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United States (Economy)
The U.S. economy is immense. In 1998 it included more than 270 million
consumers and 20 million businesses. U.S. consumers purchased more than
$5.5 trillion of goods and services annually, and businesses invested over a trillion dollars more for factories and equipment. Over 80 percent of the goods and services purchased by U.S. consumers each year are made in the United States; the rest are imported from other nations. In addition to spending by private households and businesses, government agencies at all levels (federal, state, and local) spend roughly an additional $1.5 trillion a year. In total, the annual value of all goods and services produced in the United States, known as the Gross Domestic
Product (GDP), was $9.25 trillion in 1999.
Those levels of production, consumption, and spending make the U.S.
economy by far the largest economy the world has ever known—despite the
fact that some other nations have far more people, land, or other
resources. Through most of the 20th century, U.S. citizens also enjoyed
the highest material standards of living in the world. Some nations have
higher per capita (per person) incomes than the United States. However, these comparisons are based on international exchange rates, which set
the value of a country’s currency based on a narrow range of goods and
services traded between nations. Most economists agree that the United
States has a higher per capita income based on the total value of goods and services that households consume. American prosperity has attracted worldwide attention and imitation. There are several key reasons why the
U.S. economy has been so successful and other reasons why, in the 21st century, it is possible that some other industrialized nations will surpass the U.S. standard of living. To understand those historical and possible future events, it is important first to understand what an economic system is and how that system affects the way people make decisions about buying, selling, spending, saving, investing, working, and taking time for leisure activities.
Capital, savings, and investment are taken up in the fourth section, which explains how the long-term growth of any economy depends upon the relationship between investments in capital goods (inventories and the facilities and equipment used to make products) and the level of saving in that economy. The next section explains the role money and financial markets play in the economy. Labor markets, the topic of section six, are also extremely important in the U.S. economy, because most people earn their incomes by working for wages and salaries. By the same token, for most firms, labor is the most costly input used in producing the things the firms sell.
The role of government in the U.S. economy is the subject of section
seven. The government performs a number of economic roles that private
markets cannot provide. It also offers some public services that elected
officials believe will be in the best interests of the public. The
relationship between the U.S. economy and the world economy is discussed
in section eight. Section nine looks at current trends and issues that
the U.S economy faces at the start of the 21st century. The final section
provides an overview of the kinds of goods and services produced in the
U.S. ECONOMIC SYSTEM
An economic system refers to the laws and institutions in a nation that determine who owns economic resources, how people buy and sell those resources, and how the production process makes use of resources in providing goods and services. The U.S. economy is made up of individual people, business and labor organizations, and social institutions. People have many different economic roles—they function as consumers, workers, savers, and investors. In the United States, people also vote on public policies and for the political leaders who set policies that have major economic effects. Some of the most important organizations in the U.S. economy are businesses that produce and distribute goods and services to consumers. Labor unions, which represent some workers in collective bargaining with employers, are another important kind of economic organization. So, too, are cooperatives—organizations formed by producers or consumers who band together to share resources—as well as a wide range of nonprofit organizations, including many charities and educational organizations, that provide services to families or groups with special problems or interests.
For the most part, the United States has a market economy in which individual producers and consumers determine the kinds of goods and services produced and the prices of those products. The most basic economic institution in market economies is the system of markets in which goods and services are bought and sold. That is where consumers buy most of the food, clothing, and shelter they use, and any number of things that they simply want to have or that they enjoy doing. Private businesses make and sell most of those goods and services. These markets work by bringing together buyers and sellers who establish market prices and output levels for thousands of different goods and services.
A guiding principle of the U.S. economy, dating back to the colonial period, has been that individuals own the goods and services they make for themselves or purchase to consume. Individuals and private businesses also control the factors of production. They own buildings and equipment, and are free to hire workers, and acquire things that businesses use to produce goods and services. Individuals also own the businesses that are established in the United States. In other economic systems, some or all of the factors of production are owned communally or by the government.
For the most part, U.S. producers decide which goods and services to make
and offer to sell, and what prices to charge for those products. Goods
are tangible things—things you can touch—that satisfy wants. Examples of
goods are cars, clothing, food, houses, and toys. Services are activities
that people do for themselves or for other people to satisfy their wants.
Examples of services are cutting hair, polishing shoes, teaching school, and providing police or fire protection.
Producers decide which goods and services to make and sell, and how much to ask for those products. At the same time, consumers decide what they will purchase and how much money they are willing to pay for different goods and services. The interaction between competing producers, who attempt to make the highest possible profit, and consumers, who try to pay as little as possible to acquire what they want, ultimately determines the price of goods and services.
In a market economy, government plays a limited role in economic decision making. However, the United States does not have a pure market economy, and the government plays an important role in the national economy. It provides services and goods that the market cannot provide effectively, such as national defense, assistance programs for low-income families, and interstate highways and airports. The government also provides incentives to encourage the production and consumption of certain types of products, and discourage the production and consumption of others. It sets general guidelines for doing business and makes policy decisions that affect the economy as a whole. The government also establishes safety guidelines that regulate consumer products, working conditions, and environmental protection.
Factors of Production
The factors of production, which in the United States are controlled by individuals, fall into four major categories: natural resources, labor, capital, and entrepreneurship.
Natural resources, which come directly from the land, air, and sea, can satisfy people’s wants directly (for example, beautiful mountain scenery or a clear lake used for fishing and swimming), or they can be used to produce goods and services that satisfy wants (such as a forest used to make lumber and furniture).
The United States has many natural resources. They include vast areas of
fertile land for growing crops, extensive coastlines with many natural
harbors, and several large navigable rivers and lakes on which large
ships and barges carry products to and from most regions of the nation.
The United States has a generally moderate climate, and an incredible diversity of landscapes, plants, and wildlife.
Labor refers to the routine work that people do in their jobs, whether it
is performing manual labor, managing employees, or providing skilled
professional services. Manual labor usually refers to physical work that
requires little formal education or training, such as shoveling dirt or
moving furniture. Managers include those who supervise other workers.
Examples of skilled professionals include doctors, lawyers, and dentists.
Of the 270 million people living in the United States in 1998, nearly 138 million adults were working or actively looking for work. This is the nation's labor force, which includes those who work for wages and salaries and those who file government tax forms for income earned through self-employment. It does not include homemakers or others who perform unpaid labor in the home, such as raising, caring for, and educating children; preparing meals and maintaining the home; and caring for family members who are ill. Nor, of course, does it count those who do not report income to avoid paying taxes, in some cases because their work involves illegal activities.
Capital includes buildings, equipment, and other intermediate products
that businesses use to make other goods or services. For example, an
automobile company builds factories and buys machines to stamp out parts
for cars; those buildings and machines are capital. The value of capital
goods being used by private businesses in the United States in the late
1990s is estimated to be more than $11 trillion. Roughly half of that is equipment and the other half buildings or other structures. Businesses have additional capital investments in their inventories of finished products, raw materials, and partially completed goods.
Entrepreneurship is an ability some people have to accept risks and
combine factors of production in order to produce goods and services.
Entrepreneurs organize the various components necessary to operate a business. They raise the necessary financial backing, acquire a physical site for the business, assemble a team of workers, and manage the overall operation of the enterprise. They accept the risk of losing the money they spend on the business in the hope that eventually they will earn a profit. If the business is successful, they receive all or some share of the profits. If the business fails, they bear some or all of the losses.
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