Working on my taxes recently reminded me of a fun discussion I had with the late Stephen Williams, a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. (He’s pictured above.) I never met him and we mainly corresponded by email. After I told him that in December 2017 I had doubled my usual charitable contribution to the Institute for Justice so that I could get the tax deduction one last time (due to the 2017 tax cut law), we went back and forth.

Here’s the email thread with Steven in box quotes:

Last chance for taking deduction because of increase in the standard



Yes on both. My state and local tax deduction is limited to $10K, our mortgage balance is so low that our annual mortgage interest is less than $3K, and my normal charitable deductions are around $2K. So I don’t come close to $24K.



So here’s the big question on the tax-elasticity of donations:  Will you maintain your historic level?  (Of course one swallow doesn’t make a summer, or one donor a supply curve.)


Dear Steve,

Hey, I thought I was talking to a judge, not a literate economist. 🙂

That IS the question, isn’t it. I’m not sure of the answer. 2019 will tell. One little difference I’ve noted already: In 2018 I’ve given small amounts (I think $50 in each case) to 2 go fund me sites (one a woman who is a friend of a friend of a friend facing cancer with few financial resources and one a state employee in Montana who quit his job rather than cooperate with ICE in turning in workers). I probably would have given to neither of those causes but instead would have looked around for a tax-deductible charity that mimicked, as close as possible, the same ends. Not worrying about the tax consequences felt strangely liberating.



I especially like your last sentence!


As it turns out, I was back a little higher in 2019 than in my normal pre-2017 charitable contributions.

I said time would tell. Well, 2020 shouted. Going through our charitable that can be deducted, I found a little over $3,000. But my wife and I each gave between $3,000 and $4,000 to various people who suffered hardship because of the lockdowns. And yes, it was strangely liberating to do it with no thought of tax consequences.