Are We Sinking Into a New Great Depression?

Have we dodged a bullet or is it still heading our way?

I'm in the southwest Oregon beach town of Bandon this week, as I have often been during the past 25 summers. Longtime readers will know that I periodically measure cultural change by leaving Silicon Valley -- one of the most atypical of U.S. communities -- and coming here.

I've watched and reported in the past dozen years as Bandon has grown from a sleepy village largely dependent upon fishing and logging, to a tourist town with the fastest broadband in the nation -- and best-known for three new, and famous, golf courses nearby.

Bandon is also the yardstick by which I measure the changes in my own life. I first visited this town with my parents as a 13-year-old in the late 1960s. I returned in 1984 for my honeymoon. Both of my boys came here as infants -- every day I'm here I drive by the hill where Tad broke his arm at age 9. Now, Tad is a new high school graduate heading off for Oxford, England, and staying home this summer in Sunnyvale to work. Meanwhile, Skip (Tim), who used to sit on the beach in his diapers and eat sand, is now a strapping 13-year-old. He's here with one of his eighth-grade buddies.

As I've often noted in the past, as much as I love Oregon, I also have few illusions about the state. My late father, who grew up in Eugene during the Depression, joined the circus the day after he graduated from high school and didn't return for almost 40 years. When I once told him that I thought the state would be "the Next Big Thing," he laughed and said, "Son, Oregon has been the Next Big Thing for more than 100 years."

And, sadly, he was right. Because Oregon is all but forced by geography to be the economic satellite of California -- even in tech, it is largely the land of manufacturing divisions of Silicon Valley-headquartered companies -- the state is inevitably one of the first into, and one of the last out of, any economic downturn.

So, how bad are things in Bandon these days? Well, keep in mind that despite having a few thousand residents, Bandon is really two towns: the inland town, composed largely of Oregon natives and near-natives, who are mostly permanent residents and live in small, low-cost homes, and the Bandon of Beach Loop Road, the big million-dollar houses lining the cliffs above the rocky beaches you see in TV commercials, mostly owned by retired Californians.

The Face of 15 Percent Unemployment

Inland Bandon, though it seems largely unchanged -- a few businesses have gone bust with none to replace them -- has suffered a burst of foreclosures. Meanwhile, out on Beach Loop, the for-sale signs -- always a summer phenomenon by owners looking to see if they can find a rich sucker -- are more plentiful than ever. And this is particularly true in the several new housing developments, which now stand forlorn, nearly empty and, if local rumors are true, many of them financially underwater.

I still make my morning drive down to Bandon Coffee -- but now the news on the radio is not the status of the local salmon run, but the fact that unemployment in the region has now reached 15 percent. I'm reminded that the during the Great Depression, that number reached 25 percent -- a figure I used to find unimaginable, and an experience so devastating that my 88 year-old Dust Bowl mother still hoards string and rubber bands and rinses out plastic bags even as she sits in her seven-figure, modernist Eichler home.

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