Economics (from the Greek οίκος [oikos], 'family, household, estate', and νομος [nomos], 'custom, law', hence "household management" and "management of the state") is a social science that typically studies the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services. Since the early part of the 20th century, economics has focused largely on measurable variables, and employed both theoretical models and empirical analysis. Economic logic is increasingly applied to any problem determining economic value (such as politics, religion, psychology, history and social interaction). A professional working in economics or having an academic degree in the subject is an economist.
The subject is broadly divided into two main branches: microeconomics, which deals with individual agents, such as households and businesses, and macroeconomics, which considers the economy as a whole. An alternate division of the subject distinguishes positive economics, which tries objectively to predict and explain economic phenomena, from normative economics, which recommends one choice over another—such recommendations often involve subjective value judgments.
The mainstream economic paradigm is a combination of neoclassical economics and Keynesian macroeconomics. Crucial assumptions of this paradigm include the idea that resources are scarce while wants are unlimited, which is sometimes characterized as the economic problem, and an understanding that the value of most goods can be represented in terms of their open-market price. Various schools of heterodox economics, for instance socialist economics, green economics and associative economics, seek to explain economic phenomena using different basic assumptions, for example by emphasising that economics is primarily concerned with exchanges of values, and that all value is the created by labor.
Definitions of economics
Broadly speaking, economics is a social science, and its area of study is human activity involved in meeting needs and wants. However, beyond this there are a range of definitions, past and present, which have been applied - first to the term political economy and then to the modern term economics. Broadly, the history of the study moved from the study of "wealth" to "welfare" to the idea of studying trade-offs.
The earliest definitions of political economy were simple, elegant statements defining it as the study of wealth. The first scientific approach to the subject was inaugurated by Aristotle, whose influence is still recognised today by the Austrian School, among others. Adam Smith, author of the seminal work The Wealth of Nations and regarded by some as the "father of modern economics," defines economics simply as "The science of wealth." Smith offered another definition, "The Science relating to the laws of production, distribution and exchange." Wealth was defined as the specialization of labour which allowed a nation to produce more with its supply of labour and resources. This definition divided Smith and Hume from previous definitions which defined wealth as gold. Hume argued that gold without increased activity simply serves to raise prices. John Stuart Mill defined economics as "The practical science of production and distribution of wealth"; this definition was adopted by the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, even though it does not include the vital role of consumption. For Mill, wealth is defined as the stock of useful things.
Definitions in terms of wealth emphasize production and consumption. The accounting measures usually used measure the pay received for work and the price paid for goods, and do not deal with the economic activities of those not significantly involved in buying and selling (for example, retired people, beggars, peasants). For economists of this period, they are considered non-productive, and non-productive activity is considered a kind of cost on society. This interpretation gave economics a narrow focus that was rejected by many as placing wealth in the forefront and man in the background; John Ruskin referred to political economy as a "Bastard science, the science of getting riches."
Later definitions evolved to include human activity, advocating a shift toward the modern view of economics as primarily a study of man and of human welfare, not of money. Alfred Marshall in his 1890 book Principles of Economics wrote, "Political Economy or Economics is a study of mankind in the ordinary business of Life; it examines the part of the individual and social action which is most closely connected with the attainment and with the use of material requisites of well-being."
The welfare definition was still criticized as too narrowly materialistic. It ignores, for example, the non-material aspects of the services of a doctor or a dancer. A theory of wages which ignored all those sums paid for immaterial services was incomplete. Welfare could not be quantitatively measured, because the marginal significance of money differs from rich to the poor (i.e. $100 is relatively more important to the well-being of a poor person than to that of a wealthy person). Moreover, the activities of production and distribution of goods such as alcohol and tobacco may not be conducive to human welfare, but these scarce goods do satisfy human wants.
Marxist economics still focuses on a welfare definition. In addition, several critiques of mainstream economics begin from the argument that current economic practice does not adequately measure welfare, but only monetized activity, which is an inadequate approximation of welfare.
This definition allowed a potentially broader field of study, but it, too, has its critics. It is most amenable to those who consider economics a pure science, but others object that it reduces economics merely to a valuation theory. It ignores how values are fixed, prices are determined and national income is generated. It also ignores unemployment and other problems arising due to abundance. This definition cannot apply to such Keynesian concerns as cyclical instability, full employment, and economic growth.
The focus on scarcity continues to dominate neoclassical economics, which, in turn, predominates in most academic economics departments. It has been criticized in recent years from a variety of quarters, including institutional economics and evolutionary economics.
Saving in economics
In economics, personal saving has been defined as personal disposable income minus personal consumption expenditure. In other words, income that is not consumed by immediately buying goods and services is saved. Other kinds of saving can occur, as with corporate retained earnings (profits minus dividend and tax payments) and a government budget surplus.
There is some disagreement about what counts as saving. For example, the part of a person's income that is spent on mortgage repayments is not spent on present consumption and is therefore saving by the above definition, even though people do not always think of repaying a loan as saving. However, in the U.S. measurement of the numbers behind its gross national product (i.e., the National Income and Product Accounts), personal interest payments are not treated as "saving" unless the institutions and people who receive them save them.
"Saving" differs from "savings." The former refers to an increase in one's assets, an increase in net worth, whereas the latter refers to one part of one's assets, usually deposits in savings accounts, or to all of one's assets. Saving refers to an activity occurring over time, a flow variable, whereas savings refers to something that exists at any one time, a stock variable.
Economic difference from investment
Saving is closely related to investment. By not using income to buy consumer goods and services, it is possible for resources to instead be invested by being used to produce fixed capital, such as factories and machinery. Saving can therefore be vital to increase the amount of fixed capital available, which contributes to economic growth.
However, increased saving does not always correspond to increased investment, since the saving and investment decisions are made by different groups (households, businesses) and for different reasons. This means that saving may increase without increasing investment, possibly causing a short-fall of demand (a pile-up of inventories, a cut-back of production, employment, and income, and thus a recession) rather than to economic growth. (This is often called the "paradox of thrift.") If saving falls below investment, on the other hand, it can lead to a growth of aggregate demand and an economic boom. These statements are conditional since aggregate demand consists of more than investment and consumption (non-saving).
Classical economics posited that interest rates would adjust to equate saving and investment, avoiding a pile-up of inventories (general overproduction). A rise in saving would cause a fall in interest rates, stimulating investment. But Keynes argued that neither saving nor investment were very responsive to interest rates (i.e., that both were interest inelastic) so that large interest rate changes were needed. Further, it was the demand for and supplies of stocks of money that determined interest rates in the short run. Thus, saving could exceed investment for significant amounts of time, causing a general glut and a recession.
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