It’s the heart of winter, and home sales in New Hampshire are hotter than a leprechaun on a Lucky Charms-fueled bender in Vegas. 

December typically is a slow home sales month, for obvious reasons. But in December, 2020, sales were up 25% over December, 2019, and sales volume was up 49%, according to data tracked by the New Hampshire Association of Realtors. 

A home spends an average of only 33 days on the market in New Hampshire, down 47.6% from the previous December. And the median sales price hit $349,900, up 16%.

In December of 2019, housing experts were concerned because the median home price rose to $299.999, just a dollar shy of $300,000. In a year, the median price rose by nearly $50.000.

And that price increase happened as new listings rose by 30%. People couldn’t put houses on the market quickly enough to meet demand. There was 2.4 months’ worth of supply in the housing market in December of 2019. A year later, that was down to 0.9 months.

Just five years ago, the median home price in New Hampshire was $249,800, fully $100,000 less than today’s median. 

Although urban coronavirus refugees pushed demand even higher in 2020, it was far outstripping supply long before the pandemic hit.

A state report issued in December noted that even though 2019 was the sixth year in a row to experience a growth in the number of housing units permitted by local governments, “the level of building activity continues to be less than half of the level at its peak in the early 2000s.”

Housing totals illustrate how slow the pace of new construction has been.

Hillsborough County, home to the state’s two largest cities, had 166,050 total housing units (single-family, multi-family, and manufactured) in 2010. In 2019, it had 174,824, an increase of only 8,774, or about 5.3%. 

Statewide, total housing units rose from 614,238 in 2010 to 646,889 in 2019, an increase of 32,651, or just 5.3%. 

For contrast, the U.S. Census Bureau measured the change in housing units from April, 2010 to July, 2019 (so the time frame is different from the state’s by a few months). The Census figures show the total number of housing units nationwide rising by 6.1% from 2010-2019. The increase in New Hampshire was only 4.5%, by the Census’ count.

Rental housing is also in short supply, suffering from a severe shortage of new construction. The good news in 2020 was that the vacancy rate roughly doubled. The bad news is that it was below 1% last year and rose to only 1.8% this year. 

A healthy rental vacancy rate is considered to be 5%. New Hampshire last had a vacancy rate above 5% in 2009 — during the recession. Rents rise every year, driven largely by the extreme shortage of units, especially in places that are experiencing stronger economic growth. 

Legislators have introduced several bills to try to address the problem. But many of the bills focus on incentives and subsidies, as if developers need prodding from the Legislature to get rich selling homes people are clamoring to buy. 

The best way to get more housing is to reduce local government restrictions on the construction of new housing. Until that is done, anything else is just window dressing. Really, really expensive window dressing.

“AMONG the numerous advantages promised by a well constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction. The friend of popular governments never finds himself so much alarmed for their character and fate, as when he contemplates their propensity to this dangerous vice.”

— James Madison, Federalist No. 10

By the end of his administration, George Washington saw the rise of partisan and regional factions as an existential threat to the young republic. In his Farewell Address of 1796, he used the full force of his name and reputation to advocate for a civic patriotism that valued national unity and loyalty to the Constitution as the highest civic virtues. 

“The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so, for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize,” he said. 

“But as it is easy to foresee that, from different causes and from different quarters, much pains will be taken, many artifices employed to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth; as this is the point in your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively (though often covertly and insidiously) directed, it is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can in any event be abandoned; and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts.”

In Federalist No. 10, James Madison defined a faction as “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”

In a land of free peoples, there was no hope of eliminating faction, Madison wrote. “Liberty is to faction what air is to fire.”

A pure democracy provides no remedy for one faction dominating another, Madison believed. But representative government does. 

“A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking.”

The Constitution is a blueprint for a machine of government in which the furies and impulses of the people are cooled by filtering them through a complex system designed to turn heated passions into reasoned arguments. 

Everyone learns in civics class about the checks and balances built into the Constitution to protect liberty by dividing power. But another other critical design function of the U.S. Constitution was to cool public passions. 

The House, Senate and Electoral College are filtering mechanisms. Through these institutions, the American people are forced to discuss and debate, collaborate and compromise, and hold the union together. 

Washington, Madison and other Framers believed that the rights and liberties of the American people were protected and preserved by this Constitutional framework itself. They viewed the Constitutional system as both the foundation and the ultimate guarantor of our freedoms.

“Liberty itself will find in such a government, with powers properly distributed and adjusted, its surest guardian,” Washington said in his Farewell Address.

That’s why the federal oath of office is an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic….” The oath is to the Constitution, not to the president, the people, or any other competing source of authority.

And it is why any end run around the constitutional system is a threat to the freedom of all Americans. 

For these reasons, President Washington himself led the army to put down the Whiskey Rebellion, though the rebels had legitimate grievances. In his proclamation, he wrote that the insurrection threatened “the very existence of government and the fundamental principles of social order.”

At the Statehouse in Concord on Wednesday and Thursday, pro-Trump protesters waved flags, gave speeches, and vented their frustrations and anger in a peaceable assembly fully protected by and consistent with our constitutional system.

By contrast, the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6 was an attempt to bypass the constitutional system to impose one faction’s preferred political outcome.  

There is no doubt how Washington and the other Framers of the Constitution would have viewed that effort.

Our federal republic is a precious inheritance. The republican systems through which our local, state, and federal governments channel political disputes deserve our affection and defense because they are the mechanisms that protect our liberties.

Threats to these systems are threats to liberty itself.

Humorist P.J. O’Rourke headlines the Josiah Bartlett Center’s second Libertas Virtual Event at noon on Wednesday, Jan. 13. 

Author of 20 books, including No. 1 New York Times bestsellers “Parliament of Whores” and “Give War a Chance,” O’Rourke has been one of America’s foremost humorists for nearly half a century, since his days writing for and editing the original National Lampoon magazine.  

Join us Jan. 13 for a discussion of P.J.’s new book, “A Cry from the Far Middle: Dispatches from a Divided Land.”

This is the second in the Josiah Bartlett Center’s six-part Libertas Virtual Event Series, which runs through May. 

Reservations for this and the remaining events in the series are just $100, only $20 per event. All proceeds benefit the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, New Hampshire’s free-market think tank.

Reservations for this event alone are $25. 

All reservations can be made at the Josiah Bartlett Center’s website, here.

December was by far New Hampshire’s deadliest month for COVID-19 fatalities, with 233 recorded deaths, according to state data. That record high represents a 441.8% increase over November and a 32.4% increase over May of 2020, which recorded the state’s previous high of 176 deaths. 

The number of new recorded COVID-19 infections in December —23,034 — was more than double the total number of all recorded infections from March through November.

That huge increase in infections in just a few weeks indicates rapid and broad community spread of the virus. 

On Nov. 30, the state had tallied 20,994 total COVID-19 infections since the epidemic was first detected in New Hampshire. By December 31, the state had recorded 44,028 infections.

Total new infections in the month of November were 10,545. December’s 23,034 new infections represented a 118% increase over the previous month.

This rapid increase in infections and deaths is not unique to New Hampshire. December was the deadliest and most infectious month for the entire United States as well. 

As the Josiah Bartlett Center reported last month, the state’s hospitalizations figures are inaccurate, so we are not calculating a hospitalization total. 

The state officially listed an increase in total hospitalizations of only 63 for the month of December, an obviously incorrect number. The state went from 160 current hospitalizations on December 1 to 252 on December 15 to 317 on December 31. 

The large rise in daily numbers is not reflected in the state’s totals because the state does not include most hospitalizations in its totals.

The state’s official tally of total hospitalizations includes only people who were hospitalized when their COVID-19 infection was first recorded. Anyone hospitalized after the initial infection was recorded by the state shows up in the daily hospitalization count, but is not included in the total hospitalizations. 

The Electoral College votes are counted by Congress on Jan. 6. Learn how the Electoral College really works and the role it plays in our republic by joining us for a virtual luncheon on Thursday. Jan. 7: How the Electoral College works and why it’s worth keeping, with Trent England and Joe Pinion.

Speakers: Trent England is executive director of Save Our States, a group dedicated to defending the Electoral College.

Joe Pinion is chairman of A Better Us, a philanthropic project devoted to fighting poverty and strengthening communities. 

Save Our States last year released a documentary, “Safeguard: An Electoral College Story,” to explain the unintended (and intended) consequences of abolishing the Electoral College in favor of a national popular vote. In this discussion, we’ll talk about the merits and flaws of the Electoral College system and the perils of replacing it with a national popular vote. 

This Zoom webinar will last approximately 30 minutes. There is no charge to attend.

Amid a historic collapse in transit ridership, the Executive Council has approved a $5.4 million contract to design a commuter rail line from New Hampshire to Boston. The contract is financed entirely with federal money, so New Hampshire taxpayers could choose to take some comfort in knowing that the state is throwing away what is mostly other people’s money. Nonetheless, it’s a waste of taxpayer dollars.

Americans have in the past year avoided mass transit like the plague, largely because of, well, a plague of sorts. But the trends before the rise of the coronavirus show a longer decline in ridership. 

In 2020, mass transit ridership fell by 50%, according to data kept by the American Public Transit Association. Commuter rail ridership fell by 62%. 

Transit ridership nationwide has been falling for years, according to federal data. (Commuter rail ridership has increased in the last decade, thought it’s leveled off in recent years.) 

In Boston, however, Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) commuter rail ridership has been in steady decline. 

The Pioneer Institute reported last year that MBTA commuter rail ridership fell by 11% (or about 4 million riders) from 2012-2018. 

In November, the MBTA reported that commuter rail was down to 13% of its normal ridership level.

Whether transit ridership will rebound to anything near its pre-COVID levels is an open question. It might. But commercial real estate rents, along with announcements by large and small companies that they are preparing to permanently switch portions of their workforce to remote work, suggest that urban work and commute patterns might forever be altered.

Again, even before the arrival of the coronavirus, technological advancements were driving declines in public transit. Ride sharing companies have given people another, more convenient way to move around cities and suburbs without relying on government-provided vehicles that travel pre-set, government-chosen routes. Those services are drawing riders away from mass transit, as this University of Kentucky study shows.

Rail is a 19th century technology that is ill-suited to solving 21st century transportation and environmental issues. The way forward is through innovation. Electric vehicles and autonomous vehicles will get people where they need to go while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and turning commute time into productive work time. They are far more versatile than trains and will serve people’s travel needs better.

That transition is already underway. And flying cars might follow, further changing the way we travel. New Hampshire doesn’t need to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build a train to serve a declining number of commuters when tech companies are already working on alternatives that will better serve everyone. 

The COVID-19 hospitalization totals posted on the state’s website and given in its daily briefings are incomplete and do not include all hospitalizations, the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy has determined.

The figure for total hospitalizations includes only people who were hospitalized when their positive test result was first reported, the Department of Safety’s Joint Information Center confirmed to Josiah Bartlett Center this week.

People who are “hospitalized after their case was initially reported” are included in the daily hospitalization updates, but are not added to the cumulative total for all hospitalizations, according to the Joint Information Center.

This results in a serious undercounting of the actual number of people who were hospitalized for COVID-19. In the first 17 days of December alone, the count is off by more than 100.

The state lists its cumulative total of hospitalizations on its daily updates as “Persons Who Have Been Hospitalized for COVID-19.” That number is the basis for the cumulative total on the state website.

The figure was 839 on November 30 and 877 on December 17, for an increase of only 38 hospitalizations.

But the number of persons hospitalized on each of those two days rose from 160 to 284, an increase of 124.

The discrepancy is caused not by hospital readmissions — people who were previously hospitalized being readmitted. It is the result of the state not adding to the cumulative total people hospitalized after their initial diagnosis.

The state should fix this discrepancy as soon as possible so the public has an accurate picture of the disease’s impact. Serious symptoms from COVID-19 can develop a week or two after contracting the disease. Not counting people admitted after their initial positive test result misses a potentially very large portion of COVID-19 hospitalizations.

An education funding system in which education dollars go to families rather than directly to school districts is “the ideal,” Gov. Chris Sununu said at the Josiah Bartlett Center’s first Libertas Virtual Event on Thursday.

New Hampshire should focus on student outcomes, not how much funding the system gets, the governor said. 

“You can sum all this up with: It’s gotta be about outcomes for the kids, not outcomes for the system,” the governor said. “We have to stop worrying about the system as much as the kids.”

The governor advocated Education Savings Accounts, which are like health savings accounts, but for education. 

The state would deposit a portion of a child’s per-pupil allotment of adequate education aid into a government-approved savings account, which the parent could then use for education expenses. 

They offer a way to put students first, and the pandemic has increased demand for such a change, Sununu said.

“This isn’t about the traditional school choice battle. If you’re thinking about it that way, you’re way behind. Independent, non-political individuals… people that traditionally weren’t involved in this discussion are stepping up and saying, ‘wait a minute, where is my money going? Why isn’t my kid in school? Why are we stuck remote learning when we know that we can and should be having our kids in school, at least in some facet… and they’re getting involved in this discussion about where their money — not our money, their money — is being spent. That’s gonna raise the level of debate to where it needs to be.”

Letting the money follow the child is not about the quality of public schools, but about finding a model that serves every child’s needs, he said.

“We have great public schools here. But there are one, two, three, four percent of the population where it’s not ideal, and giving them that opportunity is huge.”

With so many parents angry and frustrated with the limited public schooling options presented this school year, 2021 could be the year that New Hampshire joins the six other states that have education savings accounts, Sununu said.

Republican House Speaker nominee Sherm Packard and Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley have introduced bills to create education savings accounts. 

In the 2017-18 legislative session, an education savings account bill passed the Senate but was narrowly defeated in the House. 

December already ranks as New Hampshire’s third-deadliest month for COVID-19 fatalities, with 103 deaths in the first 17 days of the month, a 140% increase over the prior month. 

The state has averaged six COVID-19 deaths per day so far this month. If deaths continue at that pace, December would pass June’s total of 126 deaths by Christmas and pass May’s total of 176 by the end of the month. 

May and June are the state’s top two months so far for COVID-19 fatalities. 

This month’s largest single-day count came on Dec. 16, when the state announced 21 new deaths. That day alone represented nearly half of November’s total, which was 43 deaths. 

All of the state’s COVID-19 deaths this month have been among people age 60 or older. 

The rapidly rising death toll indicates continued community transmission as well as COVID-19 lethality among vulnerable older adults.

House Speaker Dick Hinch, R-Merrimack, was a gentleman of cheer and goodwill. Though he held strong convictions and would fight aggressively for policies he thought were right for New Hampshire, he believed that politics should be conducted with civility and understanding.

Humble and unassuming, he was an unlikely political leader in our social media age. But he won people over by listening to them and treating them with respect and dignity.

He was expected to model those virtues as speaker in the next session while pursuing an agenda focused on fiscal restraint, government reform, and individual empowerment. He died only a week into his speakership, just when his friendly, open-handed leadership would have added a certain brightness to a rapidly darkening winter. His passing is a tremendous loss for New Hampshire.