community will bring more clarity on these issues in the near future. In order to properly connect the dots, I believe that more visionary thinking is needed.

I will conclude this essay with a funny and interesting story (if I may say so myself). After World War II, Australia occupied and managed some islands in Papua New Guinea. They attempted to educate the natives, and also convert them to christianity through missionaries. The natives were lukewarm about the idea of christianity, but nevertheless decided to give it a chance. They thought that the story of creation was particularly strange, and very different from what they had imagined before.

One day, one of the natives came upon a book that belonged to one of the missionaries. It was Charles Darwin's "Origin of the species". The natives looked in the book, and became furious. They realized that this must be what the white missionaries really believed (at this time, such science was not necissarily seen as heretical by the church). The natives told the missionaries: This is what you believe? That's what we have believed all along! It turned out that the natives' original religion described man's evolution as gradual a process that turned animal into man, and changed animals gradually to adapt to their environment.