We've seen a lot of weird reactions on the right wing to the Government Shut down. These range from "it doesn't matter" to "its terrible" but one thing that really strikes me is the rage and antipathy that has been displayed towards Federal Workers themselves. It doesn't strike me as unusual, but it does strike me as significant. Yesterday's on air rant by Stuart Varney makes it pretty explicit: Federal Workers and, indeed, the entire Government are failing Stuart Varney. They cost too much and they do too little. In fact: they are so awful they don't even deserve to be paid for the work they have already done. Contracts, agreements, and labor be damned. If Stuart Varney isn't happy then they deserve to be fired. Here's the quote if you haven't seen it:
HOWELL: Do you think that federal workers, when this ends, are deserving of their back pay or not?
VARNEY: That is a loaded question isn't it? You want my opinion? This is President Obama's shutdown. He is responsible for shutting this thing down; he's taken an entirely political decision here. No, I don't think they should get their back pay, frankly, I really don't. I'm sick and tired of a massive, bloated federal bureaucracy living on our backs, and taking money out of us, a lot more money than most of us earn in the private sector, then getting a furlough, and then getting their money back at the end of it. Sorry, I'm not for that. I want to punish these people. Sorry to say that, but that's what I want to do.
JACOBSON: But it's not their fault. It's not the federal employees' fault. I mean, that's what I'm sick of, I hate and it makes me anxious, to see people who are victimized because of a political fight.
VARNEY: I take your point Amy, it is not directly their fault, but I'm looking at the big picture here. I'm getting screwed. Here I am, a private citizen, paying an inordinate amount of money in tax. I've got a slow economy because it's all government, all the time. And these people are living on our backs, regulating us, telling us what to do, taxing us, taking our money, and living large. This is my chance to say "hey, I'm fed up with this and I don't miss you when you're on furlough." Sorry if that's a harsh tone, but that's the way I feel.
So, Nu? I hear you saying? Well, I think there is something new here or at least worth discussing. Varney's attitude towards the Federal Work force is the same attitude as (some) diners take when they are eating out in a fine restaurant and they fear that they don't have enough money or status to get good service--and they suspect that someone else is getting better service. They want to tip, and they want to use the tip to punish the worker for failing to give exceptional service to the important people (the diner himself).
The diner comparison isn't because I think this is trivial, but because people take the issues surrounding service in restaurants very, very, seriously and become nearly as unhinged as Varney when they don't feel they can control the experience they are having. And I think (and others are arguing this right now) that a huge part of the Republican experience of governance in the US right now is about disapointment and lack of control. They are emotionally in the position of people who used to be offered the best seat in the house and could order a la carte without worrying about the bill, and now they think they are being relegated to the back of the restaurant and they imagine that they are paying the bills for other people for meals they won't enjoy. But the comparison isn't based only on this metaphor--I also think that Varney's attitude, which is the Republican attitude encapsulated, is based on another and deeper cultural reality: that for Republicans the government itself is understood as an employee and the individual Republican fancies himself an employer--and he wants the power of that relationship to be vindicated in every instance. Where it is not expressed and understood as oppressive then its not working for Varney.
Let me unpack this for you as an Anthropolgist, because I think it says something about the enormous gap that lies between these people (Republicans and Punishers) and the rest of us. There are several things at issue here: the status of workers, the status of employers, and the status anxiety Republicans feel when they don't believe that they are treated as an employer should be treated by their employees. In this case everyone in the Federal Government, from the President down to the lowliest Federal Street Sweeper, is not giving Varney the satisfaction that he thinks is his due. And he is damned if they will be paid when they don't do their job to his satisfaction. In this way his attitude is like that of the angry customers, the "Punishers" described in Jay Porter's series of essays about what happened when he moved an entire restaurant from tipped wait staff to non tipped.
Porter was running what he wanted to be a great restaurant and in pursuit of this he eliminated tipping--he felt that tipping overvalued the work the waiter was doing and undervalued the work the back of the house staff did, and he knew that it resulted in waiters making separate deals and occasionally sabotaging each other and the house in pursuit of a better tip from one set of customers. What he did not expect was to discover that tipping, rather than a burden on his customers, was one of the chief sources of pleasure for them in the meal. Not because they enjoyed the extra 20 percent on top of the bill but because he found they enjoyed the power they thought it gave them over the waiter and over the nature of the experience. They believed (erroneously in his view) that they were given better service because the waiter anticipated the tip. More importantly, they actively enjoyed imagining using the threat of the withheld tip to punish bad service--they enjoyed this imagined power so much that people became frantic and angry when they couldn't tip. They experienced themselves as having lost their voice and lost control over the situation.
Porter argues that his customers see the restaurant experience as a special subset of other kinds of service experiences in which one person is superior and the other inferior, one person commands and the other serves, and that in the midst of a professional setting in which all persons might have the right to expect equal and equally good service the tip-oriented customer sees a setting in which preferential treatment should be meted out to the good tipper and bad/non preferential treatment should be punished.
The Restaurant customer, and I'd argue many Americans, don't respect work or workers and see situations in which they are served by a worker as a kind of passion play in which the served get to experience the power of the purse, the power of the john vis a vis the prostitute, the power to coerce service and specifically the power to punish one person for disappointment or bad service or really anything the tipper wants to punish that person for. More than that: Americans see tipping as an occasion to right the wrongs of a situation and to restore a balance--a balance that is upset when one person (the client) expects something good and gets something they didn't want.
Porter's entire series of posts should be read but I want to focus on just one part of the last section: what is lost for the patron when they can't tip? Something vital, something that they didn't even know they wanted: the ability to communicate with the worker non verbally and punitively. Porter describes many such situations but this one is quite poignant. After the restaurant had gone to a "No Tip" policy a restaurant reviewer chose to publicly humiliate a server, by name, in a bad review. The reviewer did not correct the server to his face, nor did she report him to management and try to get the service issues handled at the time.
I responded, I agree that the bad service is my fault. I’m saying you should have ripped on me and not him. I’ve apologized to him for putting him in that position, but it is still not right of you, writing under a pseudonym, to publicly embarrass him using his actual name.And she came back with the clincher: Well, with your fixed service charge you didn’t give my any choice. I couldn’t give him a lower tip. How else could I punish him for his mistakes?
That made it all clear. She, like some other patrons, felt the burden of having to reward good behavior and punish bad behavior. Obviously, some people like that role, and some people don’t, but at the very least our culture has trained diners that it is their job. When you go to restaurants, you are responsible for rewarding and punishing your server.
Porter goes on to argue, on the basis of his experience, that sometimes it seems like the entire point of the tip is to punish the server and rebalance a relationship of hierarchy which has been violated by the server not being attentive enough or the meal not being perfect enough.
This explained another bizarre phenomenon we had seen with our service charge — a small number of guests who got angry when we removed the charge from their bill.
We had a policy that if a guest brought a notable service problem to a manager’s attention, we removed the service charge from the bill. Our position was that we were professionals charging for service, and if we failed to meet our service goals, then we refused to take payment.
It would happen that a guest would bring a problem to our attention, often as a way to show that the lack of tipping had somehow “caused” the service mistake. Our floor manager would apologize, thank the guest for bringing the problem to our attention, and remove the service charge from the bill. And that, sometimes, would make the guest furious...
This is where I really started to lose patience with the whole thing.It had been demonstrated by research and our experience that this punishment message doesn’t get through to the offender — servers correctly don’t view their tips as reflecting the quality of their work. So the right to punish the server is solely for the benefit of the punisher, and no larger benefit is created.
We were trying to run a good restaurant. If a guest pointed out a mistake we made, the guest was doing us a favor. Our first reaction wasn’t going to be to punish the workers who made the mistake; it was going to be to make sure the server had the tools they needed to do the job right. No business in any industry builds a great team by looking for mistakes to punish. It just doesn’t work that way.
What does this have to do with the Republican Party? The Republican Party at this point in time is entirely made up of Punishers who think they are entitled to treat the government--and especially the government of Barack Obama--as waiters who need to be shown their place. This should surprise no one. At heart the entire Republican Party is made up of winners and losers and they are united in just one thing: they think that money is the only way to tell who is who. If you have money, you use that to distinguish yourself from the losers and to demonstrate your superiority by punishing them further. If you are a loser--a worker, for example, or have no health insurance (say) your job as a Republican is to take your status as a given, accept it, and turn around and get your jollies kicking someone else farther down the line.
Apparently Federal Workers and the Tax money that pays them have come to symbolize a fracture in the right order of things. As Mary Douglas argued about the laws of Leviticus things that are in between categories can be seen as impure and dangerous. Things that live in the water but don't have fins. Things that have cloven hooves but don't chew their cud. From an anthropological standpoint we say "Dirt is matter that is out of place." That which crosses categories creates tremendous problems because it can't be assigned to one status or another and thus can't be handled properly. You don't have to have a reason why these things are bad so long as you can point towards their ambiguous status. In fact: there may be no reason why these things are bad at all, but their ambiguous status can raise a host of unspoken and unspeakable anxieties.
Why are Federal Workers a special case and a problem for Republicans? In the case of Federal Workers I'd argue that its not merely that they are workers (who are always despised) its because they are workers who for the most part don't conform to Republican ideas of the right boundaries for workers. The right boundaries for workers are that they know their place, that they can be fired capriciously, and that they exist primarily to make the employer feel good about himself and, further, that like waiters in a restaurant and prostitutes with their johns their job is also to make the employer believe that he is receiving an extra good form of treatment not accorded to others diners or johns.*
Federal workers violate those central principles because they can't be fired directly by "the employer" because the individual Republican tax payer isn't the direct employer. They also can't be humiliated and made to feel vulnerable because of civil service protections and unionization. And in the matter of interactions, one on one, the taxpayer can't command good treatment by offering money (bribes) and thus often feels vulnerable and weak because there is no way to play the "do you know who I am" card which (like tipping) is an attempt to force a generic servant to give non generic attention and service to one class of people. So Federal Employees create an extra level of status anxiety for Republicans when they come in contact with these "employees" who can't be fired or rewarded and therefore are not obligated to be extra nice to the individual Republican.
Of course there are lots of kinds of Federal Employees, some more obvious than others, and many of whom don't come into contact with ordinary citizens very often (Scientists at the CDC vs. Park Rangers, for example). I'd argue that the antipathy I've described goes for both the kinds of Federal Employees that ordinary citizens encounter--and this is at the root of the really quite bizarre attacks by Republican Congressmen on individual Federal Employees like the now infamous attack on the the Park Ranger by the Texas Congressman. He explicitly challenges her and accuses her of failing to give special consideration to (some) clients (tourists/vets) when she is, of course, contractually obligated to treat all persons identically and has been ordered to shut down the monument. We've also seen this hostility directed by individual Republican Congressmen at high level Federal Employees during committee hearings. These attempts to create a hierarchical relationship which puts the "employee" below the "employer" even when the employee has specialized knowledge and skills that the employer does not are too numerous to mention.
I'd even argue that Reince Priebus's absurd "offer" to pay for a few employees to keep the military site open for the honor flight vets was an example of a perfectly logical extension of the tipping principle: that people with money should get better treatment than ordinary customers. That the government's attempt to treat everyone uniformly in both the Sequester and the Shut Down is, to the Republican way of thinking, a greater affront than almost anything else. It flies in the face of the "do you know who I am?" principle which underlies Republican thinking about the nature of the world.
So what can we do about this? Nothing, alas. Republicans will continue to see the Government, and experiences of Government work and workers, as a drama in which the employer must punish the employed in order to enjoy his superior status, and the rest of us will have to suffer as they choose to act out their petty desires by shutting down the government and refusing to "tip" our Federal Workers by, you know, actually paying them for work performed. We can't hope to have the same good fortune as Jay Porter who, after he ended tipping at his restaurant, found that the Punishers stopped turning up at all:
These people who were fighting to keep their punishment rights, were keeping us from getting better.We came to the conclusion, though, that the fixed service charge — and our removing it when a problem was noticed — would drive these negative customers away. They would go to other restaurants where they could resume their role as arbiter of consequences. One of our managers emailed me around this time: “It would seem we’re on the right track. We’ll eventually weed out all the punishers…and then we can do our jobs.”I think this is pretty much happened, within a few months of that review. People who come to restaurants to punish other people came to our place, discovered we didn’t offer that service, and moved on. It’s an open question whether we would have made more revenue if we had not lost these customers. I tend to think not, because their absence really did let us focus on doing our jobs better. But maybe there are just so many people like this, that they make up a huge market for restaurants, that we lost out on. I can’t say I know. I know we didn’t miss them.
We liked our jobs a lot better with the punishers gone, and having a job you like is a great joy in life. Our service charge policy, even though we adopted it for technical financial reasons, proved to be a gift in many surprising ways.I think we were making guests’s lives better, too. Sitting in judgement of your neighbor, and punishing him, is the highway to unhappiness. Plus, as we’ve established, whatever message you’re sending isn’t getting through. Which means the guest who is asked to serve as a judge, is being made miserable for nothing.
*This is a somewhat complicated point which can only be fleshed out with reference to the entire thread on tipping. Basically it seems to really bother diners when they can't tip even though they know that others in the restaurant also can't tip. Believing (against all research) that the tip is what causes the waiter to give good service seems to go along with the fantasy that something extra, something that is denied to other clients, might be forthcoming if the waiter fears a bad tip or expects an extra good tip. Porter argues that diners behave as though the tip forces the waiter to give extra good service and they enjoy imagining that the waiter does this against his own lazy, indifferent, nature since they believe that without the tip the waiter will ignore them. He explicitly makes the link between tipping behavior and the hiring of a prostitute arguing that some patrons are more comfortable hiring a prostitute--using the power of the purse to coerce a sexual encounter--than they are using seduction or allowing the woman to seduce them. Why? Because using seduction (charm) or permitting the woman to choose to set the pace of the interaction gives the woman too much agency and is too much work for the patron. Similarly tipping, in the clients eye, takes agency away from the waiter and gives it to the owner of the money.
Interestingly enough just yesterday Echidne of the Snakes had a good piece up about PUAs and Roosh which makes basically the same point about the preference some men have for purchased or coerced sex over mutually chosen sex. Despite a general cultural assumption that what is "free" is preferable to what is costly there are many social interactions, or perhaps I mean types of people, for whom money is the preferred medium since it is seen as creating no social obligation and/or it functions as a form of coercion where no social or emotional tie exists.