What is Economics?



“Economics” is often called the Dismal Science – it studies the trade-offs between making choices. The purpose of economics is to look at the different incentives, assets, and choices facing people, businesses, schools, and governments, and see if there is any way to improve outcomes.

This is done by looking at how supply and demand are related throughout the economy, exploring different allocation methods, and investigating how to change (and what impacts there are from changing) the distribution of wealth.

Examining Costs and Benefits

The central problem in all economics is exploring different costs and benefits of choices made by everyone in an economy. This is not just the dollar cost of an action, but also what is being given up.

Every time a road is built in one place, that means there are not enough resources to build it somewhere else, so governments need to carefully plan construction to make sure each project gets the most possible benefit given all available alternatives. Likewise, if a school decides to build a new computer lab, they cannot use that money to hire a new teacher, do renovations on classrooms, or improve the school lunch menu.

Every choice made is a balancing act – trying to make sure the benefit you get from one action is greater than the benefit you would get from any other alternative.

Supply and Demand Throughout The Economy

At a bigger scale, when there are many people making the same kinds of decisions all at the same time, the economy as a whole also needs to balance everyone’s choices. This is how “Supply” and “Demand” appears, and how prices are determined.

For more examples on how prices are determined through Supply and Demand, read our full article on Supply and Demand Examples in the Stock Market.

Supply and Demand together are called “Market Forces“, large trends that result in one market outcome or another (such as the price of a good, and how much pollution is made in the production of those goods). When the supply and demand result in a particular number of goods to be produced and sold at a certain price, this is called a “Market Outcome“.

Market Outcomes

[econ]If you have tried to divide your HTMW cash between different stocks, you have tried resource allocation! It can be difficult to decide the best way to use limited resources.[/econ]Just like how different Market Forces can produce one Market Outcome, all of the different Market Outcomes in an economy will result in different “Resource Allocations“. Resource Allocations refers to everything from how many people work in coal mines, to how long (on average) students stay in school, to how much workers earn, and everything in between.

This means that all of the Market Outcomes are related – if a change in supply or demand cause the price of a good to go up, the people who make that good will earn more, and more people will start making it. This means that the income of those people goes up, which means the goods they like will have an increase in demand, and the cycle continues. The specific market outcome, and resource allocation, depends mostly on the total resources available (all raw materials, all available capital, and the entire work force number and skill level), previous market outcomes, and government policies.

Not Just Prices – Different Allocation Methods

Using “Prices” is just one of many possible ways to allocate the total resources available. Depending on what market outcome we are focused on, a different allocation method might be better or worse. Economists often try to determine what the best allocation method is for particular goods or services to try to improve market outcomes.

Market Prices

“Prices” let individuals measure their own individual level of demand against a prevailing market price – how much they have of a good or service depends on how much others are willing to make it, and how much everyone else values it.


Auctions are commonly used when there is a large imbalance between the number of potential buyers and sellers of a good or service, and the quantity available is limited. Economists spend a lot of time analyzing auction systems

For sellers, individual goods or services are left for potential buyers to “bid” on. This means that the person who values the good or service the most (in this case, who is able to pay the most) will get the good, and the seller gets the best possible price.

Auctions can also go in the other direction – a buyer could ask for sellers to “bid” to sell their good at a particular price, and the buyer will take the offer of the seller who can offer the lowest price. This is generally the case when a government hires a contractor to build a road – many competing companies provide “bids”, and the government makes its choice based on the bid price and the expected quality of the work.


Entitlements is a different allocation method – everyone gets a certain amount of a good or service, which is then paid for by taxes. This allocation method is generally used for “Essentials”, or otherwise things where it is impossible to charge someone based on their usage. The availability of public parks, drinking water, and clean air all use an “Entitlement” distribution system. Certain levels of basic housing and food is also generally provided as an Entitlement.

Price Controls

Even in a normal supply and demand system, price controls can be put in place by the government if a society is not satisfied with the pure market price allocation. This can be things like adding extra taxes to increase the price, giving subsidies to decrease the price, or telling sellers they can’t sell a good or service above or below certain prices.

Changing The Distribution Of Wealth

The distribution of wealth is more complicated than just how much the top 1% earn compared to the bottom 99% – it also examines how wealth is distributed between industries in an economy, how much different skill levels are worth relative to others, how taxes are paid and collected, and much more. When economists look at changes in the distribution of wealth, it is usually by making subtle changes to these smaller factors which add up to changes on a bigger scale, rather than trying to find a single way to transfer wealth from the “Rich” to the “Poor”.

Taxes and Transfers

[econ]These are also called “Robin Hood Taxes”. There is a huge amount of debate as to how much they help – or hurt – the poor in the long run.[/econ]Taxes and Transfers refers to the last point – taking money directly from the rich through taxes, and refunding that money directly to the poor through a subsidy or other transfer. This is the most blunt way to change the distribution of wealth, but it also has the largest implication for the total market allocation in an economy.

For example, the Rich use most of their income for investment, while the Poor use almost all of it for direct consumption. This is because the rich generally don’t get much benefit out of an extra $100 worth of groceries in a month, but that might be a very large boost in living standards for the poor.

By giving a single rich person an extra $10,000 in taxes, and using that revenue to give $100 directly to 100 people, those 100 people will almost certainly be made much better off than the one rich person was made worse off. However, that means that $10,000 would not be invested to help new companies grow, which in turn means fewer jobs are created to help build new wealth. A central problem of economics is trying to balance the consumption and benefit of people today against taking measures to help more growth for the future.

Government Spending

[econ]Economists use interest rates to try to compare present benefits against future benefits. For example, you might give up $100 today for $120 dollars a year from now, but maybe $101 is not worth the wait.[/econ] Economists also try to influence the distribution of wealth through government spending. This includes things choosing to use government money between giving grants to start-up businesses to create new jobs, or using that money to give scholarships to students to get a college education. Both outcomes are directed towards growth, but it is challenging to determine how to balance different spending alternatives to encourage different kinds of growth.

Another example comes from direct government spending – some countries spend a large amount of money on biotechnology research to build a new sector of their economy, while other countries spend more on building more public housing connected to public transit, to try to help the poor get better jobs in economic sectors that already exist.

Every part of economics is measuring these trade-offs – the benefits and costs of one choice versus another.

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