“Don’t Tip the Government!”

In the summers of 2010 and 2011, I interned at a small tech company in Atlanta where I learned a lot about how a business runs, how to succeed when thrown into a pool of liquid you don’t know how to swim in (C++, OOP), and how to accomplish longer-term goals.

One of the most interesting and quite enjoyable times at that job were the lunches all the employees got together for. We would talk about work developments, personal life, or news and politics. And all but one or two other employees were staunch conservatives or libertarians.

I learned a hell of a lot from these discussions, coming away with a much greater understanding of their positions and appreciation of their mode of thinking.

Since then, I’ve been surrounded by more liberals and come around to that way of thinking again. Though I should say that these shifts are slow, gradual, and not especially substantial. I generally move between moderate shades of blue and red hues. (Though my stances on social issues like marriage equality, abortion rights, marijuana legalization, and church/state separation issues have been constant for a decade or more.)

But today I was thinking about the regular Thursday lunches when the whole company would go out to eat at the nearby Mexican restaurant. And I thought about a phrase that came up at the end of several meals while we all did the mental math to monetarily compliment our service.

“Don’t tip the government!”

I found the idea interesting, amusing, and I supposed logical at the time: tip based on the charged amount of the meal, not on the price after tax. After all, the government didn’t provide excellent service: the waiter did. And honestly, we had the same few waiters each time, and they were really fun.

But this idea… is giving a lot of thought to a tiny sliver of disparity. Consider what the difference is that they’re calculating. Right now, sales tax is 8% in Atlanta. So that means that a check for $12 becomes $12.96.

A 15% tip for $12: $1.80
A 15% tip for $12.96: $1.94

That’s 14 cents worth of difference that is worthy of a phrase and consideration. It is mathematically a 1.2% difference on the check for a 15% tip (2% difference for a 25% tip). To find the difference on tipping the government in this situation with a given check “c”:

(1.08c * 0.15) – (c * 0.15) = 0.162c – 0.15c = 0.012c

I’d give some credence to the idea that it is a representative gesture. But to whom? Yourself, for one. Anyone else you tell, sure. But this penny-pinching ultimately hurts the restaurant and the waiter. And I don’t find it a stretch to relate those who are concerned with 1-2% differences in cost to those who don’t tip amazingly well in the first place. Further, are these tiny percentages really going to amount to full dollar amount differences when tipping with cash?

What I newly came away with just today was how this behavior is representative of the mindset of a libertarian, or someone who believes the government should be minimized and values personal responsibility and bootstrap-pulling.

Only someone of privilege would spend time penny-pinching to prove a point, rather than out of necessity. In fact, when looking back, it’s almost a metaphorical slap in the face to those that actually have very tight budgets and undergo constant stress because of it. And honestly, our waiter may have been closer to that than anyone else we’d meet that day.

The general libertarian response, as I understand it, is that these people belong where they are because they haven’t worked hard enough or achieved the level of success that my coworkers had, for example. But this completely ignores the numerous factors outside of all of our control that positioned each and every one of us for greatness, mediocrity, failure, or anywhere in between. Not everyone is born in a family that encourages and values education. Not everyone’s family has enough money to send kids to college. Not everyone is born free of debilitating mental illnesses or physical disabilities. Not everyone finds their calling, nor is it always lucrative.

This isn’t to devalue the hard work my former coworkers undoubtedly did to reach where they are. Certainly not. But it’s a mistake to ignore the factors that stacked the deck in their favor from the start. That allowed them the ability to work hard and achieve what they have.

And so I mentally return to the end of the company lunch with my new perspective years later. I see the all-white all-male crew of engineers talking politics and sports and trying out the hot peppers they’ve been growing in their back yards. There are few immediate concerns about any of our well-being besides how the next software release is going.

I hear the titular phrase said to my newly-employed 2010 self, and present me raises an eyebrow and scrunches my face in a mix of confusion and disappointment. This meager point, this miniscule prod maybe represents something to them, but represents so much more to me now. About ignorance, about arrogance, about selfishness.

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