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1.6: Measuring the Health of the Economy

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  • Learning Objective

    1. Understand the criteria used to assess the status of the economy.

    Every day, we are bombarded with economic news. We’re told that the economy is struggling, unemployment is high, home prices are low, and consumer confidence is down. As a student learning about business, and later as a business manager, you need to understand the nature of the U.S. economy and the terminology that we use to describe it. You need to have some idea of where the economy is heading, and you need to know something about the government’s role in influencing its direction.

    Economic Goals

    All the world’s economies share three main goals:

    1. Growth
    2. High employment
    3. Price stability

    Let’s take a closer look at each of these goals, both to find out what they mean and to show how we determine whether they’re being met.

    Economic Growth

    One purpose of an economy is to provide people with goods and services—cars, computers, video games, houses, rock concerts, fast food, amusement parks. One way in which economists measure the performance of an economy is by looking at a widely used measure of total output called gross domestic product (GDP). GDP is defined as the market value of all goods and services produced by the economy in a given year. In the United States, it’s calculated by the Department of Commerce. GDP includes only those goods and services produced domestically; goods produced outside the country are excluded. GDP also includes only those goods and services that are produced for the final user; intermediate products are excluded. For example, the silicon chip that goes into a computer (an intermediate product) would not count, even though the finished computer would.

    By itself, GDP doesn’t necessarily tell us much about the state of the economy. But change in GDP does. If GDP (after adjusting for inflation) goes up, the economy is growing. If it goes down, the economy is contracting.

    The Business Cycle

    The economic ups and downs resulting from expansion and contraction constitute the business cycle. A typical cycle runs from three to five years but could last much longer. Though typically irregular, a cycle can be divided into four general phases of prosperity, recession, depression (which the cycle generally skips), and recovery:

    • During prosperity, the economy expands, unemployment is low, incomes rise, and consumers buy more products. Businesses respond by increasing production and offering new and better products.
    • Eventually, however, things slow down. GDP decreases, unemployment rises, and because people have less money to spend, business revenues decline. This slowdown in economic activity is called a recession. Economists often say that we’re entering a recession when GDP goes down for two consecutive quarters.

    Figure 1.9


    Ian Lamont – Local and national newspapers – CC BY 2.0.

    • Generally, a recession is followed by a recovery in which the economy starts growing again.
    • If, however, a recession lasts a long time (perhaps a decade or so), while unemployment remains very high and production is severely curtailed, the economy could sink into a depression. Though not impossible, it’s unlikely that the United States will experience another severe depression like that of the 1930s. The federal government has a number of economic tools (some of which we’ll discuss shortly) with which to fight any threat of a depression.

    Full Employment

    To keep the economy going strong, people must spend money on goods and services. A reduction in personal expenditures for things like food, clothing, appliances, automobiles, housing, and medical care could severely reduce GDP and weaken the economy. Because most people earn their spending money by working, an important goal of all economies is making jobs available to everyone who wants one. In principle, full employment occurs when everyone who wants to work has a job. In practice, we say that we have “full employment” when about 95 percent of those wanting to work are employed.

    The Unemployment Rate

    The U.S. Department of Labor tracks unemployment and reports the unemployment rate: the percentage of the labor force that’s unemployed and actively seeking work. The unemployment rate is an important measure of economic health. It goes up during recessionary periods because companies are reluctant to hire workers when demand for goods and services is low. Conversely, it goes down when the economy is expanding and there is high demand for products and workers to supply them.

    Figure 1.10 “The U.S. Unemployment Rate, 1970–2010” traces the U.S. unemployment rate between 1970 and 2010. If you want to know the current unemployment rate, go to the CNNMoney Web site ( and click on “Economy” and then on “Job Growth.”

    Figure 1.10 The U.S. Unemployment Rate, 1970–2010


    Price Stability

    A third major goal of all economies is maintaining price stability. Price stability occurs when the average of the prices for goods and services either doesn’t change or changes very little. Rising prices are troublesome for both individuals and businesses. For individuals, rising prices mean you have to pay more for the things you need. For businesses, rising prices mean higher costs, and, at least in the short run, businesses might have trouble passing on higher costs to consumers. When the overall price level goes up, we have inflation. Figure 1.11 “The U.S. Inflation Rate, 1960–2010” shows inflationary trends in the U.S. economy since 1960. When the price level goes down (which rarely happens), we have deflation.

    Figure 1.11 The U.S. Inflation Rate, 1960–2010


    The Consumer Price Index

    The most widely publicized measure of inflation is the consumer price index (CPI), which is reported monthly by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The CPI measures the rate of inflation by determining price changes of a hypothetical basket of goods, such as food, housing, clothing, medical care, appliances, automobiles, and so forth, bought by a typical household.

    The CPI base period is 1982 to 1984, which has been given an average value of 100. Table 1.1 “Selected CPI Values, 1950–2010” gives CPI values computed for selected years. The CPI value for 1950, for instance, is 24. This means that $1 of typical purchases in 1982 through 1984 would have cost $0.24 in 1950. Conversely, you would have needed $2.18 to purchase the same $1 worth of typical goods in 2010. The difference registers the effect of inflation. In fact, that’s what an inflation rate is—the percentage change in a price index.

    You can find out the current CPI by going to the CNNMoney Web site ( and click on “Economy” and then on “Inflation (CPI).”

    Table 1.1 Selected CPI Values, 1950–2010

    Year 1950 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2001 2002
    CPI 24.1 29.1 38.8 82.4 130.7 172.2 177.1 179.9
    Year 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010
    CPI 184.0 188.9 195.3 201.6 207.3 215.3 214.15 218.1