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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College Board Wants to Erase Thousands of Years From AP World History, and Teachers Aren't Happy
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One would be forgiven for thinking that the Ides of March are upon us, because Julius Caesar is being taken out once again—this time from the Advanced Placement World History exam. The College Board in charge of the AP program is planning to remove the Roman leader, and every other historical figure who lived and died prior to 1450, from high school students’ tests, The New York Times reports.

The nonprofit board recently announced that it would revise the test, beginning in 2019, to make it more manageable for teachers and students alike. The current exam covers over 10,000 years of world history, and according to the board, “no other AP course requires such an expanse of content to be covered over a single school year.”

As an alternative, the board suggested that schools offer two separate year-long courses to cover the entirety of world history, including a Pre-AP World History and Geography class focusing on the Ancient Period (before 600 BCE) up through the Postclassical Period (ending around 1450). However, as Politico points out, a pre-course for which the College Board would charge a fee "isn’t likely to be picked up by cash-strapped public schools," and high school students wouldn't be as inclined to take the pre-AP course since there would be no exam or college credit for it.

Many teachers and historians are pushing back against the proposed changes and asking the board to leave the course untouched. Much of the controversy surrounds the 1450 start date and the fact that no pre-colonial history would be tested.

“They couldn’t have picked a more Eurocentric date,” Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, who previously helped develop AP History exams and courses, told The New York Times. “If you start in 1450, the first thing you’ll talk about in terms of Africa is the slave trade. The first thing you’ll talk about in terms of the Americas is people dying from smallpox and other things. It’s not a start date that encourages looking at the agency and creativity of people outside Europe.”

A group of teachers who attended an AP open forum in Salt Lake City also protested the changes. One Michigan educator, Tyler George, told Politico, “Students need to understand that there was a beautiful, vast, and engaging world before Europeans ‘discovered’ it.”

The board is now reportedly reconsidering its decision and may push the start date of the course back some several hundred years. Their decision will be announced in July.

[h/t The New York Times]

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North America: East or West Coast?
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