Measuring the Size of the Economy: Gross Domestic Product

Macroeconomics is an empirical subject, so the first step toward understanding it is to measure the economy.

How large is the U.S. economy? Economists typically measure the size of a nation’s overall economy by its gross domestic product (GDP), which is the value of all final goods and services produced within a country in a given year. Measuring GDP involves counting the production of millions of different goods and services—smart phones, cars, music downloads, computers, steel, bananas, college educations, and all other new goods and services that a country produced in the current year—and summing them into a total dollar value. This task is straightforward: take the quantity of everything produced, multiply it by the price at which each product sold, and add up the total. In 2016, the U.S. GDP totaled $18.6 trillion, the largest GDP in the world.

Each of the market transactions that enter into GDP must involve both a buyer and a seller. We can measure an economy's GDP either by the total dollar value of what consumers purchase in the economy, or by the total dollar value of what is the country produces. There is even a third way, as we will explain later.