1.2 The Field of Economics

Learning Objectives

  1. Explain the distinguishing characteristics of the economic way of thinking.
  2. Distinguish between microeconomics and macroeconomics.

We have examined the basic concepts of scarcity, choice, and opportunity cost in economics. In this section, we will look at economics as a field of study. We begin with the characteristics that distinguish economics from other social sciences.

The Economic Way of Thinking

Economists study choices that scarcity requires us to make. This fact is not what distinguishes economics from other social sciences; all social scientists are interested in choices. An anthropologist might study the choices of ancient peoples; a political scientist might study the choices of legislatures; a psychologist might study how people choose a mate; a sociologist might study the factors that have led to a rise in single-parent households. Economists study such questions as well. What is it about the study of choices by economists that makes economics different from these other social sciences?

Three features distinguish the economic approach to choice from the approaches taken in other social sciences:

  1. Economists give special emphasis to the role of opportunity costs in their analysis of choices.
  2. Economists assume that individuals make choices that seek to maximize the value of some objective, and that they define their objectives in terms of their own self-interest.
  3. Individuals maximize by deciding whether to do a little more or a little less of something. Economists argue that individuals pay attention to the consequences of small changes in the levels of the activities they pursue.

The emphasis economists place on opportunity cost, the idea that people make choices that maximize the value of objectives that serve their self-interest, and a focus on the effects of small changes are ideas of great power. They constitute the core of economic thinking. The next three sections examine these ideas in greater detail.

Opportunity Costs Are Important

If doing one thing requires giving up another, then the expected benefits of the alternatives we face will affect the ones we choose. Economists argue that an understanding of opportunity cost is crucial to the examination of choices.

As the set of available alternatives changes, we expect that the choices individuals make will change. A rainy day could change the opportunity cost of reading a good book; we might expect more reading to get done in bad than in good weather. A high income can make it very costly to take a day off; we might expect highly paid individuals to work more hours than those who are not paid as well. If individuals are maximizing their level of satisfaction and firms are maximizing profits, then a change in the set of alternatives they face may affect their choices in a predictable way.

The emphasis on opportunity costs is an emphasis on the examination of alternatives. One benefit of the economic way of thinking is that it pushes us to think about the value of alternatives in each problem involving choice.

Individuals Maximize in Pursuing Self-Interest

What motivates people as they make choices? Perhaps more than anything else, it is the economist’s answer to this question that distinguishes economics from other fields.

Economists assume that individuals make choices that they expect will create the maximum value of some objective, given the constraints they face. Furthermore, economists assume that people’s objectives will be those that serve their own self-interest.

Economists assume, for example, that the owners of business firms seek to maximize profit. Given the assumed goal of profit maximization, economists can predict how firms in an industry will respond to changes in the markets in which they operate. As labor costs in the United States rise, for example, economists are not surprised to see firms moving some of their manufacturing operations overseas.

Similarly, economists assume that maximizing behavior is at work when they examine the behavior of consumers. In studying consumers, economists assume that individual consumers make choices aimed at maximizing their level of satisfaction. In the next chapter, we will look at the results of the shift from skiing to snowboarding; that is a shift that reflects the pursuit of self-interest by consumers and by manufacturers.

In assuming that people pursue their self-interest, economists are not assuming people are selfish. People clearly gain satisfaction by helping others, as suggested by the large charitable contributions people make. Pursuing one’s own self-interest means pursuing the things that give one satisfaction. It need not imply greed or selfishness.

Choices Are Made at the Margin

Economists argue that most choices are made “at the margin.” The margin is the current level of an activity. Think of it as the edge from which a choice is to be made. A choice at the margin is a decision to do a little more or a little less of something.

Assessing choices at the margin can lead to extremely useful insights. Consider, for example, the problem of curtailing water consumption when the amount of water available falls short of the amount people now use. Economists argue that one way to induce people to conserve water is to raise its price. A common response to this recommendation is that a higher price would have no effect on water consumption, because water is a necessity. Many people assert that prices do not affect water consumption because people “need” water.

But choices in water consumption, like virtually all choices, are made at the margin. Individuals do not make choices about whether they should or should not consume water. Rather, they decide whether to consume a little more or a little less water. Household water consumption in the United States totals about 105 gallons per person per day. Think of that starting point as the edge from which a choice at the margin in water consumption is made. Could a higher price cause you to use less water brushing your teeth, take shorter showers, or water your lawn less? Could a higher price cause people to reduce their use, say, to 104 gallons per person per day? To 103? When we examine the choice to consume water at the margin, the notion that a higher price would reduce consumption seems much more plausible. Prices affect our consumption of water because choices in water consumption, like other choices, are made at the margin.

The elements of opportunity cost, maximization, and choices at the margin can be found in each of two broad areas of economic analysis: microeconomics and macroeconomics. Your economics course, for example, may be designated as a “micro” or as a “macro” course. We will look at these two areas of economic thought in the next section.

Microeconomics and Macroeconomics

The field of economics is typically divided into two broad realms: microeconomics and macroeconomics. It is important to see the distinctions between these broad areas of study.

Microeconomics is the branch of economics that focuses on the choices made by individual decision-making units in the economy—typically consumers and firms—and the impacts those choices have on individual markets. Macroeconomics is the branch of economics that focuses on the impact of choices on the total, or aggregate, level of economic activity.

Why do tickets to the best concerts cost so much? How does the threat of global warming affect real estate prices in coastal areas? Why do women end up doing most of the housework? Why do senior citizens get discounts on public transit systems? These questions are generally regarded as microeconomic because they focus on individual units or markets in the economy.

Is the total level of economic activity rising or falling? Is the rate of inflation increasing or decreasing? What is happening to the unemployment rate? These are questions that deal with aggregates, or totals, in the economy; they are problems of macroeconomics. The question about the level of economic activity, for example, refers to the total value of all goods and services produced in the economy. Inflation is a measure of the rate of change in the average price level for the entire economy; it is a macroeconomic problem. The total levels of employment and unemployment in the economy represent the aggregate of all labor markets; unemployment is also a topic of macroeconomics.

Both microeconomics and macroeconomics give attention to individual markets. But in microeconomics that attention is an end in itself; in macroeconomics it is aimed at explaining the movement of major economic aggregates—the level of total output, the level of employment, and the price level.

We have now examined the characteristics that define the economic way of thinking and the two branches of this way of thinking: microeconomics and macroeconomics. In the next section, we will have a look at what one can do with training in economics.

Putting Economics to Work

Economics is one way of looking at the world. Because the economic way of thinking has proven quite useful, training in economics can be put to work in a wide range of fields. One, of course, is in work as an economist. Undergraduate work in economics can be applied to other careers as well.

Careers in Economics

Economists work in three types of organizations. About 58% of economists work for government agencies (Bureau of Labor Statistics). The remainder work for business firms or in colleges and universities.

Economists working for business firms and government agencies sometimes forecast economic activity to assist their employers in planning. They also apply economic analysis to the activities of the firms or agencies for which they work or consult. Economists employed at colleges and universities teach and conduct research.

Peruse the website of your college or university’s economics department. Chances are the department will discuss the wide variety of occupations that their economics majors enter. Unlike engineering and accounting majors, economics and other social science majors tend to be distributed over a broad range of occupations.

Applying Economics to Other Fields

Suppose that you are considering something other than a career in economics. Would choosing to study economics help you?

The evidence suggests it may. Suppose, for example, that you are considering law school. The study of law requires keen analytical skills; studying economics sharpens such skills. Economists have traditionally argued that undergraduate work in economics serves as excellent preparation for law school. Economist Michael Nieswiadomy of the University of North Texas collected data on Law School Admittance Test (LSAT) scores for undergraduate majors listed by 2,200 or more students taking the test in 2003. Table 1.1 “LSAT Scores and Undergraduate Majors” gives the scores, as well as the ranking for each of these majors, in 2003 and in two previous years in which the rankings were compiled. In rankings for all three years, economics majors recorded the highest scores.

Table 1.1 LSAT Scores and Undergraduate Majors

Major field LSAT average 2003–2004 2003–2004 Rank 1994–1995 Rank 1991–1992 Rank
Economics 156.6 1 1 1
Engineering 155.4 2 4 2
History 155.0 3 2 3
English 154.3 4 3 4
Finance 152.6 5 6 5
Political science 152.1 6 9 9
Psychology 152.1 7 7 8
Accounting 151.1 8 8 6
Communications 150.5 9 10 10
Sociology 150.2 10 12 13
Bus. Administration 149.6 11 13 12
Criminal Justice 144.7 12 14 14

Here are the average LSAT scores and rankings for the 12 undergraduate majors with more than 2200 students taking the test to enter law school in the 2003–2004 academic year.

Did the strong performance by economics, engineering, and history majors mean that training in those fields sharpens analytical skills tested in the LSAT, or that students with good analytical skills are more likely to major in them? Both factors were probably at work. Economics clearly attracts students with good analytical skills—and studying economics helps develop those skills.

Economics majors shine in other areas as well. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, a strong background in economic theory, mathematics, and statistics provides the basis for competing for the best job opportunities, particularly research assistant positions, in a broad range of fields. Many graduates with bachelor’s degrees will find good jobs in industry and business as management or sales trainees or as administrative assistants. Because economists are concerned with understanding and interpreting financial matters, among other subjects, they will also be attracted to and qualified for jobs as financial managers, financial analysts, underwriters, actuaries, securities and financial services sales workers, credit analysts, loan and budget officers, and urban and regional planners.

Table 1.2 “Average Yearly Salary Offers, May 2006 and Occupational Outlook 2004–2014, Selected Majors/Occupations” shows average yearly salary offers for bachelor degree candidates for May 2006 and the outlook for related occupations to 2014.

Table 1.2 Average Yearly Salary Offers, May 2006 and Occupational Outlook 2004–2014, Selected Majors/Occupations

Undergraduate major Average $ Offer May, 2006 Projected % Change in Total Employment in Occupation 2004–2014
Computer Engineering $54,200 10.1
Electrical/Electronic Engineering 54,053 11.8
Computer Science 50,892 25.6
Accounting 46,188 22.4
Economics and Finance 45,058 12.4
Management Information Systems 44,755 25.9
Logistics and Materials Management 43,426 13.2
Business Administration 40,976 17.0
Environmental Sciences (including forestry and conservation science) 39,750 6.3
Other Business Majors (e.g., Marketing) 37,446 20.8
Human Resources (incl. Labor Relations) 36,256 15.9
Geology and Geological Sciences 35,034 8.3
Sociology 33,752 4.7
Political Science/Government 33,151 7.3
Liberal Arts & Sciences (general studies) 32,627 na
Public Relations 32,623 21.7
Special Education 31,817 23.3
Elementary Education 31,778 18.2
Foreign Languages 31,364 na
Letters (incl. English) 31,204 20.4
Other Social Sciences (Including Criminal Justice and History) 30,788 12.3
Psychology 30,308 9.9
Pre-elementary Education 27,550 22.4
Social Work 25,865 19.6
Visual and Performing Arts 21,726 15.2

One’s choice of a major, or minor, is not likely to be based solely on considerations of potential earnings or the prospect of landing a spot in law school. You will also consider your interests and abilities in making a decision about whether to pursue further study in economics. And, of course, you will consider the expected benefits of alternative courses of study. What is your opportunity cost of pursuing study of economics? Does studying more economics serve your interests and will doing so maximize your satisfaction level? These considerations may be on your mind as you begin to study economics at the college level and obviously students will make many different choices. But, should you decide to pursue a major or minor in economics, you should know that a background in this field is likely to serve you well in a wide range of careers.

Key Takeaways

  • Economists focus on the opportunity costs of choices, they assume that individuals make choices in a way that maximizes the value of an objective defined in terms of their own self-interest, and they assume that individuals make those choices at the margin.
  • Economics is divided into two broad areas: microeconomics and macroeconomics.
  • A wide range of career opportunities is open to economics majors. Empirical evidence suggests that students who enter the job market with a major in economics tend to earn more than do students in most other majors. Further, economics majors do particularly well on the LSAT.

Try It!

The Department of Agriculture estimated that the expenditures a middle-income, husband–wife family of three would incur to raise one additional child from birth in 2005 to age 17 would be $250,530. In what way does this estimate illustrate the economic way of thinking? Would the Department’s estimate be an example of microeconomic or of macroeconomic analysis? Why?

Case in Point: The Financial Payoff to Studying Economics

Figure 1.2

Students in Classrooms at UIS

College economics professors have long argued that studying economics is good preparation for a variety of careers. A recent study suggests they are right and that studying economics is even likely to make students more prosperous. Students who major in economics but did not pursue graduate work are likely to earn more than students in virtually every other college major. Students who major in economics and then go on to law school or an MBA program are likely to earn more than students who approach those areas of study having majored in most other areas.

Economists Dan A. Black, Seth Sanders, and Lowell Taylor used the 1993 National Survey of College Graduates, which included more than 86,000 college-educated workers between the ages of 25 and 55 that asked what field they had majored in. They then controlled for variables such as gender, race, and ethnicity. They found that students who had not done graduate work and had majored in economics earned more than students in any other major except engineering. Specifically, economics majors earned about 13% more than other social sciences majors, 11% more than business administration majors, and about the same as natural science and accounting majors. The economics majors in their survey, like those who majored in other social sciences and business administration and unlike those who majored in engineering or accounting, were spread out over a wide range of occupations but with many in management positions.

Based on the survey they used, over 40% of economics majors went on to earn graduate degrees, many in law and business. Economics majors ranked first in terms of wages, as compared to other law school graduates with the 12 most common pre-law majors (including such majors as business administration, finance, English, history, psychology, and political science). MBA graduates who had majored in economics earned more than those who had majored in any other field except chemical engineering. Specifically, undergraduate economics majors with MBAs earned about 15% more than those who had majored in other disciplines represented in the survey, including business-related majors.

It is remarkable that all of the business-related majors generated salaries much lower than those earned by economics majors with an MBA. One could argue that this reflects self-selection; that students who major in economics are simply brighter. But, students who major in physics have high SAT scores, yet they, too, earned wages that were about 20% lower than MBA students who had majored in economics. This finding lends some credence to the notion that the marketplace rewards training in the economic way of thinking.

Answer to Try It! Problem

The information given suggests one element of the economic way of thinking: assessing the choice at the margin. The estimate reflects the cost of one more child for a family that already has one. It is not clear from the information given how close the estimate of cost comes to the economic concept of opportunity cost. The Department of Agriculture’s estimate included such costs as housing, food, transportation, clothing, health care, child care, and education. An economist would add the value of the best alternative use of the additional time that will be required for the child. If the couple is looking far ahead, it may want to consider the opportunity cost of sending a child to college. And, if it is looking very far ahead, it may want to consider the fact that nearly half of all parents over the age of 50 support at least one child over the age of 21. This is a problem in microeconomic analysis, because it focuses on the choices of individual households.


Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook at http://www.bls.gov/oco/.

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