A smart post in defense of tipping from Greg Beato gets at one of the benefits of tips that many writers neglect to mention:
Make it automatic and it also becomes easier to track, easier to regulate, easier to tax. We tip billions and billions of dollars a year, and it’s not just that the recipients of our largesse manage to avoid paying taxes on much of what they collect. The business owners who use tips as a rationale to pay their employees lower wages end up paying less in payroll taxes, too. And by keeping menu and other prices lower than they would be in a tip-free economy, tipping reduces the amount of sales tax the government can collect as well.
Whether this is a good or bad thing depends on one’s perspective. As someone who goes out a lot, I’m glad the people I tip get to hold on to more of their earnings. And as someone who receives tips, I disagree with those who say I’d be better off if we eliminated tipping and moved toward mandatory service charges or living wages. From a previous post on this blog:
What a service charge would do is give servers less say in how their income is spent. With tipping they can spend it however they choose and enjoy a nice bonus in the form of cash tips that can be partially hidden from taxation. With a service fee the income would be fully taxed or […] some of the income would be shifted into untaxed health insurance expenditures or retirement funds. This might be better in the paternalist sense of wanting people to plan ahead for their insurance and retirement, but it might not be welfare enhancing for the servers. It would put them in the same position as lots of other American workers: Spending more than is optimal on health insurance because of the tax subsidy, tied to their employer for fear of losing that insurance, out of luck if they lose their job, and with less income to spend on other things. As a restaurant worker myself, I say thanks but no thanks. I’d rather take the cash.
Of course if you think that it’s more important to maximize the tax base and make sure no one is evading taxes, then a service charge is the way to go.