I haven't searched for statistics, but have asked around and watched carefully as second and third homes fueled the local economy over the past dozen years. Bless my contractor and carpenter friends who have ridden the boom - many of them have struggled through hard times with the rest of us, drove old pickups into the dirt, scabbed together livings out of remodels and insurance jobs, traded labor when they had to - or when I had to. And now, for a few years, they've had the ideal situation: framing something up before snow falls and working inside through the winter.
This winter most have had a few days or weeks off. And the prospects of new jobs, especially the sweet big new jobs, are not great. Remodels are again on the table.
The pundits are picking the bones of the national housing bubble, and finding most of the problems in bad loans and complicated "financial instruments" that "bundled" good loans and bad, shuffled them around the international banking world as chief execs bought luxury houses, built luxury offices, and sat in luxury boxes at stadiums named for their companies.
Much less attention has been paid the 1996 change in capital gains law. Younger readers might not even remember a time when homeowners had a one-time shot at home sale capital gains exemption - the homeowner had to be 55 and the exemption was $125,000. Our big "liberal" President Clinton made the switch as he began his second term in 1997: $250,000 for a single person, $500,000 for a married couple, and homeowners have only to live in a house - or make it their "primary residence" - for two of the previous five years.
And "flipping" houses became a national obsession. Just in time, I might add, to help investors recover from the high tech bubble bust.
I have no knowledge of how and how many individual housing transactions in Wallowa County were in some way related to the flipping phenomenon, but a quick look at local unemployment rates and anecdotal evidence from friends and neighbors shows that, much as we would sometimes prefer not to be, we are tied to the national economy.
This is not the first housing boom and bust in my brief tenure in the Wallowas. I remember a lot of empty new houses and used nail belts for sale in the early 1980s. But this one feels different because of the national focus on housing - and fancy lending - being at the core of the current recession. And because of the slippery ease with which we have all bought and sold houses over the past decade.
I am reminded of two wise and relevant things I've read and heard in the past few years. First, in a book called "Faster," James Gleick explores growing efficiencies in technology and culture - and concurrent growing vulnerabilities. There was a time when the local banker financed a house, a man or a crew took a year or more to build it, and the owners planned to live in it forever. As we finance, build, buy, sell, and trade houses faster and faster, the "paper" on the house floating around the world and the builders and occupants just temporary residents of here or anywhere, profit skimmed off at every turn, one bad turn and the whole mess comes crashing. And no one knows how to put Humpty together again because we don't even know where all the pieces are. We are fast, and efficient - when it works!
The second idea. Several years ago a wise law professor named Charles Wilkinson from the University of Colorado told a Fishtrap audience that "everything is subsidized. The question is whether the government subsidy in the particular instance serves the public good for which it was intended."
Without roads, water, and sewer, where would your businesses be? How would you get to "work" or get your product to market? How did the Interstate Highway System, built under President Eisenhower in the name of national defense, change the country and the economy?
And how did Clinton's capital gains law impact the housing boom and bust?
More importantly, locally and nationally, can an economy built on the building of second homes sustain itself? No matter how low the interest rates, heavy the tax incentives, and flush the economy, simple math says there is a limit.
I suspect the Economy, with big E, will go on chasing houses for awhile, dabble in energy, deal with health care, bounce in and out of new technologies and new and old energy sources, and slug it out with global corporations and foreign military actions, waiting for the next new, fast, super-growth economic hormone.
And that a small group of people-Amish farmers, "slow food" and local agriculture junkies, small town shopkeepers, "greenies" of one stripe and another, "unorthodox" economists and academics, and a few old-timers and newcomers here in Wallowa County-will talk seriously about "limits."
Was it Icarus who flew almost to the sun?
Rich Wandschneider, Josephy Library and Fishtrap Endowment Fishtrap, Inc. PO Box 38 Enterprise, Oregon 97828 541-426-3623 www.fishtrap.org