Published November 13, 2007
Why do we care if people tip a waitress?
For Hillary Clinton last week, the problem appeared obvious. A Clinton speech used the plight of a waitress -- a single mom in Iowa, Anita Esterday, working two jobs to make ends meet.
Clinton was painted as not being personally concerned about Anita’s plight enough to even leave a tip.
After the allegations surfaced, the Clinton campaign responded that it had left a $100 tip on a $157 tab, with the incident turning into a debate between the diner staff and Clinton’s campaign.
The truth will probably never be completely clear. Supposedly the tip had been put on a credit card, but that later turned out to be false. The campaign then claimed that it had left cash that must have been misplaced. But things didn’t look good when Adam Crawford, the diner’s manager, said, "Where Hillary was sitting, there was no tip left," and the campaign was unwilling to identify or let the press talk to the staffer who left the tip.
The campaign appeared to concede the whole incident when a Clinton staffer showed up the next day to give Esterday a tip, but it could have simply been an honest attempt to make amends.
But it is not a silly or trivial issue. The perceived cover-ups surely gave the story much more coverage and made what might have just been a simple oversight look much worse, and the issue is a lot deeper than just Clinton using the waitress as a campaign prop.
What if, for the sake of argument, Hillary Clinton decided not to pay the tip? Why would this be so upsetting? Because tipping has to do with trust.
Take a simple example. If you went to a restaurant with a friend and you received good service, how would you react if your friend stiffed the waitress? If the friend thought that he could get away with stiffing a waitress, would you think that he was more likely to take advantage of others? Possibly even yourself?
Even if the friend tips well, it is not a good sign if he is seen as consciously calculating whether it pays to give the tip. What if he tries to figure out the chances that he will have to come back to the same restaurant and the waitress will recognize him as the cheapskate who cheated her?
The people we trust the most are those who automatically follow social customs and rules, rather than the opportunists who choose to break the rules whenever it is in their advantage to do so.
We often do things for which there is little direct private return just because we know it is the "right" thing to do. We donate to charities. We help total strangers who are in trouble. We give blood. We vote even though the probability that any individual will alter an election is essentially zero.
The one private benefit from these largely "altruistic" activities is that they come across as more trustworthy to others. Indeed, people often make sure that others are told about these altruistic activities. They wear little stickers saying that they donated blood. Indeed, they are so embarrassed for not doing the right thing that when people are surveyed about whether they voted in a recent election, the rate at which people claim that they voted is often 20 percentage points or more higher than is possible.
The long and short of all this is that Hillary should have said that she made a mistake. Surely the news story wouldn’t have lingered on for a week. Instead, Hillary’s campaign turned the event into one about honesty.
Anita Esterday said, "why would I lie about not getting a tip?"
Whether the incident simply reveals a disdain for taking responsibility or a lack of caring about others, Hillary Clinton did not handle it well.
John Lott is the author of Freedomnomics, upon which this piece draws, and a senior research scholar at the University of Maryland.