I'm in industry (econ consulting) and applying this cycle. A few of my coworkers who also wanted to do PhDs quit last year to take RA positions, specifically for the LoR angle. It meant enough to them to take a massive (more than 50%) pay cut.
On my end, I figured the recs I got from undergrad and my boss here would be enough. Maybe the RA position would get me into a marginally better place, but it wasn't worth the huge pay cut to me. I guess we'll see how my results turn out compared to my ex-coworkers.
For reference, I applied to 20 or so top 30 US schools.
Stanford’s Economics Department is admitting this year’s PhD applicants in two waves of roughly equal sizes. For our department to participate in the Knight-Hennessy Scholars program – a prestigious Stanford scholarship to which some PhD applicants also apply – we identify some admits very early. Remaining applicants are admitted during a second, normal wave of admissions. These two waves create a rolling admissions process that is compatible with Stanford’s Knight-Hennessy timeline. The decision date for all admitted students (both waves) remains April 15.
More broadly, I'm just a bit bored with the consulting work and the fairly long promotion time frame. I could stick around at my firm for the next 6 years instead of doing a PhD, but I would end up at the same level as being hired out of PhD, making less, with not much opportunity for advancement after that. Sure, I lose 6 years at 100K+, but I think I would die if I had to spend 6 more years making Excel charts instead of 6 years actually getting smarter, studying things I'm interested in, etc. I'm not obsessed with money - just having a comfortable, interesting, and fulfilling life is good enough for me.
As for post-PhD opportunities, I do realize it's very hard to get a good academic job. For that reason, I'm completely OK with a career in industry after PhD. But having a PhD seriously improves your industry options. It gives you a bit of a restart, it increases your starting and max salary, and it allows you to eventually become a testifying expert or something similar eventually. Can't really do that without the degree.