Magazine April 20, 2009, Issue

Tip Jar Nation

We can no longer afford to feel special.

Here’s what just happened.

I’m in a hip coffee shop on Valencia Street in San Francisco. It’s early afternoon, and I order a double espresso. I hand over the money and get my change, which is a few bills and a handful of coins. The coins I keep: The parking-meter-enforcement Stasi in San Francisco circle the blocks with unwearied commitment. But the bills, well, I’d ideally like to keep them all, but there’s a tip jar on the counter beside the register, with one of those cheerlessly cheerful signs — “Hey! This is a Tip Jar! There’s a recession on!” — with a happy face below it. So I slide a $1 bill into the jar, take my espresso, sit down, and wonder if my extravagant tip — it’s the only bill in the jar — will mean that when I step up in a few minutes for a refill or a cookie I’ll get a smile from the unsmiling girl behind the counter.

What I get is nothing — no smile, no acknowledgment that I’ve paid for Platinum Level service, no extra care, no nothing. It’s as if the tip is part of her overall compensation package, something she negotiates ahead of time with the owners of the coffee shop, the way bankers and auto-company executives and vice presidents of AIG negotiate with the compliant members of the compensation committees of their various boards of directors.

I can even picture it: scruffy, pierced hipsters sitting around a boardroom in some alternative workspace, tapping out calculations on their iPhones, trying to work out what the tattooed girl should take home. Her representative (probably some aging, gray-bearded hippie) explaining that his client has a right to expect a guaranteed base salary plus an agreed-upon bonus based on a share of the tip-jar takings, and a severance agreement that allows for one year of free coffee drinks followed by a year of coffee drinks at cost and a reducible percentage of the tip-jar takings for 18 months following formal separation.

I mean, that’s what people are getting these days, right? 

In the Tip Jar Nation, everyone gets a bonus. Everyone gets a little amenity, just for showing up. The girl at the counter, the vice president of a troubled insurance giant, the hotel guest (who expects a mint on the pillow) — we’ve created a culture with so many rewards and so many little extras that we’ve forgotten what’s it’s like just to show up, get paid, and go home. 

When word of the AIG employee bonuses first splashed onto the front page, it was hard not to understand the string-’em-up impulse of the crowd. It was also hard not to sympathize with the AIG employees who were promised a number and expected it. But no matter which side you were on, you could agree on one thing: The word “bonus” is probably a bad word to use to describe an amount of money that’s been negotiated, haggled over, and specified to the penny, especially when it’s totally unrelated to the performance or financial solvency of the business. The word for what you pay someone for showing up and doing a job isn’t “bonus.” It’s “salary.” 

But if you lump it all together in the “salary” bucket of the Excel spreadsheet, you get a pretty huge number. An embarrassingly large number, in some cases — especially cases where the business itself (like banking, insurance, and making stuff in general) is in anemic and destitute shape. So the smart thing to do — to adjust the “optics” of the situation — is to create a lot of different buckets to spread it all around: bonuses and incentives and retention clauses, perks and allowances and one-time payments. But it all adds up to the same thing: what an employer promises to pay an employee, irrespective of the general crappiness of the business. And that ain’t a bonus, my friends. That’s a paycheck.

But in the Tip Jar Nation, we like to dress things up. We put smiley faces on the tip jar, so it’ll seem less demanding. When the children of the Tip Jar Nation play sports, they all get a trophy (the trophy is just a “bonus,” in other words: expected, no matter what the score). When the students of the Tip Jar Nation go to college, they expect to get terrific grades — all A’s, honor rolls, special mentions in the commencement program. When they check into hotels, they expect Premier Status upgrades, a complimentary something or other, a mint, shampoo, a small bag of Q-tips. When the generous citizens of the Tip Jar Nation go to a charity event, they expect to be thanked with a gift bag on the way out — something small and heavy and filled with expensive lotions. 

It’s a natural evolution of the self-esteem movement that started in the post-war era but really blanketed the country in the late 1960s, smothering us all with uplifting, supportive messages about our intrinsic self-worth and our specialness. The generation that grew up with Sesame Street and grade inflation and the American Express Platinum Card naturally feels entitled to bonuses, tips, little extras. Because what’s special about a simple employment contract? What’s incentivizing about a boring old paycheck?

The citizens of the Tip Jar Nation need to be incentivized, you see. They need a little extra motivation to keep them going — the simple pay-packet that enables them to enjoy three-hots-and-a-cot just doesn’t get them out of bed anymore.

Or, didn’t. As the chill wind of the economic downturn blows its way through the Tip Jar Nation, things might start to get a lot simpler. Salary negotiations could become pretty short: pick a number, give it a haircut, divide by 52, presto. Here’s what you get a week. Now get to work. 

So, to the girl behind the counter at the coffee place on Valencia, I have some bad news: You got your last tip from this cat. Unless, you know, you smile. That’s worth a bonus.

In This Issue

Articles

Politics & Policy

How We Fight

The Republican party is now consolidated in its opposition to President Obama. Most of its members have decided that his central political project is to bring social democracy to these ...
Politics & Policy

A Good Plan in Africa

Nairobi, Kenya – Democracy promotion is and probably always will be America’s default foreign policy, embarked upon when no other controlling interests prevail. This is so for two reasons: one philosophical, ...
Politics & Policy

Tip Jar Nation

Here’s what just happened. I’m in a hip coffee shop on Valencia Street in San Francisco. It’s early afternoon, and I order a double espresso. I hand over the money and ...

Features

Politics & Policy

The New Afghan War

Kabul – Gov. Mohammed Halim Fi-dai is agitated. He’s holding forth in his office in Wardak province a half-hour or so outside of Kabul, before an audience of U.S. military ...

Books, Arts & Manners

Politics & Policy

By the Waters…

Richard John Neuhaus, recently departed and greatly missed, enjoyed four overlapping careers in the American public square. Taken on its own, each would have been sufficient to guarantee the fame ...
Politics & Policy

Paleo Khan

In The Dangerous Book for Boys, the name Genghis Khan appears precisely once. It’s a passing reference, toward the end, in a section on the Great Wall of China. Yet ...
Politics & Policy

On Our Side

William F. Buckley Jr. wrote a successful series of espionage thrillers about Blackford Oakes, a CIA agent. Now National Review editor Rich Lowry (together with his friend Keith Korman) has ...
Politics & Policy

Shelf Life

David Bentley Hart is one of the most valuable theologians of recent years; his 2003 book The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth is a masterpiece. The ...

Sections

The Bent Pin

The Bent Pin

Marry in Haste, Repent at Leisure As the Obama administration enters its third month I keep thinking of an old rhyming joke. It’s about an absent-minded girl who, being incapable of ...
The Long View

The Long View

A Twitter-istory of the World . . . Spent all a.m. trying to walk upright. Any1 in the Twitterverse had success at that yet? Also: what’s the 411 in re: hunting, ...
Politics & Policy

Poetry

The scarlet torches of crape myrtle Crowd my window, kindled by the sun. Their thick foliage blocks my view Of all but the treetops and the sky. I enjoy the flower-clusters, and butterflies That visit ...
Happy Warrior

Happy Warrior

Closing Up Shop As National Review’s in-house demography bore — oh, hang on, the self-deprecating “demography bore” shtick is getting even more boring than just boring on about demography . . ...
Politics & Policy

Letters

Keeping the Peace  In the April 6 issue’s “The Week,” you ran a paragraph about the recent attacks on soldiers and policemen in Northern Ireland. The piece unfairly and incorrectly stated ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ Carter-era Fiat: Fix It Again, Tony. Obama-era Fiat: Fix It Again, Taxpayers. ‐ “What’s good for the country is good for General Motors,” Charles Wilson, the company’s president in the ...

Most Popular

Politics & Policy

The Botched Democratic Case for Witnesses

The fate of the republic, we are now supposed to believe, hinges on whether there are witnesses at a Senate impeachment trial. Upon the long-anticipated transmittal of the articles of impeachment to the Senate, House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler said if the upper chamber doesn’t obtain the witnesses and ... Read More
Politics & Policy

The Botched Democratic Case for Witnesses

The fate of the republic, we are now supposed to believe, hinges on whether there are witnesses at a Senate impeachment trial. Upon the long-anticipated transmittal of the articles of impeachment to the Senate, House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler said if the upper chamber doesn’t obtain the witnesses and ... Read More
PC Culture

Women Lie Too

Elizabeth Warren says Bernie Sanders once told her that a woman couldn't win the presidency. Bernie Sanders says Elizabeth Warren is lying about the encounter. I have no idea whom to believe. Some notable people on Twitter have wondered if maybe, considering all that happened during the #MeToo movement, ... Read More
PC Culture

Women Lie Too

Elizabeth Warren says Bernie Sanders once told her that a woman couldn't win the presidency. Bernie Sanders says Elizabeth Warren is lying about the encounter. I have no idea whom to believe. Some notable people on Twitter have wondered if maybe, considering all that happened during the #MeToo movement, ... Read More