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Biden’s Big Government Window Has Closed (Washington Examiner) October 20, 2021

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President Joe Biden’s mantra has been “go big or go home.” Biden has proposed spending trillions of dollars on COVID relief, infrastructure, and new social programs. On the heels of the pandemic, it appeared that Biden and his fellow Democrats had a window of opportunity to dramatically expand the size and role of the federal government. They saw a chance to cut a 21st century New Deal.

Not so fast. A recent Gallup Poll shows that, at least for the public, the big government window is now closed. As far as the public is concerned, it’s time for the government to recede from its emergency footing and return to a more limited and traditional role.

Gallup has been studying public support for a wider government role in solving problems since 1992. Only twice has 50% or more respondents supported more government: following 9/11 and in 2020, at the height of the pandemic. Otherwise the public prefers smaller government, playing a more limited role in their lives.

From polling done in September, Gallup learned that the blip of support for a larger government role in 2020 is gone. Now 52% of people say the government is doing too many things, a result consistent with polling over the last thirty years. Respondents also say they would prefer lower taxes even if that means fewer government services. Fifty-four percent said the government has too much power.

Of course, government rarely gives up power. When President Bill Clinton said that “the era of big government is over,” very little changed. Government grows consistently in size and spending regardless of which party is in power.

Nevertheless, there are clear messages here. One is that the people believe the emergency government needs to be over and things should return to normal in Washington. Governments love to declare emergencies and grow their power, but they find it more difficult to return to normal.

This polling also undercuts Biden’s assumed mandate for the big ticket progressive measures he has proposed. Democratic moderates such as Sen. Joe Manchin are opposing the huge spending proposals, struggling against progressives. The people are on the moderate, even conservative, side of that question.

Rarely does a president have the power and support for revolutionary changes in the government. Perhaps only Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt had that kind of mandate for change because of the Civil War and the Great Depression, respectively. The pandemic, however, has not created the common sense that the government needs revolutionary growth.

It’s time for Biden to shift gears away from a massive expansion of government to incremental change. Perhaps more support is needed for preschool, for example, but there is no need for big government to operate a mandatory preschool.

To the disappointment of progressives such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the people do not want a bigger and more powerful government running their lives.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:



Civics Education Offers a Map to Escape Our Partisan Maze (Washington Examiner) October 5, 2021

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Congress is struggling to raise the debt ceiling to pay for money that has already been spent. Despite a lack of evidence to support claims of election rigging, there are still heated arguments over the last presidential election. Red wars against blue, Republicans against Democrats, Democratic progressives against party moderates, and Republican Trumpists against traditional conservatives.

For years, we have bemoaned the loss of a center politically. Everyone seems to be left or right, with no one left in what used to be called “the vital center.” But I am concerned about the loss of an even deeper center: the loss of knowledge, respect, and commitment to our democratic system itself.

The Pew Research Center, which has been studying trust issues since 1958, has found that only about a quarter of Americans trust their government. Among younger people, it is even worse. A 2019 Pew poll reported that among those ages 18-29, low trust characterized 48%, more than double that of citizens over 65.

I submit that a large part of our democracy’s partisanship and dysfunction is that we have put the wrong thing at the center. Our government and politics are now driven almost entirely by the two major political parties and their leadership. Unfortunately, their top priority — sometimes it seems like their only priority — is not to find the best policy to serve the public but simply to win. The tools of winning — harsh rhetoric, blocking votes, filibusters, and fundraising — have driven out tools of governing such as deliberation, compromise, and bipartisanship.

But strengthening civics education would be a road toward improving the performance of our democracy. Civic knowledge, respect, and action should replace partisan political parties at the center of the system.

Perhaps you are not aware of the precipitous decline of civic education. National testing shows that only 24% of 8th graders are “proficient” or better in civics, and a meager 15% in U.S. history. Two-thirds of American citizens cannot pass the civics portion of the U.S. citizenship process, something immigrants pass at greater than a 90% rate. Young people especially cannot name the three branches of government, or rights contained in the First Amendment, or whether Judge Judy is on the Supreme Court. Students are not being taught basic civics.

The root cause of this deficiency is that we no longer emphasize civics. Instead of teaching several courses in civics, as was the case a few decades ago, most states only require a single one-semester course in high school. STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education has pushed civics to the edge of the curriculum. In fact, the federal government now spends $54 per student per year on STEM education and only 5 cents on civics.

Sure, it’s important to prepare children for jobs, but what about the job of running our republic? Indeed, how can we expect children to trust something they don’t even know or understand?

Returning civics to the core of K-12 education could be a big step toward gluing our republic back together. People can debate and disagree within a system they know and know to care for.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


Joe Biden Wants A New Deal (Washington Examiner) September 24, 2021

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President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal was launched nearly 90 years ago, but it is the government model that we live under today.

The New Deal dramatically expanded the size and the role of the federal government. Besides enormous growth in federal agencies, government spending, and regulation, the New Deal used the government to create and guarantee economic security, from making up jobs to establishing social security and beyond.

In the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson added to the New Deal’s promise of economic security by launching a war on poverty, which continues to be fought today, and Medicare for seniors. President Barack Obama further expanded the New Deal by including healthcare as a basic right available to all.

President Joe Biden’s plans, however, go well beyond this. What Biden seeks can only be called a new New Deal. Two important questions need to be asked:

  1. Does the United States need a new New Deal?
  2. Will America remain the same if we allow Biden to create a new deal? Put another way, do we want a system of much greater government intervention?

The government’s size, measured by its spending or employees, has grown under both Republican and Democratic administrations. These days, the real measure of bigger or smaller government is to look at the extent of its activity in our individual lives. Measured in that way, Biden’s proposed $3.5 trillion spending bill clearly constitutes a new New Deal.

Biden seeks changes to everything from education to social welfare, from climate change to the economy. All this would be paid for by a Roosevelt-sized increase in federal spending, plus a major overhaul of the tax code. In other words, Biden is shooting for the moon, seeking to undo any limitations on government imposed during the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s.

The details of the $3.5 trillion plan are being negotiated, but note how sweeping the proposals are. In education, for example, it won’t just expand Head Start or support for preschool, but the bill would create universal preschool for 5 million children ages 3-4. The proposals include huge allocations for family and child care support. Not only will there be significant growth in aid for college education, but the first two years of community college would be tuition-free. Free universal preschool and two years of free college: That’s a new education deal.

Same with Medicare. Not just more assistance but a whole new deal, including dental, vision, and hearing coverage. The possibility of lowering the eligibility age is on the table. A new deal for seniors.

Unlike the original New Deal, Biden’s new deal could be passed by votes from just one political party. It’s difficult to accept that a president elected by 51% of the people would launch a whole new deal on a narrow party-line basis.

We have many challenges during this pandemic. But are we prepared to change our education, healthcare, tax code, and economic system just because of the virus?

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


Civic Education Webinar with Senator John Cornyn and David Davenport Monday, Sept. 20 September 16, 2021

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Covid-19 Poses Risk of Permanently Big Government (Washington Examiner) September 7, 2021

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The coronavirus pandemic risks fueling a permanent expansion of government.

President Biden’s proposed plan to spend $3.5 trillion on cradle-to-grave social programs is clear evidence of this risk. But we’re also seeing tension as federal programs to augment unemployment support come to an end.

As eminent political scientist James Q. Wilson wrote of President Lyndon Johnson’s aggressive Great Society programs in the 1960s, they “lowered the legitimacy barrier” for government action. Previously, there had been debate over whether the federal government had the power to act on domestic problems such as welfare, education, urban renewal, etc. But thanks to Johnson, that debate essentially ended. Any “new” domestic program was not really new — it was arguably an expansion of what the government was already doing.

This is a consequence of COVID-19 as well: we have gotten comfortable with increased government spending everywhere — from health to education to unemployment and housing. Biden’s new $3.5 trillion social program would grow not only government spending, but also its role in people’s lives. How about paid family leave for births? Free or affordable child care? Two years of universal pre-K schooling? An increased child tax credit? Two years of free college? Expansion of Medicare to cover dental and vision?

Pre-COVID, such a vast program would likely have been near impossible to pass. People would have called it socialism, a move away from individualism toward the social welfare systems of Europe. But now? Well, COVID-19 has opened the gates to greater federal support.

My fear is that this support will be permanent. The history of declared states of emergency provides evidence. There are 30 national emergencies that have remained in effect for years, even decades. President Jimmy Carter declared the oldest in the late 1970s. Emergencies may come and go, but emergency declarations and powers persist.

Ultimately, COVID-19 poses risks to our democracy if, as James Q. Wilson said, it makes us more comfortable with increased government power and intrusion.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


Civics Education: Let It Bloom (Defining Ideas) August 21, 2021

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It’s that time of year when summer fades and school reopens. Before we leave the summer, however, we should acknowledge that never have we seen so much debate and discussion about the teaching of civics and US history than in the past several months. 

civics “roadmap,” funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and developed by three hundred scholars and practitioners, has been released. This document seeks to foster both improvement in civic education and the use of civics to bridge some of America’s deep divisions. Meanwhile, in Washington, DC, a $1 billion “Civics Secures Democracy Act” was introduced with bipartisan support. To counter the “1619 Project” (which seeks to focus on the arrival of African slaves as America’s true founding), a competing “1776 Curriculum” was developed. The Fordham Institute recently published a 370-page report grading all the states in civics and history education; the results were not pretty. 

Plenty of noise, and some action, have filled state legislatures on the subject of US history and civics. Bills banning the teaching of certain topics, especially critical race theory, have been introduced in twenty-six states and enacted in eleven of them. Perhaps it is not surprising in these hyperpartisan times that civics and history would become highly politicized.

As we look across this lively civic education landscape, I note two kinds of efforts that seem to be under way: the planting of seeds and the abatement of weeds. I would argue that we need a lot more seed planting—improving and deepening civics education—and less time and energy spent on the admittedly important, but less vital, work of weed pulling.

Planting Seeds

The need for more robust and effective civic education has become apparent to nearly everyone by now. National test results show that only 24 percent of eighth-graders (the only level at which such tests are now administered) are proficient or better in civics and government and an anemic 15 percent in US history. Americans, especially the young, are unable to answer fundamental questions about our government and how it works. They do not know any of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment and could not pass the civics test of the citizenship process. Many think Judge Judy is on the Supreme Court. 

Last year I published a studyCommonsense Solutions to Our Civics Crisis, for the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation on the poor state of civic education and what should to be done to improve it. The two most important actions recommended were requiring more time on the study of civics in our schools, including primary and middle school as well as high school, and better teacher training. The former has become a major problem as standardized testing in reading and math and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education have overtaken the curriculum, pushing civics to the side. 

As we look at the civics landscape, then, we can take encouragement from seeds being planted along those lines. Rhode Island, for example, long one of the states that required no civic education, has added a course requirement. New Jersey has added a new course requirement for civics in middle school. Since we need to start teaching civics in elementary and middle school, and building a layer cake of knowledge, this is a promising step. The governor of Tennessee has awarded a civics seal to schools and districts doing a great job of teaching history and civics. Florida, long a leader in civic education, has begun requiring the teaching of history and civics through primary documents, which is a best practice. 

We celebrate the planting of these seeds and hope for much, much more. The gold standard is a requirement of some civics in the primary and middle school grades, culminating with a one-year (not just a one-semester) course in high school. A standardized civics test at the end of the course or as a graduation requirement has also been shown to improve civic learning. As we increase the civics curriculum, we must do more teacher training, especially in the use of primary documents, which replace boring and often biased textbooks with improved learning. 

Pulling Weeds

The twentieth-century writer Thomas Mann could have been commenting on our day when he said, “Everything is politics.” Howard Zinn was among the first to politicize history and civics education with his textbook, A People’s History of the United States, first published in 1980. Zinn’s book attacks everyone from Christopher Columbus to the American founders for their selfish motives in overrunning indigenous and poor people.  His attack on the American story continues throughout his history, writing, as he said, on the side of the oppressed. Initially used as a supplemental text or alternative narrative, Zinn’s book became widely used in high school and college classes.

In more recent times, the “1619 Project,” published by the New York Times, raised political and economic questions about the founding of America, seeking to push back the founding from 1776 to 1619, when the first slaves arrived on the continent. According to this account, the economics of slavery were the founding reality, not the American Revolution or its constitution. Now, critical race theory argues that the whole American system is racist and education must take that into account. The tug of war between progressives, who advocate these changes in the teaching of history and civics, and conservatives, who seek to preserve the teaching of American excellence and exceptionalism, is now playing out in our children’s education.

Specifically, most state legislatures have been considering bills to ban the teaching of critical race theory and companion ideas about racism. This has begun to resemble the old arcade game of Whac-A-Mole, in which rodents pop up and the player seeks to beat them back down, one by one. When a liberal idea for teaching civics and history pops up, conservative lawmakers seek to beat it down with bills withholding funding if these theories are taught in schools. Without question, there are some noxious weeds in the civics and history garden, but the question arises whether passing bills banning the teaching of this or that is the best response. For one thing, it further politicizes the teaching of history and civics and sets a precedent for further such wars. For another, it consumes state legislatures, which should be giving attention instead to increasing civics course requirements and teacher training.

It has long been understood that an important and more sustainable approach to weed management is to develop and grow crops that can compete successfully in the garden. If we began building civic knowledge in the primary school years, students would develop greater judgment and stronger resistance to bad ideas later. If we taught history and civics using primary documents—not only the Constitution, Declaration, etc., but speeches and debates of the time—we could prepare students to reach their own conclusions, not those of textbooks or even teachers. The Ashbrook Center in Ohio does a fabulous job of training thousands of teachers in this method.

Professor Alexander Astin of UCLA has long argued that what educators need to do to improve our democracy is to help students develop a “crap detector.” That is to say, there will always be weeds in the garden, especially in a country devoted to the free flow of speech and ideas. Education, then, needs to help students develop detectors and resist bad ideas on their own, not simply be protected from them. Such protective approaches are akin to the problem of “lawnmower parents” who seek to protect their kids by removing every obstacle or problem in their path. Unfortunately, then, we develop children who lack judgment and resilience. As we sometimes say of the First Amendment, rather than prohibit bad speech we do not like, we need to overcome bad speech with good. 

I am not saying we should not resist the spending of public money on these unfortunate theories and false narratives. What I am saying is that politics and law are not necessarily the best way to accomplish our goals. The all-or-nothing arguments of “1619” or critical race theory being attacked by an all-or-nothing ban teaches students the wrong lesson. Most ideas are not all or nothing. Students need to see and deal with the gray areas as well. 

Dig In

Planting seeds of improved civics and history education is a high priority and must be encouraged at all levels. As President Reagan said in his farewell address, we need parents at the dinner table talking to their kids about America, helping them develop into “informed patriots.” We need primary and middle schools teaching civics as well as history, followed by a yearlong civics course in high school and perhaps standardized testing as well. This is job one if we want to reverse the civic education decline we have seen over the past fifty years.

Unfortunately, at the moment, the weed pulling is getting more attention than seed planting. What we see are adults (scholars and politicians, largely) playing out their political wars on the battlefield of their children’s education. In the garden of life, and of education, seed planting will make a greater long-term impact than weed pulling. 

To read the essay at Defining Ideas:


Masking Children: Who Decides? (Washington Examiner) August 19, 2021

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If you are confused about whether children should wear masks to school this fall, join the crowd.

More to the point: Do you even know whose decision that is? With conflicting advice about the science of masking children, federalism battles among federal, state, and local powers, and pandemic political posturing all around, it is nearly impossible to figure out who is in charge here.

A recent decision by the Texas Supreme Court presents a microcosm of the larger problems. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order in May, which he expanded in July, to ban the mandated wearing of masks by any government entity, including schools. Concerned about the rapid spread of the delta variant of the coronavirus, some of the state’s largest school districts nevertheless mandated the wearing of masks. The state’s Supreme Court ruled recently that the governor’s ban of mask mandates should prevail, at least for now.

There are both legal and political ironies in all this. With a Republican governor, and an all-Republican state Supreme Court, one might expect a stronger push for federalism, allowing local government entities (including schools) to control their own fates. But mask mandates are seen as a challenge to individual freedom, also a core conservative principle. Legally, it seems unusual for a state emergency power, normally used to take action, to instead prevent action under local emergency powers.

The story does not end there, of course. Some schools are ignoring the ruling until it applies more fully and specifically to them and proceeding with mask mandates. Another added masking to its dress code, an attempt to skirt around the mask mandate for now. Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., President Joe Biden indicated that he is exploring the use of federal civil rights law to protect mask mandates in schools.

Although both Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden declared national states of emergency regarding COVID-19, much of the real action has been left to states and local governments. In California, for example, where state regulations came early in the pandemic, counties were nevertheless the level at which a variety of masking and distancing rules were applied. Although the pandemic was a worldwide problem, local conditions varied, making it appropriate in our federalist system for local and state governments to take the lead.

Applying federalism to the question of masking in schools, it seems like individual districts should be able to make their own decisions. Clearly, conditions in some states and cities vary widely. Policies that make sense in more urban areas may not apply to a rural district. Then, too, people are more likely to honor the rules when they have a voice in making them. Besides, this is not like rules for flying, a situation in which many different people are exposed to one another. Rules in one school district need not have an extended effect beyond their borders.

At the end of the day, one worries that politicians making their political points about mandates and freedom are taking priority over federalism and student safety. Whether students should wear masks in school is a tough enough call without politicians in Washington or state capitals seeking to make a political statement out of it.

Masking in school is a decision for school communities, not for remote politicians and courts.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


The Flurry Of Civic Education Bills In State State Legislatures Is Not The Real Solution (Washington Examiner) August 3, 2021

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To read the headlines, you would think all state legislatures are doing is passing voting rights laws. But look again and you’ll find that some 34 states have been considering 88 bills concerning civic education.

On one hand, you might be encouraged to know that states are working to improve civic education. After all, the most recently reported national tests show that only 24% of 8th graders are proficient or better in civics and government, with a meager 15% proficient in U.S. history. The federal government has largely abandoned civics, spending $54 per student per year on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education and only 5 cents on civics. Certainly, somebody needs to do something.

The problem is that the state legislatures are stirred up over the wrong things. What we need is to require and teach more civics. Instead of just a single course in high school, which is the low bar set in most states, we need civics to be taught from kindergarten throughout the grades, building a layer cake of civic knowledge, culminating with a full-year course in high school. Yet only a few states are moving in that direction.

Rhode Island has finally decided to require some teaching of civics. New Jersey recently added a requirement to teach a civics course in middle school as well as high school. Florida, long a leader in civic education, now requires it be taught in all grades. These are examples of what states should do: Set higher bars for civics requirements in their schools. Following on such increased requirements, states should also assure that proper teacher training is available to teach the new civics curriculum.

But the rest of the bills have very little to do with improving civic education at all. Instead, most of the bills are arguments over the content of American history, especially the founding. According to Education Week, legislators have introduced bills in 20 states to restrict teaching about racism, with eight states having passed such bills. These bills are attempts to weed the U.S. history garden of progressive initiatives such as the 1619 Project (about slavery) and critical race theory (about systemic racism). These may be arguments worth having. But they are not about improving civic education, and they do not belong in state legislatures.

Proponents of the 1619 Project and critical race theory are not attempting to improve civic education, but rather to make political points using U.S. history and civics. Others, such as a recent Roadmap Project in civics, seek to fix America by means of civics, not improve the teaching of civics per se. As Shawn Healy, an executive with iCivics, put it: “Things are not going well in our democracy, and civics can heal some of these divides.” Not likely with 24% proficiency.

What America needs most in civic education is to require more of it to be taught from grades K-12. Let scholars have their debates about racism and slavery. But legislatures should not be passing bills about the content of history; rather, they should be requiring more teaching of history and civics.

There are a lot of bad ideas out there about the teaching of history and civics. Action civics — requiring students to get out in the community and serve or protest — would put the cart of civic engagement before the horse of civic knowledge. The latest — called “lived civics” — would start with where students live, not with the knowledge they need to learn. Good civics is the same as other school subjects: knowledge. It’s not about experience; it’s not about how you feel. It’s what you need to know to understand our country and its systems, so we raise up good citizens.

State legislatures have a vital role to play in the teaching of civics. But it’s not redefining civics and history; it’s about requiring that more civic knowledge be taught in their schools.

To read the article at the Washington Examiner:


Civics Forward (Webinar with US Chamber of Commerce Foundation) July 22, 2021

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I did a 30 minute webinar today with Hanna Skandera on civic education in America for the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation. The Youtube is available here: https://youtu.be/_yaX9dws3DI

Affordable Housing Crisis Creates Federalism Tug of War (Washington Examiner) June 18, 2021

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Longtime Speaker of the House of Representatives Tip O’Neill might once have been right when he said, “All politics is local.” These days, one wonders.

Now, everything seems to be a federal case. From K-12 education to the condition of bridges and highways, from how we vote to what farmers can grow, Washington seemingly has its hand in everything.

Now, a new case study in the erosion of local power is presenting itself in California and elsewhere. Pressure to address an affordable housing shortage is prompting state government, and probably soon enough Washington as well, to override local control over zoning laws and land-use planning. People who bought into comfortable suburbs with single-house lots suddenly find their American dream may be crowded out and diminished by distant government mandates to build more and denser housing in their backyards.

As usual, California is on the bleeding edge of this change. California’s Regional Housing Needs Allocation law has long required municipalities to plan for the housing needs of their residents. The state’s Department of Housing and Community Development then decides whether cities are compliant, and, if not, it may assign and enforce new goals. With a crisis in affordable housing, accompanied by a homelessness crisis, the goals for new and affordable housing are growing astronomically, and the state is rattling its enforcement sword. The Bay Area’s assigned growth increase of 135% is breathtaking but typical.Recommended Video

A new bill before the California legislature, Senate Bill 9, would up the ante considerably. If passed, the bill would allow single-family lots to be split into duplexes (and in certain cases even more units) with only ministerial approval. Previous bills, and others still working through the legislature, would allow greater heights and densities near transit systems.

Amid threats and lawsuits, there is now a major pushback in this housing tug of war. California Assembly member Al Muratsuchi has authored a constitutional amendment allowing city or county zoning and land-use regulations to “prevail over conflicting general laws.” It would, in effect, give local officials the ability to overturn state housing mandates in their jurisdictions, returning zoning to a matter of local control. It will be tough to enact, but it creates an important new battlefront.

There is a lot going on both on the surface and below. One issue is how readily our legislators turn to one-size-fits-all solutions whenever they face a crisis. The affordable housing crisis took decades to develop and now, suddenly, we face an emergency in which the state has to take over policies long considered a matter for local governments. The diseases in Washington of governing by executive order and emergency declarations have spread to the states.

Then, too, there seems to be little regard for placing responsibility for solutions on those who helped cause the problem. Local governments are excited when large new tech companies choose to locate in their cities and counties, with little regard for what this will do to housing, transportation, and the like. Instead, these state mandates for new housing are assigned across the state, from large cities to tiny ocean hamlets regardless of their role in creating or perpetuating a housing shortage.

On the surface, this is an important battle pitting the need for affordable housing against the rights of property owners who put their life savings into their American dream home and neighborhood. Below the surface, this is a political tug of war over who decides housing policy. The state would do well to loosen regulations that make building new houses so expensive and provide funding for affordable housing experiments and projects. But the actual decisions on zoning and land-use need to be left closer to home, in local governments.

To read the column at the Washington Examiner: