From Unemployment to Underwear: 4 Alternative Economic Indicators

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On Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) informed the country that the U.S. unemployment rate has dropped to 8.6%. This was good news as the national unemployment rate had been hovering around 9% for quite a spell.

The BLS is in charge of putting together some rather mind-boggling statistics. In order to calculate the unemployment rate the BLS surveys more than 100.000 businesses and over 400,000 worksites. And they do this every month. When they’re not busy with unemployment, they spend their free time calculating the national inflation rate and bird watching.

Unemployment and inflation, however, are only two figures that we can look at to tell us how the economy is faring. Over the years, economists and non-economists have come up with small ways to either judge the present or predict the future. Here’s a sample of some of the more interesting indicators.

1. The Underwear Index

The Men’s Underwear Index (MUI) was originally developed by Alan Greenspan. According to this indicator, if men are not quite as well off, they’re less likely to replace worn out underwear, and more likely to wear it out completely before replacing it. As expected, men’s tightie-whitie sales have been down throughout the recession, but they've recently shown an uptick. So, whether you’re a boxer or brief man, things might be looking up.

2. The Waffle House Indicator

Part economic indicator, part disaster recovery index, the Waffle House Indicator is a way to see how down on its luck, or completely out of commission, a city or town is. Open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, the Waffle House is a simple gauge with which to evaluate the economic health of a community. Basically, if the 'House is closed, something pretty massive is going down. Craig Fuguate at FEMA has actually come up with a color-coded system to evalute the Waffle House-related damage in a given area:

"Green means the restaurant is serving a full menu, a signal that damage in an area is limited and the lights are on. Yellow means a limited menu, indicating power from a generator, at best, and low food supplies. Red means the restaurant is closed, a sign of severe damage in the area or unsafe conditions."

3. The Marine Index

There are two ways to use our nation’s elite fighting force to judge our current economy. One is by looking at recruitment statistics. Currently, the Marines have a pretty steady stream of recruits coming through the doors, and if recruitment is up, typically the economy is down. If we look at the armed forces in strictly an economic way, then the jobs they offer are typically more dangerous than average, lower paying than average, and more restrictive than average. These jobs, however, bring with them more job security than average, and have more geographic mobility. Therefore, if these positions are nearly full, it shows that the average citizen is willing to take risks to secure a job.

The other way we can use the Marines to tell how we’re doing is to look at their television ads. If their recruitment quotas are met, then they can afford to make their ads less inviting, tougher, and more intimidating. So, if you’re watching Monday Night Football and you see an ad with some gents going through grueling torments to be a Marine, then odds are, the economy still isn’t flying high.

For example, check out this ad, released in 2006 , featuring sci-fi, video game trials rather than real life exertions.

Compare it to this commercial posted earlier this year:

4. The Hot Waitress Index

New York Magazine has reported on a less concrete index, but one that they promise is just as reliable: the Hot Waitress Index. The theory goes that when times are good, people in the “general attractiveness business” (to mongrelize a phrase from Party Down) find many jobs – modeling, marketing, partying, acting – that put their beauty to use. When the economy falls, however, the last resort of the beautiful is to waitress. How one would ever quantify this index is beyond me. I guess it’s one of those gut-feeling things. Or maybe economic indicators are in the eye of the beholder.
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Are there any offbeat measures of the economy's health that you rely on? Feel free to coin your own right here.

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December 5, 2011 - 9:58am
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