It happened before: Good times can follow the bad
Because so many factors drive history’s progress, it is not easy to describe how diseases alone sway societies. Still, there may be glimmers of hope from the past as to what may occur globally and in the United States if the novel coronavirus comes under better control.
The resilient may want to take note of humanity’s experiences to fuel their optimism.
Lawrence Wright considered the “consequences” of pandemics in a detailed New Yorker article earlier this year, reporting of the possible effects:
“We seem to be at another point when society will make radical adjustments, for good or ill. History offers mixed lessons. The Plague of Athens, in 430 B.C., led to a protracted period of lawlessness and immorality. Citizens lost faith in Athenian democracy, which never regained its standing. The millions of deaths caused by the 1918 Spanish flu and the First World War brought on women’s suffrage but also inaugurated the Roaring Twenties, which featured disparities of wealth unequalled until the present day.
“After the shock of the Second World War, America transformed itself into the strongest economic power in history, largely through an expansive middle class. But after 9/11 the United States forged a dark path. Instead of taking advantage of surging patriotism and heightened international good will, America invaded Iraq and tortured suspects at Guantánamo; at home, prosperous Americans essentially barricaded themselves off from their fellow-citizens, allowing racial and economic inequalities to fester. The country we are now was formed in no small part by the fear and the anger that still linger from that tragic day.”
Jacob Soll, a University of Southern California professor, took note of Wright’s article, particularly its focus on the black plague and historians’ sustained interest in whether and how the disease affected the Medici family-controlled Florence and played a role in launching the Renaissance. As Soll argued in an article in Politico:
“[B]ig disruptions can bring big opportunities. Thinkers have already been considering how the world could emerge better, or smarter, from the Covid plague. And there’s real historical precedent for this: The Italian Renaissance may have begun before the 14th-century plague known as the Black Death, but there’s a strong case the disease—in both its ravages and the social changes it enabled—helped accelerate its progress, especially in the city of Florence. For a time, Florence’s economy bounced back with remarkable social mobility, and it became Europe’s premier center of artistic, cultural and scientific creativity.”
Soll also noted this:
“The Florentine lesson isn’t that a plague is good for you. No one wants thousands or millions of people to die so that others can have the opportunity to take their place. But it shows clearly that the right systems and opportunities are crucial to benefit from a crisis. A society that in some ways had been trapped by its aristocracy and tradition then put itself in a position to capitalize when those were disrupted, through an enthusiasm for learning and art—with results that made Florence a center of invention, scholarly and artistic creation, and prosperity for centuries. Do we have that opportunity now? Maybe. We certainly have the means and the institutions to achieve these goals.
“But the signs, right now, are that America at least is heading the wrong way. As the economy crumbles, low- and middle-income workers are being laid off, while at the other end the stock market has soared, and the net worth of wealthy Americans continues to grow. Small businesses are shutting down; Amazon has never been more valuable. Many privileged Americans are profiting and staying safe, while economically insecure Americans walk into risky jobs, and young people, the poor and immigrants—a natural talent pool to help build the future—are increasingly blocked from even entering the country.
“It’s possible America could still get this right. By the time the economy does open back up, it’s incumbent on us to ensure we lay the groundwork for people all the way down the ladder to seize the opportunities it might offer.”
Wall Street is not the best representation for the U.S. economy as a whole. But the record-setting levels of the Dow and NASDAQ, analysts say, indicates that investors believe that America’s fundamentals are fine, and its economy will be robust again — if it is not hobbled by Covid-19.
Republican lawmakers have stood fast for months now in their contention that further, broad coronavirus relief efforts may be unnecessary as business crawls back, without the presence, thus far, of prospective vaccines or significant improvements in treatment of the disease. How long, though, can Capitol Hill and the White House look past the real pain inflicted on tens of millions by the pandemic — in joblessness, hunger, evictions and homelessness, and, of course, relentless increases in infections and deaths?
Credits: All photos in this newsletter from Unsplash (including by Brett Jordan, Mauro Paillex, Vidar Nordli-Mathisen, Hu Chen, and Greg Rakozy). Painting: The family of Piero de’ Medici portrayed by Sandro Botticelli in the Madonna del Magnificat. The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.
With the needs great, contributions have been, too
If researchers are correct, practicing kindness, gratitude, and humility benefits us by boosting our own capacities to bounce back from adversity. The efforts may be best if practiced year-round.
But with the pandemic creating huge needs across the country, Americans also appear to be stepping up to help each other in critical ways during the pandemic — and benefiting in doing so, notably with those much-dreaded income taxes.
Researchers from Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, and specifically the Women’s Philanthropy Institute, reported that their research found that “more than half of all U.S. households — 56% — expressed some form of generosity during the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic …48% of U.S. households had engaged in forms of generosity unique to the pandemic. This includes ordering takeout with an intention to support local restaurants and their employees and paying individuals or businesses for services such as haircuts and care giving that they could not provide due to strict social distancing requirements.”
The New York Times reported this recently of increased philanthropy by major donors:
“When the coronavirus prompted states to order residents to stay at home in March, unemployment surged around the country as huge parts of the economy slowed or stopped. Soon after, there were calls for philanthropists, charitably inclined people and even occasional donors to accelerate any giving they were planning to do. They stepped up, it turns out, giving more and giving faster than they typically do … months after the initial outbreak, two reports show that Americans gave at a rate and a level that eclipsed donations during the 2008 recession and after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“According a [recent] report … from Fidelity Charitable, which has become the largest grant maker in the country by managing thousands of individual donor-advised funds, those donors have given $3.4 billion nationwide since the start of the year, up at least 28% from a year earlier. Grants to food banks and other food assistance programs were up 667%t nationally, including more than 800% in the Mid-Atlantic. At the same time, donors continued to give to their local and other regular charities, according to the report, which tallied 750,000 transactions to more than 100,000 charities.”
The newspaper, separately, reported this of organized charitable efforts:
“The Foundation Source, which advises smaller corporate and family foundations, recently surveyed its members and found that 39% of respondents had shifted their foundations’ missions in response to the events of this year, while 42% had increased their giving. And some said they had used their foundations to make grants directly to individuals, award scholarships or engage in direct charitable activities.”
Congress, as part of a big coronavirus relief bill passed earlier this year, allowed “individual taxpayers [to] take a deduction of up to $300 for cash donations made in 2020 when they file their tax return in the spring.” As the newspaper explained:
“Thinking of making a donation to a charitable cause before the end of the year? This is a good time to do it, as the pandemic rages again. Plus, you can take a deduction for contributions in 2020, even if you don’t itemize on your income tax return … Typically, you can deduct charitable donations only if you itemize your personal deductions, rather than taking the standard deduction. With changes in the federal tax code in 2017, through the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, the vast majority of taxpayers now take the standard deduction. The law roughly doubled the standard deduction and did away with some itemized deductions. For the tax year 2018, just 11% of filers itemized, according to the Internal Revenue Service. (For 2020, the standard deduction is $12,400 for single filers, and $24,800 for married couples filing jointly.)
“While the change simplified tax filing for many people, it removed a financial incentive for some people to donate. Some nonprofit organizations have felt the pinch, said Gil Nusbaum, general counsel at the National Philanthropic Trust, which provides expertise to donors and foundations. ‘Grassroots charities were disproportionately affected,’ he said. The new ‘universal’ deduction makes it easier for people to receive a tax benefit for giving. Because the deduction is taken ‘above the line,’ it reduces, by up to $300, your adjusted gross income — an important number because it determines your eligibility for tax credits and other deductions.”
The IRS has a web page explaining in detail about charitable contributions and deductions in these pandemic times. The New York Times offers these caveats about the cash donation write-off:
“To qualify for the deduction, the donation must be made in cash (paying by check or credit card is OK); stock, volunteer hours or donated goods don’t qualify. And the donation must be made to a qualified, 501(c)(3) public charity. Gifts to private foundations or individuals aren’t eligible. The I.R.S. offers a search tool to help donors verify if an organization is eligible to accept tax-deductible donations.”
Those who itemize their taxes may wish to consult their lawyers, accountants, or financial planners, and an array of familiar nonprofit organizations affected by coronavirus closures. Patrons may have been asked and have donated ticket costs for art performances — symphony concerts, plays, and the like. Don’t overlook those deductions. Taxpayers typically don’t get to take a deduction for memberships to museums, public gardens, and even their workout spot — if it is a nonprofit like the YMCA, YWCA, or, say, a Jewish Community Center.
Some individuals, unable to get to the facilities or finding them shut due to the coronavirus, have converted memberships into gifts and may get a tax deduction, as a result.
If you are near a hospital or medical center, you may wish to exercise your charitable wishes by contacting the institutions for information about becoming a regular blood donor.
Churches nationwide have leaped in with their congregations’ blessing and financial support, putting up small sums to buy up and wipe out one of the huge shames of the American health care system: patients’ medical debt. The faithful work with RIP Medical Debt, a nonprofit organization based in Rye, N.Y., that provides the know-how to many kinds of donors to help eliminate bills that can crush patients and their loved ones for a lifetime
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HERE’S TO A HEALTHY 2021!