What is economics?

Understanding the discipline


  • Why are some countries rich and some countries poor? 

  • What happened in 2008 to cause the worst recession since the 1930s? 

  • Why have income and wealth become more unequally distributed over the past few decades?

  • How will population aging affect life in the coming decades?

  • How will the workforce change with advances in robotics, automation, and artificial intelligence? 

Economics is a discipline that can help us answer these questions. Economics can actually be defined a few different ways: it’s the study of scarcity, the study of how people use resources, or the study of decision-making. Economics often involves topics like wealth, finance, recessions, and banking, leading to the misconception that economics is all about money and the stock market. Actually, it’s a much broader discipline that helps us understand historical trends, interpret today’s headlines, and make predictions for coming decades.

One of the central tenets of economics is that people want certain things and will change their behavior to get those things – in other words, people will respond to incentives. A good school district provides an incentive for parents to try to move to a neighborhood if they want to ensure their kids get a good education. Lower wages in another country provide an incentive for a factory to relocate overseas to cut down on costs. High taxes provide an incentive for people to look for ways to hide their income because they want to keep more of their money.

Economic study ranges from the very small to the very large. The study of choices by individuals (like how someone decides to budget their paycheck each month) is called microeconomics. Researchers have used the tools of microeconomics to measure the link between health and economic well-being, study the impact of microloans in poor countries, and understand why people never seem to save as much for retirement as they would like.

The study of governments, industries, central banking, and the boom and bust of the business cycle is called macroeconomics. Macroeconomics can help us answer some of the biggest questions about how and why recessions occur, how surges in immigration or gas prices will affect the economy, or what the aging of the Baby Boomer generation could do to the national debt.

Important public policy debates revolve around questions of economics. Governments the world over employ economists to help understand how government health programs will affect the incentives of doctors, whether farm subsidies will raise or lower prices at the grocery store, and the best ways to fight poverty.

Much of economics involves using data gathered by governments, businesses, or in the laboratory to test hypotheses about whether a certain program, event, or incentive will have the expected effect. Another branch of economics focuses on using economic theory to make predictions about how people and markets will behave.

The American Economic Association is dedicated in part to helping students and the public at large discover the field of economics. Browse our resources page and check out the links below to learn more.