What Is the Meaning of Economic Activity?

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Economic activity seems like an intuitively obvious concept, but giving it a definitive meaning can be challenging. However, economists generally agree that an economic activity is one that has a financial element or motive. In contrast, a non-economic activity may be motivated by other factors, such as religious or cultural reasons.

Characteristics of Economic Activity

From an economist's perspective, economic activity is how people satisfy their needs for food, clothing and shelter. At the core of economic activity is the concept of specialization. If people in a society specialize in what they do best, they can produce more than they need and trade the surplus. In a barter economy, each person would need what the other had to offer. But with the introduction of money, people can use that as a medium of exchange. Economic activity is about:

  • Unlimited Wants. People may satisfy their need for one product, but then they will want something else. After a person has one car, he may want a second for another family member. Then a home, followed by a time-sharing condo. Or better yet, a cabin in the mountains that does not need to be shared. And so on, and so on.
  • Limited Resources. There is only so much to go around. Given a person's skills and experience, he can earn only a finite amount of income. Therefore, maximizing his limited resources to satisfy his insatiable wants is the challenge, and economic activity is how he achieves it.

Economic activity can be measured with a variety of statistics. For the economy as a whole, the most common measure is the gross domestic product, the dollar value of all the final goods and services produced in a country within a year. This and other statistics such as personal income, consumer spending, corporate profits and more are reported by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. By making the most efficient use of resources, society will maximize its well-being.

Sometimes, measures of economic activity can be misleading. Capacity utilization, for example, measures how much of our nation's productive resources are being used. Since the percentage represents a fraction of the total, it does not reflect how much of the total has been eroded due to the loss of manufacturing and jobs to overseas enterprises.

Opinions from the Supreme Court.

Anecdotally, sometimes learned judges can disagree on what constitutes economic activity. Justice Stevens, writing the majority opinion for the Supreme Court in a 2005 case, Gonzales v Raich, defined economic activity as "the production, distribution, and consumption of commodities." That comes close to a textbook definition. But several of the other Justices could not agree. Justice O'Connor called it breathtaking and said that definition "threatens to sweep all productive human activity into the federal regulatory reach." And Justice Thomas dissented stating, "If the majority is to be taken seriously, the Federal Government may now regulate quilting bees, clothes drives, and potluck suppers throughout the 50 States."

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