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Alternative indicators: Measuring the economy a bit differently

This illustration shows an electronic billboard with a graph of trading throughout the day and the Dow Jones Industrial Average figures -- with a pair of boxer's on it. The men's underwear index is an alternative indicator.

Kai Ryssdal: One of the great things about the economy is that it's quantifiable. You can measure stuff like gross domestic product and retail sales. But really, could that be more boring? Who can get excited about leading economic indicators? Seems to us what we need are some good offbeat alternatives. Some trend that'll give us some context about what's happening that straight statistics don't. That brings us to our series Economy 4.0, which is all about how to make the global economy work better for more people. And how to make it work better than to improve what we measure. Marketplace's David Brancaccio follows some of those alternative indicators. Hey David.

David Brancaccio: Hey there.

Ryssdal: So, what have you got?

Brancaccio: First, what you might call "a few good men and women" index. Back in 2009 the New York Times reported that the recession meant that more people might be signing up for the Marines. This meant that the Marines could be more selective. So, they toughened up their advertising campaign -- at least that was the article then. But, we just talked to Col. Michael Bowersox, assistant chief of staff for recruiting at the Marines, and he says the Marines have been consistent with their message. If you are a "tough elite warrior, then maybe you can be one of us." But the recession has changed the following for the Marines: their retention rate. Not as many people want to leave in a down economy. So, there's a lot of competition for the spots that are left.

Col. Michael Bowersox: When young men and women come into our office and want to join, they're very disappointed to find out that they're going to have to wait anywhere from six to 10 months before they can go to recruit training.

Ryssdal: Sounds kind of counter-intuitive, right David? The Marine Corp doing well while the rest of us are doing worse.

Brancaccio: Yeah, exactly. For both human beings and -- surprisingly -- for pets. In 2008, if you were listening to Marketplace you heard one of our colleagues talking about people needing to give up for economic reasons. When the economy tanks, animal shelters start to fill up. We're curious how it's going now. We called out to Arizona, which, of course, has been at the center of the foreclosure crisis.

We talked to Bretta Nelson with the Arizona Humane Society. She says since the start of the recession, over a third of the emergency calls they receive are people reporting pets that have been abandoned.

Bretta Nelson: The owners have either been evicted or left the home with no intention of returning. And it doesn't appear that those calls are increasing, but they are definitely staying very high and very consistent.

Ryssdal: I'm just looking at the list of things we were going to talk about and I see next -- and I hesitate to mention this -- the men's underwear index.

Brancaccio: The theory is during bad times we're less likely to replace our boxers and our briefs. I wouldn't have brought the tone of this conversation down this far if the source had not been so exalted.

Ryssdal: Give it up. Who is it?

Brancaccio: Well, back in the '70s before he was Fed Chairman, Alan Greenspan ran his consulting firm. One way he kept track of the economy was by looking at offbeat economic indicators like the men's underwear indicator -- MUI for those of you in the know. Here's the theory: When you're feeling strapped for cash, your less likely to replace your undergarments even though most people see under see underwear as a necessity not a luxury.

Ryssdal: So one is obliged to ask David, how are sales now?

Brancaccio: Well, we did check. And according to an analyst who tracks these things -- underwear sales for the NPD Group -- sales, currently, are up 5.2 percent.

Ryssdal: You heard it here first folks. Marketplace's David Brancaccio and our series Economy 4.0. David, thank you.

Brancaccio: My pleasure.

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I find it ironic that you’ve selected this obscure indicator from Mr Greenspan when all the real indicators are so obvious. Alan Greenspan himself underestimated Wall Street’s greed in our recent debacle, and I for one certainly don’t need to look to his underwear indicator for support. With today’s growing unemployment and financial collapse, it’s clear to me that our misguided value of monetary profit (greed) is to blame. Perhaps when we learn that true profit is gained by taking care of one another by providing opportunities for fruitful labor, a roof over our head, food on the table, and education and healthcare for all, will we truly profit.

I always thought shoes were the leading indicator of potential economic downturn. Maybe Greenspan's model was before WalMart made its ubiquitous appearance; I just bought nine pair last month for the first time in years. Now that's airing your dirty laundry!

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