Microeconomics in a Nutshell

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Until the so-called Keynesian revolution of the late 1930s and 1940s, the two main parts of economic theory were typically labeled “monetary theory” and “price theory.” Today, the corresponding dichotomy is between “macroeconomics” and “microeconomics.” The motivating force for the change came from the macro side, with modern macroeconomics being far more explicit than old-fashioned monetary theory about fluctuations in income and employment (as well as the price level). In contrast, no revolution separates today’s microeconomics from old-fashioned price theory; one evolved from the other naturally and without significant controversy. The strength of microeconomics comes from the simplicity of its underlying structure and its close touch with the real world. In a nutshell, microeconomics has to do with supply and demand, and with the way they interact in various markets. Microeconomic analysis moves easily and painlessly from one topic to another and lies at the center of most of the recognized subfields of economics. Labor economics, for example, is built largely on the analysis of the supply and demand for labor of different types. The field of industrial organization deals with the different mechanisms (monopoly, cartels, different types of competitive behavior) by which goods and services are sold. International economics worries about the demand and supply of individual traded commodities, as well as of a country’s exports and imports taken as a whole, and the consequent demand for and supply of foreign exchange. Agricultural economics deals with the demand and supply of agricultural products and of farmland, farm labor, and the other factors of production involved in agriculture.

Public finance (see public choice) looks at how the government enters the scene. Traditionally, its focus was on taxes, which automatically introduce “wedges” (differences between the price the buyer pays and the price the seller receives) and cause inefficiency. More recently, public finance has reached into the expenditure side as well, attempting to analyze (and sometimes actually to measure) the costs and benefits of various government outlays and programs.

Applied welfare economics is the fruition of microeconomics. It deals with the costs and benefits of just about anything—government projects, taxes on commodities, taxes on factors of production (corporation income taxes, payroll taxes), agricultural programs (like price supports and acreage controls), tariffs on imports, foreign exchange controls, various forms of industrial organization (like monopoly and oligopoly), and various aspects of labor market behavior (like minimum wages, the monopoly power of labor unions, and so on).

It is hard to imagine a basic course in microeconomics failing to include numerous cases and examples drawn from all of the fields listed above. This is because microeconomics is so basic. It represents the trunk of the tree from which all the listed subfields have branched.

At the root of everything is supply and demand. It is not at all farfetched to think of these as basically human characteristics. If human beings are not going to be totally self-sufficient, they will end up producing certain things that they trade in order to fulfill their demands for other things. The specialization of production and the institutions of trade, commerce, and markets long antedated the science of economics. Indeed, one can fairly say that from the very outset the science of economics entailed the study of the market forms that arose quite naturally (and without any help from economists) out of human behavior. People specialize in what they think they can do best—or more existentially, in what heredity, environment, fate, and their own volition have brought them to do. They trade their services and/or the products of their specialization for those produced by others. Markets evolve to organize this sort of trading, and money evolves to act as a generalized unit...
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