April 22, 2024

This economy is feeling like the ’90s

Recession reality check. Two of the largest economies in the world, the United Kingdom and Japan, are technically in recessions after reporting last week that their economic outputs shrank the last two quarters of 2023.

Is the U.S. next? It’s possible, but not likely. Recessions in other countries can drag on the American economy, which has so far been surprisingly resilient. U.S. gross domestic product has grown more than expected and consumers keep spending. More economists are forecasting “no recession” this year, as unemployment rates have remained low, even after the Federal Reserve raised interest rates to tamp down inflation.

Why? Workers are more productive. Austan Goolsbee, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, described strong productivity growth as the “magic beanstalk beans for the economy.” When productivity is high, “you can have faster income increases, faster wage growth, faster GDP without generating inflation,” Goolsbee told the Associated Press.

The last time the economy looked like this was the ’90s, when computers and the internet went mainstream and boosted workers’ hourly output. Nowadays, artificial intelligence, hybrid work and automation are all possible contributors to recent growth. But measuring productivity is both challenging and hotly debated. And it can take years before economists are sure that surges in productivity are lasting, rather than just blips.

Smart in a shot

A gif from a video generated by OpenAI's Sora tool. It depicts a woman walking through a rainy Tokyo, with some odd physicis.

OpenAI teased last week its latest artificial intelligence tool, Sora, which can turn written prompts into short animations and hyperreal videos. The artificial intelligence company released samples like waves crashing against the California coastline, a stylish woman walking on the streets of Tokyo (see above) and golden retriever puppies playing in the snow. 
Though Sora is not available to the public, it appears to be more advanced than its competitors. It’s easy to see its potential to transform video production and filmmaking in both amazing and terrible ways. But watch those OpenAI-provided samples and spot the errors. Take our chic friend in Tokyo above — at one point, she takes two left steps in a row without transferring any weight onto her right side.
Those errors could diminish as the tool improves, or they could be a sign of more fundamental issues baked into the model, similar to the so-called hallucinations that generative AI text tools create. OpenAI has released some technical details as to how Sora does what it does, but it’s still largely a mystery
As the technology advances, Sora’s biggest challenges will likely be legal. The diffusion model needs “internet-scale data” to be capable of generating hyperreal images and videos, and OpenAI hasn’t disclosed exactly what images or videos it used. Without transparency, many artists are assuming the worst, that the generative AI platform is “stealing” their work.
Despite AI models operating as black boxes, there’s evidence that Midjourney and Dall-E 3 have been trained on copyrighted work and that users can make the platforms generate images that plagiarize the originals. Copyright lawsuits like The New York Times’ against OpenAI could set a precedent that accelerates the industry even further, or leads to its collapse.

The numbers

Girl Scout cookie season is upon us. But whether you’re team Thin Mints or a diehard Do-si-dos fan, inflation is taking a bite out of the highly sought-after treats this year. Let’s do the numbers.

200 million

That’s how many boxes the Girl Scouts have said they usually sell in the January-to-April cookie season, raking in almost $800 million


The number of Girl Scouts who participate in cookie sales each year. There are nearly 2 million registered Girl Scouts nationwide.


The Mistletoe Troop in Muskogee, Oklahoma, held the first known Girl Scout cookie sale in 1917. During the first door-to-door sales, a dozen homemade went for 25 cents to 35 cents. By the mid-1930s, the Girl Scouts formally began contracting with commercial bakers.


That’s how much a box of cookies costs this year, depending on where you live. It’s the third price hike in the past decade. Prices are set by each of the 111 local councils, reflecting demand but also the inflated cost of ingredients. Marketplace just reported on the not-so-sweet spike in sugar and cocoa prices.


A dozen cookie varieties are available this year, with the Raspberry Rally discontinued. The cookie was available online only last year, making it hard to find, and boxes showed up on eBay for upward of $100 apiece.

None of us is as smart as all of us

Tell us what’s making you smarter at smarter@marketplace.org. We’d love to include your recommendation in a future newsletter.

Saturation bans

Producer Nic Perez is reading a Bloomberg article on why local governments are capping the number of car washes allowed, as private equity investors bet on a great car wash boom (gift link) to sweep suburban America.

Healthy and productive

Host Kimberly Adams is reading a Washington Post article about how farm workers who toil in dangerous heat got companies to voluntarily follow strict safety standards.

Individually rational, collectively dysfunctional 

Newsletter writer Ellen Rolfes (hi!) is reading a recent newsletter from Slow Boring about why prioritizing homeownership means most Americans don’t have diversified investments. Putting all their wealth into shelter, Matt Yglesias writes, “encourages people to adopt other risk-averse policy preferences that hurt growth.”

In other nonhomeowner related news, editor Tony Wagner (hi!) is reading about how LA  Public Press created a zine for renters to help Angelenos know their rights and get their landlords to “do their job.”

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

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