Ecce Douchebag: Richard Cohen on Tipping

Richard Cohen has a…I’m not sure what to call it. Formally, it’s an oped in the Washington Post.* In defense of tipping. In reality, it’s more like an overheated entry from his diary. In which Cohen confesses that his feelings of noblesse oblige toward waiters are really a cover for his fantasies of discipline and punish. Where there’s no safe word. Except, maybe, “check please.”

The context for Cohen’s musings is that Danny Meyer, the restauranteur, has decided to eliminate tipping at his restaurants. This has prompted a spate of articles, praising Meyer and criticizing the anti-democratic elements of tipping. Enter Cohen.

I love tipping.

The practice originated with European aristocracy…

And he’s off. Now remember, in DC parlance, Cohen is considered a liberal.

There are four moments worth noting in the piece. First, this:

Like almost everyone else in America, I was once a waiter — and a busboy, and a short-order cook and a dishwasher — and I never felt I was groveling for tips. I did feel, as a friend told me before I went off on a wait job, “Remember, you work for the customer, not the restaurant.” If tipping doesn’t quite shift loyalties so neatly, it does put loyalties into play.

There’s the democratic nod to Cohen having once been a waiter. From Lincoln to Cohen, how many relationships of deference in the United States have been justified by reference to one’s own humble past, by invoking this escalator of social mobility, in which one begins at the bottom, serving a superior, and arrives at the top, being served by an inferior?

There’s also that invocation of loyalty. Though the capitalist workplace is often described by its defenders and critics as a glorious (or gory) space of untrammeled self-interest and personal advance, for many of its denizens, it is a domain of loyalty (and subordination). For Cohen, that loyalty is never to one’s co-workers; it is either to the boss or to the customer.

Finally, there’s that claim that when he was a waiter, Cohen “never felt I was groveling for tips.” No, I’m sure he did not. (Just as I’m sure he doesn’t feel as if he’s groveling for a different kind of tip when he sucks up to power now: once a courtier, always a courtier.) There’s a reason Sartre, in Being and Nothingness, chose the waiter as one of his paradigmatic examples of “bad faith.” Wrote Sartre: “I am a waiter in the mode of being what I am not.” Cohen was/is a waiter in the mode of being what he is.

Here’s the second moment of Cohen’s piece:

The waiter is my guy for the duration of the meal. He’s my agent. He looks out for me and, if he does a good job, I look out for him. He has an incentive to give me exceptional service, not some mediocre minimum, to ensure that my water glass is full, that my wine is replenished, to make sure that the busboy does not prematurely remove the plates — that I am not hurried along so that the owner can squeeze in another sitting. The waiter is my wingman.

Again, notice the sublimation that goes on in the capitalist workplace. For most observers, I think, the relationship between a waiter/restaurant and a customer is a relatively straightforward exchange of money for service (the tip, as Cohen and others like to say, stands for “to ensure promptitude”). But notice the affective element that gets introduced here: the waiter becomes Cohen’s agent, his wingman. In that exchange of money for service a bromance develops, a rather one-sided bromance, in which Cohen gets to imagine that this man—my guy—cares about him, really cares about him, as a self, a soul. And that he, Cohen, cares about the man. My guy. That this bromance is consecrated by the exchange of money is incidental or ornamental.

Or maybe not, as Cohen makes clear in this third passage:

I hesitate to mention another reason I like tipping. I like to make a difference, not just to be a bit of a big shot or be noticed or appreciated, but to give some of what I make to those who make less. I’m not flipping silver dollars into the air or hurling twenties around with abandon, but I am a healthy tipper (once a waiter, always a tipper) because this is my way of recognizing a good job. A healthy tip is like a pat on the back.

The tip is recognition of service well-performed. It shows that I care, that I notice — that I recognize what the restaurateur way back in the kitchen does not because he cannot. Why would I want to treat everyone as if they were equally good at their tasks?

The real signification of that exchange of money is that it allows Cohen—and not some impersonal mechanism like the market or the law—to distribute benefits and largesse to the staff. Partly because he wants to recognize the help, to lift the individuals among them above the dross and drab of democracy, where everyone is treated equally and no one gets noticed. Tipping is about making distinctions, about awarding distinctions, which are threatened by those egalitarian rules of equal pay for equal work.

The real object of that art of distinction, however, is not the waiter doing an excellent job but the tipper who is recognizing and rewarding him for it. Notice the ostentatious subject of virtually every single sentence in this passage: “I hesitate…I like tipping. I like to make a difference…I make… I’m not flipping silver dollars…I am a healthy tipper…my way of recognizing a good job….I care…I notice…I recognize…Why would I want…”

In the act of dispensing rewards, Cohen gets to play the part of a lord. Money is the means of his conveyance. Circulating it advances his cause, elevates him above the crowd. Dispensing money puts his signature on the otherwise drab world of democracy and exchange.

And elevates him a particular sort of way. The last passage:

I like to reward, but occasionally I like to punish. Make my meal an ordeal, make me anxious about whether you got the order straight, and no 20 percent tip will come your way. Maybe that’s not democratic, but a meal is not a town hall meeting.

Reminds me of that passage from the ancient Laws of Manu, which de Maistre loved to cite:

Punishment is an active ruler; he is the true manager of public affairs; he is the dispenser of laws; and wise men call him the sponsor of all the four orders for the discharge of their several duties. Punishment governs all mankind; punishment alone preserves them; punishment wakes, while their guards are asleep….The whole race of men is kept in order by punishment.

If only someone would have written a book about all this.

*H/t Andrew Seal.


  1. Stephen Zielinski October 21, 2015 at 10:54 am | #

    I do not remember where, but Sartre also said he tipped well because he was responsible, in part, for the well-being of the waiter. The tipping gesture does not erase the asymmetry of the master-servant relationship which defines the waiter/waited-on relationship, but it does replace the honor of the nobleman with an ethical maxim that obligates the waited-on to mitigate the adverse consequences of the modern market system for the waiter. The waited-on is obligated to create a good that would not exist otherwise.

    We are so far away from a condition that realizes “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” that economic justice is the feasible goal we would want to achieve. In lieu of a rational system of economic justice, we are left with ethically informed action.

  2. Roquentin October 21, 2015 at 11:02 am | #

    The Washington Post has really gone downhill since Jeff Bezos bought it a year or so ago. I’ve seen enough questionable editorial choices that I’m having a hard time not writing it off as a coincidence. When even a garden variety liberal like Ezra Klein gets driven out into Vox, you know something is up. This Op Ed is particularly bad.

    If he considers the waiter his “wingman” it makes me seriously questions what the other “friendships” in his life are like. If he can mistake a cold business transaction for the real thing, his judgement is probably fucked in that department.

    I have to tell this short anecdote about a guy I used to work with. He was at the same level, but he spoke to the rest of us with a level of condescension which made him almost universally loathed by everyone except those in charge. But the real kicker is that he basically didn’t leave my side at the holiday party. I realized at that moment he thought we were friends. I realized that for a person like him, that’s what friendship was. It was so sad, I almost…almost felt sorry for him. If he hadn’t acted like a dick 24/7 almost every other day I probably would have.

    • Jane Elisha October 22, 2015 at 4:52 pm | #

      This is definitely a guy who thinks the prostitute is sleeping with him because she loves him.

  3. jonnybutter October 21, 2015 at 11:54 am | #

    Wrote Sartre: “I am a waiter in the mode of being what I am not.” Cohen was/is a waiter in the mode of being what he is.

    You made my morning with that one!

    Cohen is a barnacle, a babble-palimpsest – like Beetle Bailey. Still around for contractual rather than intrinsic reasons. I think that makes him *more* worth commenting on rather than less. He’s a liberal in DC parlance because he is, in a way, a liberal par excellence. His politics is that he thinks he has no politics.

    I will say, though, that just about *every* column of his for the last few centuries has been like an ‘overheated entry from his diary’. SO embarrassing, and sometimes grotesquely fascinating.

  4. jonnybutter October 21, 2015 at 11:56 am | #

    Sorry: EDIT: every column of his *I’ve read*. I’m not a masochist, and there is so much bathos to choose from anyway.

  5. Charles Joseph October 21, 2015 at 12:19 pm | #

    Corey you are right, tipping is like being a feudal lord. But so is the whole restaurant experience – it’s the being served like on Downton Abbey that makes it fun to pretend you are a lord for an evening, even if the server makes more than you. It’s nice for ordinary non-lord people to get to play feudal lord for a day. We are not extracting surplus by coercion- in this case, we are merely adding to the surplus in a wholly consensual relationship. It’;s make believe, fun, and I think, healthy, as long as you tip well. 20% and above . It’s part of the servers (and other tip pool eligible workers such as busers, runners, hosts and hostesses) compensation and is as a practical matter obligatory. Servers at high end restaurants make $35 per hour or more, and eliminating tipping would kill one avenue open to non privileged people to make a living wage. One could think of it as redistribution of wealth. The key is to stop wage theft in which pooled tips are shared with non service staff barred by statute from participating such as managers and kitchen staff. Owners steal from service staff to subsidize the wages of other workers instead of paying managers and kitchen staff, stock polishers, lettuce washers, coffee and sushi makers, instead of paying those workers a decent wage or even minimum wage. That is the evil inherent in the tipping system, and it’s fightable. Private attorneys and the state and federal DOLs have gone far in correcting these abuses.

  6. Kevin October 21, 2015 at 2:23 pm | #

    I truly expected the last-line link to be to Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, not Corey’s book about the intellectual underpinnings of conservatism being little more than preserving or restoring aristocratic power and privilege.

  7. Bart October 21, 2015 at 2:32 pm | #

    Perhaps Cohen was a youthful waiter at Camp Granada.

  8. Glenn October 21, 2015 at 2:36 pm | #

    Meritocracy in the workplace.

    From the Guardian:

    “I have been sadly disappointed by my 1958 book, The Rise of the Meritocracy. I coined a word which has gone into general circulation, especially in the United States, and most recently found a prominent place in the speeches of Mr Blair.

    “The book was a satire meant to be a warning (which needless to say has not been heeded) against what might happen to Britain between 1958 and the imagined final revolt against the meritocracy in 2033.”

  9. SteveWhite October 21, 2015 at 3:55 pm | #

    Waiters (& busboys, and other staff) are paid poorly. Tips are a significant part of their income, no matter what the mental / emotional intent of the customer is. Regardless of the politics, if someone does a good job for you, don’t be a jackass, tip them.

  10. michael reynolds October 21, 2015 at 9:24 pm | #

    I waited tables for ten years. I will be immodest and say that I was a damned good waiter. I worked very hard, and I worked very hard because I was chasing tips – income. The harder I worked, the more I earned. I liked that. If another waiter was in the weeds, I’d help him out and pick up a table: cha ching.

    Would I have worked that hard for minimum wage, or even a ‘living wage?’ Of course not. Stick your ‘living wage,’ I was looking for a $200 shift. Waiters are not the victims in the restaurant world, line cooks and dishwashers may be, but the waiters are the economic elite within that environment. I never once, ever, at any point, felt myself to be subservient to customers, or victimized by them. Annoyed, sure, but not exploited. I laughed when some character like Cohen tried to play the big man.

    One big caveat: I’m male. The restaurant world can be a very different place for a woman.

    Now I write books, and unsurprisingly, it’s still the harder I work, the more I make. And I’m definitely not interested in a ‘living wage’ now.

    • aab October 22, 2015 at 7:15 pm | #

      That’s some caveat, that “I’m a male” caveat.

      Unsurprisingly, someone who has had a positive experience as a male in an economic system which privileges males thinks the system works well.

    • gstally October 22, 2015 at 8:56 pm | #

      Hey, what’s important here is that you have no desire for quality, decency, or the highest quality gifts civilization has to offer. Quantity! Pay me or go to hell, it’s your choice baby! Humanity has a price tag.

      Glad you’re no longer interested in a living wage and in admitting so you vacate your argument. You’re “writing” is hilarious. You specialize in pot-boilers or joke books?

  11. gstally October 22, 2015 at 8:42 pm | #

    You work for the restaurant. The world to which he refers revolves around the customer’s wallet and not the customer himself. If the customer in question lacks a wallet then it’s “we will bring violence against you if you do not cast yourself unto the streets.” The right is correct in that this world does work very well towards it’s ends. N’est pas?

  12. J.T. Desaguliers October 23, 2015 at 11:22 am | #

    “To ensure promptitude” would have resulted in “tep,” not “tip.” For his etymology-by-abbreviation to make sense, it would have to come from “to insure promptitude.” But that’d denote taking out an insurance policy as cover in case promptitude does not happen. Either way, it’s meaningless, which makes Cohen an additional moron.

  13. Ellis Weiner October 24, 2015 at 9:17 pm | #

    Danny Meyer was interviewed on the radio here in L.A., as was a guy who studies the hospitality industry from Cornell. Does Cohen–a known shmendrik–address the issues that impelled Meyers to try this new arrangement? Namely, to more equitably share the house’s income with the staff in the kitchen? Does Big Sport Cohen tip his busboy, the butcher, the wash-up crew, and the line cooks? Meanwhile, the Cornell guy said that studies show that tipping accounts for a trivial amount of “improved service”–less than 10%.

    Also, does grizzled waitstaff veteran Cohen address the issue of how “bad service” can be, not the fault of the waiter, but of the people in the back? Is His Lordship alive to the powerlessness of waiters w/ regard to the chef? Cohen calling his waiter his “wingman” is like Trump saying “my workers love me.”

  14. Cavoyo October 28, 2015 at 11:28 am | #

    I enjoyed this take by acclaimed political journalist Carl “The Dig” Diggler:

  15. Aaron E. Baker February 1, 2016 at 10:17 am | #

    Good take-down of Cohen, but it’s “restaurateur,” not “restauranteur.”

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