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Pooling the tips: A parable

By Peter Machera

This is an admittedly trite parable about capitalism. During college I worked as a waiter and found myself employed at a trendy spot in Greenwich, Conn., where hedge fund wizards courted generic blondes in the context of pleasant outdoor seating. On the staff, I was somewhat ethnically unique, yet I got along well enough with those doing “the jobs Americans won’t do” (except for me, apparently). But it was not as though we were simpatico enough that what was mine was theirs and theirs mine.

This establishment made waiters “pool” their tips. That means everyone put their tips together and then they were redistributed to all the waiters, busboys, etc., through a complicated point system. It was kind of fun to do this challenging computation in an otherwise menial position, yet I found this system to be corrosive to individual initiative. I would analogize this to the folly of collectivism in general.

I heard the threadbare rationale from managers and assistant managers many times: “This way everyone will help everyone else, and we all work as a team.” The implication being that if you’re against the pool system, you’re against teamwork. And if there’s one thing that is valued in both menial positions and in corporate America, it’s teamwork. A boilerplate interview question: “Are you a team player?” “You bet I am,” you have to respond.

Teamwork is regarded as an end in itself, regardless of the objective it’s supposed to accomplish. But how effective can collaboration possibly be in an organization that doesn’t have like-minded workers? For example, when you’re in school, you’re inevitably assigned to do group work, and then asked by the teacher or professor: “What does the group think?” I always want to say, “I don’t know what these people think, but I can tell you what I think.” Why would arbitrarily being placed with strangers imply automatic and spontaneous cognitive synchronicity?

The pool system envisioned a restaurant in which every waiter took care of every table, just like the general idea of collectivism, assumes every citizen will look out for one another. What actually happened was that some tables barely knew who their waiter was; random servers would appear to help these customers at unpredictable intervals. They were left stranded at crucial points in their dining experience.

This system created perverse incentivization. It didn’t seem to matter what my personal tips were, considering they would just be redistributed amongst the staff. Sure, I could dazzle my tables with my considerable charm, but any increase in gratuity would ultimately increase my take home pay by a mere pittance. And exuding charm is so exhausting anyway. I therefore aimed for the minimum, which was to make sure my service did not provoke angry complaining. Both my customer and I were content if my role were anonymous in its character. Just think: my goal was anonymity. Is that inspiring?

Sharing everything does not eliminate conflict in a restaurant any more than it does in society. True, no one fought over the “good tables”; yet instead of wanting more, waiters became suspicious that they were doing more than their colleagues, and therefore pulling others’ deadweight. This would not be a problem if people “ate what they killed,” so to speak. Thus, pooling tips is a utopian dream, leading to inevitable conflict, a stifling of individual initiative and broken waiter dreams.

Perhaps if I had a stake in the ownership of the restaurant I would have been otherwise motivated. But, to return to the metaphor, most Americans don’t feel like they have an ownership stake in America, as evidenced by massive welfare fraud, tax fraud and other miscellaneous villainy. This is not meant as a knee-jerk defense of runaway laissez faire economics. My customers, titans of finance, made dubious societal contributions in exchange for their generous remuneration (for all that they were a pleasant bunch). The point is that teamwork should not be an end in itself, elementary school teachers’ advice notwithstanding.

Peter Machera’s writing has appeared in the Washington Times and the National Association of Scholars. He currently teaches English in New Mexico. Contact him via email.