Moving to the fringes

On June 23rd, a small majority of Brits voted to leave the European Union, marking a deflating end to four decades of the UK in the European project.

To me, a student of history, and of European history in particular, and of someone who lived in the United Kingdom for three years as recently as 2015, this represents a triumph of all things that incrementally added up over the years to produce an environment of division and fear, much of it created in people’s heads by opportunists and the media that is incapable of monitoring itself.

I moved to London in 2012, on the eve of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics. Britain truly felt like it was the center of the world then. It was coming out of the recession quicker and stronger than most predicted. It enjoyed the status of a global financial powerhouse. Its athletes were competing, and winning, at home (Wimbledon, Olympics) and abroad (Tour de France). Its monarchy was rejuvenated by the dynamic princes William and Harry, and the captivating Kate. The sense of British identity was strong, you felt like you were constantly at a tea party hosted by Stephen Fry on the lawn of Buckingham Palace.

How is it, then, that in just four short years, the UK could go from being the center of Europe to voting itself out of the very union that propelled them to the world stage after decades of post-war stagnation? How is it that people who, seemingly, were better off than 99% of the rest of the world, in terms of standards of living, decided that they were better alone? How could a society of children and grand children of Churchill’s generation so soon forget that the very divisions that can be created by unions splintering and countries retreating behind their borders caused history’s deepest crises that tore not only the European continent, but the rest of the world apart?

My mind travels back to December 2010, when a fruit vendor in Tunisia set himself on fire as a protest to the country’s authoritarian regime. The Jasmine revolution, as it was called at the time, sparked a domino effect that took over the entire region and led to the collapse of Egyptian and Libyan governments, and shaking Syria to its core. The West’s decision to largely stand by and watch events unfold allowed the new forces to take hold and instill the belief among Arabs that changes were afoot. As we know now, these changes were largely negative as these revolutions created a fertile ground for the rise of Isis and gave Bashar al Assad’s government a reason to bomb his own people to protect his rule. Consequently, this weakness on the part of the West led to the refugee epidemic that swept over Southern Europe last year, which was already battered by the recession of 2008 and unable to cope effectively.

Observing from afar, it is easy to latch on to the words of armchair quarterbacks like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who called the EU weak and incompetent, unable to effectively deal with threats at its borders, because it had to answer to governments of 28 member states.

The gut feeling that Europe’s financial woes were also largely self-inflicted through incompetence, and that richer countries (UK, Germany) had to constantly pay to bail out poor countries also felt right.

Open borders between member states and movement of its people, the hallmark of the European project, all of the sudden seemed like a dangerous proposition. Forget the Poles and the Hungarians who, supposedly, flooded the country. Barbarians were at the proverbial gates! Scenes of refugees in Calais, outside the Channel Tunnel, spooked the public. Terrorist attacks in French and Belgian capitals made it even easier to blame the refugees who were piling onto the continent in record numbers (never mind that these attacks were carried out by homegrown terrorists, much like the attacks in London in 2005).

The accelerating pace of news coverage, and the ability to self select who one could listen to, created an ever-sharper divide in a country that was, in effect a federation of quasi-independent nations. The Scottish referendum showed just how much division there already was and how real their departure from the Kingdom could be.

Of course, the real divide was between the haves and the have nots. This divide, just like in America, affected those who relied on Britain’s traditional economic strengths that went out of vogue roughly at the same time as the European Union was spinning up. Auto manufacturing, steel works and other examples of heavy industry were shuttering and shifting overseas.

In business, we often talk about correlation vs. causation and being careful to distinguish between the two. Correlation is an observation of two trends, which sometimes neatly fit into a hypothesis you have (i.e. I started wearing a suit to work and my career took off, therefore I am proof that dressing for the job you want, rather than the job you have is a real thing). It’s often very easy to point to these trends and use them to explain outcomes. And many people will agree, because it fits into the same stereotypes they have.

Causation, however, is a much trickier animal and requires proof that an action produced a reaction. While correlation is the occupation of the chattering classes and opportunist politicians, causation is the domain of scientists, statisticians and economists who bristle at the idea of oversimplified solutions. The problem is that in the first group, you have the poisonous mix of those who benefit from shouting and those who are ready and willing to accept the shouting. The causation group ends up arguing with itself and its voices are rarely heard. Compare this interview with Leave’s leader Boris Johnson to this nuanced argument by an EU scholar. One is laden with repetitive hyperbole, the other is rich in facts and logic. And yet…

And yet, nearly 52% of the UK voting public decided that immigration, economy and security were issues that were, somehow, made worse by the country’s participation in the European Union. That leaving the world’s biggest single market was going to make the UK a stronger economy. That regaining control of its borders (which were already protected more than others’, due to geography) was going to protect it from terrorism that, as we know, has been largely a domestic issue. That European immigration into the UK was, somehow, the root of why the jobs that used to exist in Britain of the 1970s were no longer available to them. Nevermind that almost the same number of Brits worked elsewhere in the EU, the perception was that Britain was being robbed of its economic opportunity by Europeans arriving from the fringes of the ever-expanding union, taking jobs that were previously reserved for the English and the Welsh, and changing the make up of society and culture.

Nevermind that after World War 2, thousands of people from the further reaches of the Empire were invited to a war-torn Britain to help rebuild. Nevermind that these people settled in English, Welsh and Scottish towns and never moved back. Nevermind that people continued to arrive from Pakistan, India, Russia, the Arab countries – places that have nothing to do with the EU. They created communities that have contributed to the evolution of what it means to be British. Just a few months ago, Londoners elected the son of a Pakistani immigrant as their mayor. That, after having the Etonian Boris Johnson as a two-term leader of the world’s most global city. The same Boris Johnson who, for most of his political life, advocated staying in the EU, now became the mouthpiece for the Leave campaign.

I see the result of this referendum as the perfect storm of soundbite-driven media, opportunistic politicians, an electorate that is poorly informed (or informed by means of media they self select), and the overall air of fear that permeates our relatively mundane lives. During the cold war, we feared a nuclear war. But people didn’t fear it every day, in the same way people fear terrorism in music halls, movie theaters or shopping centers. This fear is much more personal and much scarier. It’s a one-on-one fear that has no name or face, but has a stereotype attached to it. And, unfortunately, when people turn on the TV and see who was responsible for the most recent attack, and then they look at those who are arriving into their country, they correlate and stoke even more fear in their own minds.

I think the British public fell victim to overstated fears that were enhanced by the likes of Johnson, Nigel Farage and others who sensed a once in a lifetime opportunity to accomplish their individual objectives. I am sure that BoJo’s objectives were very different from Farages and this alliance smells of a devil’s pact. Either way, they were effective in delivering a message that was helped by circumstances of the preceding months.

We don’t have to look far to see parallels of this. Trump’s rhetoric in the US tugs on the same strings of fear, just in a cruder, more open way. The same is happening across the Western world.

My final thought goes back to the beginning of this essay – seemingly unrelated events, through time, become interconnected. Not through consequences of actions, but through laziness of the human psyche. Correlation is a strong force and must be considered. It is no longer wise to assume that people will take the time to understand the truth when it is so much more convenient to hear things that fit into their pre-existing narrative.

And so, with a bit of a whimper, Britain is moving to the fringes of Western Europe and into an era of uncertainty. I am sure it will do OK in the long term, but looking back at history, many countries who are now OK, took quite an unpleasant route that could have been avoided. I fear that for Britain, and for the rest of Europe, the following years will be a scenic route they wished they never took.

Why do we still tip?

*warning: this is a bit of a rambling blog and I don’t intend to have a definitive answer to the problem I discuss.

Tipping in America has reached a weird level. Perhaps, when you know no other setup, it seems normal to tip regardless of the level of service or to start tipping for things that weren’t normally meant to be tipped for (like hailing an Uber). From time to time, mainstream news publications rally behind a service industry worker who was apparently slighted by a jerk-off customer. The most recent example – the “LOL” tip – is gathering the scorn of the Twitteratti.

Obviously, the big difference in the tipping culture between the U.S. and the rest of the world is that here, waiters and waitresses do not make a minimum wage salary. Instead, the majority of their income is derived from tips. It is strange, though, that for as much noise and complaining that this setup seems to create, that nothing has been done in decades to change this. At the end of the day, what difference do I, the customer, experience, if I pay a tip or the salary is baked into my final bill?

It stands to reason that the upside of being tipped more than 15% is much more attractive and commonplace than the occasional downside of receiving a LOL. The inherent risk of a small tip is definitely there and puts more of an onus on the wait staff to do a good job, however it should not come as totally unexpected that sometimes you will fail at delivering a good service and your tip might be reduced or zeroed out.

Tips are meant to reward good service, really. Giving someone something on top of the bill is meant as a recognition of a job well done, of going above and beyond, and of knowing that even a small amount of money will make a difference. But in the States, this is not how we behave. Instead, sub-mediocre service is, somehow, still entitled to at least a 15% tip. And that number has been creeping up. Now you routinely see automated tipping options of 18 and even 20% as the lowest amount. This culture of tipping, and tipping more, is weirdly bemusing and infuriating. No longer can you reward good service with a tip of 20% – a fifth of the total bill. You now have to strive for 25 or 30% in order to show gratitude, and that is a lot of money.

There is also an accepted practice of tipping in advance to buy good service (mostly at bars and clubs), which is really akin to bribing. It basically asks for service that you should expect to receive normally, but your extra $20 up front ensures that you get to skip an invisible line and to feel special. And this is not a substitute for tipping in the end either.

Why are we so addicted to tipping and why do we constantly try to find new ways to tip? Is it because of the growing schism in our society? Is it because so many of us have gone through the service industry ourselves on the way to starting our careers elsewhere? We seem to be painfully aware of how little the food and beverage industry pays and we try to compensate on individual basis by tipping and over-tipping. Does it make us feel good about ourselves?

In Europe, where restaurant and bar staff are paid a living wage, tipping is in place to reward truly good service. By my observation, the service levels on average are worse there than they are in the US, but not to the point where it’s worth paying 20-30% of the bill to improve. It makes it very easy to decide how to tip: if the service exceeded your expectations, you tip. If it exceeded your expectations by a lot, you tip more. But you don’t have to face the moral quandary of feeling like you need to tip even when the staff or the restaurant didn’t meet the basic expectations.

Maybe a better way to handle issues is to ask the manager to come over and complain to them that you had a crappy experience and to seek the reduction of the overall bill. In this case, the customer needs to separate the server and the restaurant as two different entities who provide two very different and unrelated services. If the food was great, but the service so-so, then the waiter gets a small tip (or not one at all). But if the waiter tried his or her best to manage your expectations while the kitchen struggled to get your order right, you as a customer should seek a reduced bill while leaving the server’s tip intact.

Usually, as has been my experience, the two services are tightly interlinked and when one fails, the other does too. It becomes easy for the customer to exact revenge through a small tip, but it doesn’t spread the punishment around equally. Again, this is the flaw in the U.S.-style tipping system that, more often than not, provides a greater upside to the workers than a salaried structure would.