Ubiquitous in American commercial establishments, this object is a monument to the social meaning of money.

This one, snapped in a coffehouse in Santa Cruz, California, is based on a premise that any label-conscious teenager could explain:

How you spend is who you are.

Postscript: Tip Jar Theft

Several years ago, I heard from a friend who managed a teahouse in Providence, Rhode Island that the store’s tip jar had been stolen right off the counter; it had been placed in the traditional “tip jar spot,” right next to the cash register, in full view of the cashier, staff and other customers. The thief apparently just grabbed the beer stein full of change and ran out the door onto the crowded college-town main street before anyone could stop him.

This prompted a cascade of reactions on my part, in roughly the following order:

  1. Shock
    Tip jars, like the “poor boxes” found in many churches, are part of the informal “gift economy” that long predates the contemporary payment economy–the one in which money is transacted as payment for goods and services. The two economic systems coexist, sometimes clashing with and sometimes reinforcing one another.

    Stealing a tip jar is a lot like stealing the “poor box” from a church–it means taking gifts intended for other people. That makes it more than a property crime: it’s also a crime against the basic law of social life–reciprocity– which has been found in every society, everywhere in the world, in any historical period for which data are available. (I’m happy to send references to those who would like to geek out on this…)So the money in that tip jar was given voluntarily, like a gift, above and beyond the formal price of the good or service purchased. Whatever the tippers’ motives–perhaps gratitude for a good tea recommendation?–their gesture enacted an age-old practice that serves in part to express goodwill and fellow-feeling within what can otherwise be sterile, impersonal transactions.

    The tip jar theft story induces the same kind of shock we experience in response to any form of desecration–thus, you don’t have to be a Buddhist to be appalled by the destruction of the Bamiyan sculptures by the Taliban. By stealing the tip jar, the thief dragged an emblem of the pre-capitalist “gift economy” (back) into the commercial matrix, desecrating a symbol of secular sanctity. The result was a kind of reverse-transubstantiation: turning gifts back into “just money,” there for the taking by anyone willing to bear the social opprobrium.

  2. Surprise
    After I got past my initial “Dang, that is cold” response to the story, I started thinking like an economic sociologist again and my reaction turned to surprise…specifically, surprise that this was the first time I’d ever heard of a theft of this kind. And, like all good cases of feral economic sociology, it caused me to consider a question that had never before crossed my mind:

    Why don’t people steal tip jars more often?

    It’s money literally sitting on the table (or counter, as the case may be), open and unsecured. You’d think this sort of thing would happen all the time, and that businesses would either stop the practice of the tip jar entirely, or take measures to protect it from theft (as my friend did in his teahouse, by chaining the new tip jar to the cash register).

    Yet the very vulnerability of the tip jar, sitting there unprotected on the counter, is a very important part of its appeal and its symbolic resonance. Perhaps that’s why the custom persists, despite problems of theft. Display of an unsecured cache of tips, easy to spot and easy to steal, represents a very positive thing for any society: impersonal trust, the ability to rely on the basic honesty and fairness of strangers. On this, the integrity and robustness of whole societies, and particularly economies, depend. The past month in the stock market is a testament to what happens when people lose that trust, in one another and in institutions (Alan Greenspan, of all people, explained the problem very well in his 1999 commencement address at Harvard).

    The “invisible hand” is the one that isn’t stealing from the tip jar. Or the “poor box.” If I had to propose a “decline of civilization index,” the frequency of such thefts–along with the destruction of other public goods and symbols of impersonal trust–would rank high on the list of index components.