Reading: The Macroeconomic Perspective


The photograph shows people lined up outside a bank during the Great Depression awaiting their relief checks.

Figure 5.1. The Great Depression At times, such as when many people are in need of government assistance, it is easy to tell how the economy is doing. This photograph shows people lined up during the Great Depression, waiting for relief checks. At other times, when some are doing well and others are not, it is more difficult to ascertain how the economy of a country is doing. (Credit: modification of work by the U.S. Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

The 1990s were boom years for the U.S. economy. The late 2000s, from 2007 to 2013 were not. What causes the economy to expand or contract? Why do businesses fail when they are making all the right decisions? Why do workers lose their jobs when they are hardworking and productive? Are bad economic times a failure of the market system? Are they a failure of the government?

These are all questions of macroeconomics, which we will begin to address in this module. We will not be able to answer all of these questions here, but we will start with the basics: How is the economy doing? How can we tell?

The macro economy includes all buying and selling, all production and consumption; everything that goes on in every market in the economy. The quest to measure the macro economy began more than 80 years ago, during the Great Depression. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his economic advisers knew things were bad—but how could they express and measure just how bad it was? An economist named Simon Kuznets, who later won the Nobel Prize for his work, came up with a way to track what the entire economy is producing. The result—gross domestic product (GDP)—remains our basic measure of macroeconomic activity. In this module, you will learn how GDP is constructed, how it is used, and why it is so important.


Macroeconomics focuses on the economy as a whole (or on whole economies as they interact). It describes what causes recessions, and what makes unemployment stay high when recessions are supposed to be over. Macroeconomics addresses why some countries grow faster than others, and have higher standards of living than others.  Macroeconomics involves adding up the economic activity of all households and all businesses in all markets to get the overall demand and supply in the economy. However, when we do that, something curious happens. It is not unusual that what results at the macro level is different from the sum of the microeconomic parts. Indeed, what seems sensible from a microeconomic point of view can have unexpected or counterproductive results at the macroeconomic level. Imagine that you are sitting at an event with a large audience, like a live concert or a basketball game. A few people decide that they want a better view, and so they stand up. However, when these people stand up, they block the view for other people, and the others need to stand up as well if they wish to see. Eventually, nearly everyone is standing up, and as a result, no one can see much better than before. The rational decision of some individuals at the micro level—to stand up for a better view—ended up being self-defeating at the macro level. This is not macroeconomics, but it is an apt analogy.

The economy as a whole is massive. In order to determine how it is doing we use “economic indicators”— statistics that measure one or more aspects of the macro economic.

There is no one economic indicator that tells the whole story of the economy, so economists look at a variety of indicators some of which include:

  • measures of aggregate production, like GDP
  • measures of employment and unemployment, and measures of inflation, like the percent change in the Consumer Price Index
  • the “Misery Index”—the sum of the inflation and unemployment rates as a measure of how bad (i.e., miserable) the economy is

The U.S. Department of Commerce even calculates the Index of Leading Economic Indicators, which is one attempt to combine multiple economic indicators to come up with one number that tries to predict the future path of the economy.

Self Check: Economic Indicators

Answer the question(s) below to see how well you understand the topics covered in the previous section. This short quiz does not count toward your grade in the class, and you can retake it an unlimited number of times.

You’ll have more success on the Self Check if you’ve completed the Reading in this section.

Use this quiz to check your understanding and decide whether to (1) study the previous section further or (2) move on to the next section.