Sunday, February 6, 2022

Should Tipping Be My Only Charity?

I'm considering going a year where my only form of charity will be excess tipping--an amount well over and above what I would otherwise give. Before you dismiss this out of hand, consider the problem of charity  My ability to connect with truly effective altruism is very limited even if I religiously adhere to the formal EA movement or even if I completely reject the EA network. What I can do is reward good work and people working in general through gratuity. 

In truth I really probably can't make it my only form of charity from a practical standpoint. There are just too many obligations I have to traditional charity (e.g., my church donations, the United Way contributions I make through work, et al.). One could certainly argue the merits of these including how much is charity on my part versus quid pro quo where the quo is social desirability bias, virtue signaling, tax benefits (really just a subsidy for giving), and non-pecuniary benefits (e.g., two days of extra vacation for a continued minimum United Way donation). Nevertheless, I could substantially reduce all traditional and otherwise forms of charitable giving including donations of my time with excess tipping as the substitute. 

Let's consider some rough math on what this might mean. Hypothetically assume my desired annual charitable giving through this experiment to be $10,000. A point of consideration would be if the tipping would be limited to very traditional tipping situations, namely dining, valet, room service, doorman, etc., or if I would extend this to areas like occasional household services, namely plumbers, electricians, furniture movers, etc. One might argue that everyone should be tipped. However, to keep the math easy, I'll limit it to waitstaff in dining. 

Let's further suppose I dine out an average of 7 times a week at a moderate expense, 2 times a week at high expense, and 1 time per four weeks at a very high expense. The kids are with me for the moderate and high expense meals while it is just the wife and I for the very high expense meal, which are the following on average (with just the standard tip of 15%): $50, $100, $300. Per week that becomes $250 ($50x5) + $100 ($100x1) + $75 ($300x1/4) = $425/week or $22,100/year. Of this about $2,883 would be standard 15% tipping ($22,100 - $22,100/1.15)). To "donate" an extra $10,000 through excess tipping through the year, I would be making an implied 52% excess tip ($10,000/$19,217 [the amount spent before standard tip]). Stated another way, the increase is about 45% above the old levels ($10,000/22,100-1).*

Breaking this down by meal type we have a $50 meal becoming about $73, a $100 becoming about $145, and a $300 becoming about $436. Weekly expenses here have gone up $192 ($425 becoming $617). And the annual checks out where $22,100 is now $32,100. 

These would just be averages. I would hold out the ability to vary the amount to zero excess tip to a lot more excess tip based on maybe quality of service or perceived need. Also, I would do this for at least all traditional for-tip service providers. The fact that this would demand a continually updated Excel spreadsheet lending itself to trend and projection analysis along with graphs is indeed a very nice quid pro quo for me.

Some of the pros to this approach are:
  1. I have a lot of relevant information close at hand since I witnessed directly the service provided.
  2. I know pretty well exactly who it is going to even if there is tip sharing.
  3. Related to the two points above, I can weight the charitable gift commensurate with the perceived level of deservedness provided I measure that directly proportional to the service performed. If I want to base it on need, this becomes a con (see below).
  4. I am rewarding those who are doing something to improve their own situation as well as my life and others.
The cons are:
  1. I am not able to see much into the level of need so as to increase my giving as a result.
  2. Related to the first con, I would not be benefiting those who cannot work--very likely a group in much more acute need. However, this is a con of almost all charity as figuring this out is very difficult. My method here at least minimizes the problem of enablement--whereby charitable giving subsidizes and insulates people from the cost of bad decisions and rewards poor work ethic. Moreover, it is actually likely many of the people I would be excess tipping would be closer to people in need so as to aid them. No guarantee they will, but there is no guarantee some other method would be much better.
  3. I would most likely be subject to bias in my excess tipping whether it be a subconscious prejudice (e.g., tipping attractive waitstaff or those who somehow connect to me in a way that is probably frivolous like having an interesting accent) or outright mistaken heuristics (e.g., thinking that someone working at an expensive restaurant is less deserving that someone working at a cheap diner).
  4. If I am not meticulous about tracking the excess tip, I easily could fall so far behind so as to not meet the donation goal--I would be hesitant to tip someone $2,000 at an end-of-year meal. 
  5. I might reduce my exposure to tipping even if inadvertently as the pain of seeing the substantially increased cost could weigh on my decision making. 
  6. It might greatly disrupt my social group or the dynamic between me and the places I frequent. This is a big break with norms subject to misunderstanding and bad/unintended signaling. 
  7. I may be underappreciating how it will affect me given that this attempt at more direct action on my part will not likely have noticeable results. I might become jaded for bad reasons.
  8. I could have a net negative effect on the recipients subsidizing less optimal outcomes for them or hampering their natural progression to bigger and better things. The out of work actor working as a waiter might be cliché, but there is something to it. What if I unintentionally convince a young person to turn down an internship for mistaken hope that there are enough tippers like me out there making waiting tables their highest and best outcome? Did I say enough about how charity is hard?
Countering this longer list of cons, there are added benefits potentially. One is that this might become habit forming long term--when I return to charitable giving, I might continue excess tipping to some degree. Another is that it could be contagious as it would be as public as any giving I typically would engage in. One virtue of it is that it is a more generous act all things equal since I would not be getting a tax benefit. So rather than having other taxpayers subsidize my charitable choices, I would fully internalize them by going it alone.

If I end up doing this, I'll report back on how it worked in the wild.

*Notice I am ignoring the fact that this tipping is calculated on top of the sales tax--I gave up the ghost on that argument long ago for practicality sake. I don't like it, but the norm seems to be and the easier calculation certainly is to tip on the total after tax.

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